I'll admit at the outset that I'm a fan of Elizabeth Moon — I won one of her books a couple of years ago in an email competition and have since bought and read them all: she generally writes planet-hopping space adventures and heroic fantasy, perfect reading material for my daily bus journeys to and from work.
But this book leaves her earlier works standing as it explores another parallel universe — the universe of the autistic mind. It's a universe that the author knows only too well as she herself has an autistic son and she draws extensively on her own experiences to create this novel. Lou, the book's main character, relates his life story — a story of constant questions, thrown at him, asked by him. Why isn't he normal? What is normal? How normal are 'normal' people anyway? Why does it matter? We all know about the speed of light — what about the speed of dark? Why does no one understand Lou's questions?
It soon becomes clear that Lou is a genius — from our supposedly normal point of view, a genius with a dysfunctional brain that prevents him relating properly to world around him, a social misfit. Even so, he holds down a job and has friends. But to hold down his job he needs special supports, and supports are expensive, a drain on resources, and friends can become jealous, friendships become twisted, friends become enemies. Why? Is it the speed of dark, rushing away from the light?
Then comes the ultimate question: do you want to be healed? Lou is in church and the preacher turns to the story of the man by the pool of Siloam in John's gospel: "Why does Jesus ask the man if he wants to be healed? Isn't that kind of silly? He's lying there waiting for his chance at healing... surely he wants to be healed." (p.340). Lou faces this question head on - there's a new process, experimental — a combination of nanotechnology and neurosurgery — that's been used to cure autism in monkeys. Lou reflects: "I am not lying beside a pool begging people to carry me into it. I am trying to keep them from throwing me into it. I do not believe it is a healing pool anyway." (p.341).
I'm not going to tell you what Lou decides about treatment or whether he's coerced into it: you'll have to read the book for that. It's part thriller, part science fiction, part social commentary: if you've ever thought about your brain and the way that it works, if you're concerned about disabled people's rights, if you've got questions about your own questions and what's normal anyway — and finally, if you just enjoy a good read, then this is one story you don't want to miss.
Phil Groom, July 2003
Phil Groom is this site's Webmaster and Reviews Editor. He's a freelance blogger, writer and web developer who spent ten years managing the bookshop at London School of Theology alongside eight years writing web reviews for Christian Marketplace magazine before he came to his senses and went independent. You can find him on facebook or follow him on twitter @notbovvered.Comments? Feedback?