We have to start with Lou. He lives a normal life. He has his own apartment, and he works as an analyst in the bowels of a pharmaceutical company. He does his weekly shop on Tuesdays, his wash on Fridays. He’s a church-going man. He goes out for pizza with colleagues, and he goes fencing with friends. But the world tells him, over and over again, that he’s not normal. “Questions, always questions”, are his first words to us; and then, “Everything in my life that I value has been gained at the cost of not saying what I really think, and saying what they want me to say” (1).
You could argue that Speed of Dark is primarily a demonstration of why Lou has to live this way, and what living this way means. It is a work whose most memorable characteristic is the voice telling the tale, Lou’s voice, notable for the particular ways in which it carries out the duties of every narrative voice to filter and sort and react. This is how Lou experiences the world:
“You got home from work at nine –” he glances down at his handcomp “– forty-seven last night?”
“No, sir,” I say. “I got home from work at five fifty-two, and then I went –” I don’t want to say, to my fencing class. What if he thinks there is something wrong with fencing? With me fencing? “To a friend’s house,” I say, instead.
“Is this someone you visit often?”
“Yes. Every week.”
“Were there other people there?”
Of course there were other people there. Why would I go visit someone if nobody but me was there? “My friends who live in that house were there,” I say. “And some people who do not live in that house.”
He blinks, and looks briefly at Mr Bryce. I do not know what that look means. “Ah … do you know these other people? Who didn’t live in the house? Was it a party?”
Too many questions. I do not know which to answer first. These other people? Does he mean the people at Tom and Lucia’s who were not Tom and Lucia? Who didn’t live in the house? Most people did not live in that house … do not live in that house. Out of the billions of people in the world, only two people live in that house and that is … less than one millionth of one percent.
“It was not a party,” I say, because that is the easiest question to answer. (127-8)
I offer a fairly lengthy quote because I think you only start to appreciate the power of Lou’s voice after immersion in it; at first glance it can seem merely readable. The short, straightforward sentences of this passage are characteristic; Lou doesn’t use semicolons, or contractions (or parentheticals). At the start of the passage, you might think he’s the ideal subject for a police interview, conscientious and precise in his answers; but that pursuit of precision, the constant literal analysis of what his interlocutor has just said, makes the interview hard going for Lou, even makes him look like he’s got something to hide. He hasn’t; it’s just that to say what they want him to say, he first has to work out what they’ve said.
All of which is the long-winded way of saying what’s clear from the back cover, or the acknowledgments, or at the latest at the bottom of page one: Lou is autistic. But the word raises expectations, not all of which are met. Moon takes pains to create distance between her autistic characters, setting them in a near future in which an improving array of treatments has ameliorated the most extreme effects of autism, and pointing out more than once that Lou and his colleagues are among the last cohort of individuals to be so far away from “normal”. (We’ll be coming back to that word.) So although clearly meticulously researched, and drawing on personal experience, above and beyond Lou’s distinctive individuality, Speed of Dark avoids claiming authority, making it less obnoxious than, say, Mark Haddon’s subsequent The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. And there are aspects of Lou’s character that actively go against expectation: fencing, for instance, is not the kind of hobby conventionally associated with autistic individuals, but Lou’s enthusiasm for it and skill at it are convincing here.
Of course, writing the story of an uncommon perspective as science fiction raises another raft of associations, particularly once news breaks of a treatment that might be able to “cure” Lou’s autism once and for all. Parallels with Flowers for Algernon (1958/1966) are there to be seen in the mismatch between Lou’s understanding of people around him and what we as readers can see through his narration. The comparison highlights one of Speed of Dark’s weaknesses, which is that every time we leave Lou’s viewpoint feels like an assertion that Lou’s understanding is literally insufficient, when in fact such excursions tell us barely anything we didn’t already know. It’s a betrayal in particular because it undermines the key difference between the two books. In Algernon it’s clear that Charlie Gordon’s low intelligence is an affliction – not an excuse to demean his personhood as so many do, but a real straitjacket on his potential all the same. In Speed of Dark, it’s not at all clear that the analagous assertion is true for Lou; in fact a large part of the novel is devoted to arguing that it’s false.