Speed of Dark: III

Speed of Dark cover


So what can we do with Gene Crenshaw? Right from the start he feels false; in his first scene, we see him berating Pete Aldrin about how “these people” — Lou and the rest of Section A — “have to fit in”, have to give up their “toys” (17). It’s Crenshaw who insists to Section A that “you are not normal. You are autistics, you are disabled” (103); in his most charitable moments the most he can allow is that it’s “Not their fault” (163); when the police come to interview Lou about the vandalism, Crenshaw’s first assumption is that Lou is the one under investigation, and his second assumption is that it’s Lou’s fault: “What have you been up to, Lou, that someone’s trying to kill you? You know company policy — if I find out you’ve been involved with criminal elements –” (247). But it’s Crenshaw who drives the central tension of the novel. There is, it seems, a novel treatment that could “cure” adult autism. Crenshaw buys it (just like that!) and sets about blackmailing Lou and his colleagues into taking it, or face redundancy.

We might, I suppose, find it ironic that the character most ardently convinced that Lou is defective is himself monstrously inflexible, entirely unable to adjust his preconceived ideas to accept Lou as a person. We might also find some satisfaction in the fact that Crenshaw’s obsessive vendetta leads directly to his downfall late in the novel. We might reflect on the ways in which institutional policy and social conventions support and validate Crenshaw’s bias, while at best tolerating Lou’s. We might even find Crenshaw’s antics amusing, theatre, if his whole routine wasn’t so drearily predictable. It’s not that Crenshaw clearly wears a black hat that’s the problem; it’s that he fits his role in the plot too neatly and completely to develop any of the possibilities above, denied the personhood insisted upon for Lou.

In contrast, Don’s plot strand, perhaps because it is of secondary importance, ends up somewhere interesting. It helps that we simply see more of Don, including — if only briefly — different sides to his character, and helps, too, that his judgments of Lou are mostly muttered and snide, rather than improbably explicit. But in many ways Don is as much a device as Crenshaw; it’s just that something interesting happens after he’s dealt with. After his arrest, the police explain to Lou that the probable punishment, if he is found guilty, is the insertion of a “programmable personality determinant brain-chip” (284), because:

“Recidivism,” Mr Stacy says, pawing through a pile of hardcopies. “They do it again. It’s been proved. Just like you can’t stop being you, the person who is autistic, he can’t stop being him, the person who is jealous and violent. If it’d been found when he was an infant, well, then …” (285)

A little on-the-nose, perhaps, down to the possibility of early correction, but effective nonetheless: having spent 300 pages being conditioned to recognise the possibility of the modification of Lou’s personality as beyond the pale, it’s nicely unsettling to be asked to accept it as justified for someone else, perhaps especially someone as obviously a bad guy as Don. (We might think: it’s been proved, you say? Like Lou’s disability?) The feeling is reinforced when the fencing group welcomes the news, over Lou’s misgivings:

“I think it is very scary, I say. “He did something wrong, but it is scary that they will turn him into someone else.”

“It’s not like that,” Lucia says. She is staring at me now. She should understand if anyone can; she knows about the experimental treatment; she knows why it would bother me that Don will be compelled to be somebody else. “He did something wrong — something very bad. He could have killed you, Lou. Would have, if he hadn’t been stopped. If they turned him into a bowl of pudding it would be fair, but all the chip does is make him unable to do anyone harm.”

It is not that simple. […] Even I know that, and I am sure Lucia knows it too, but she is ignoring it for some reason. (291-2)

Thus is the second point of parallel — the treatment — made explicit, and thus does the ground of the novel shift a notch further, moving away from the unambiguous wrongness of Crenshaw’s blackmail towards the more challenging questions of what might be changed, and what change might mean in practice. (Although we never get to see the chipped Don, which seems a shame.) “I am sideways to the world”, is Lou’s assessment of his own situation (277); and at some point, he starts to wonder whether that’s how he always wants to be.

And so to the closing chapters of Speed of Dark, where the novel is at its tough, thoughtful best. With Don apprehended and Crenshaw deposed, there remains only the question of change itself, the cost/benefit analysis of becoming a different person — or rather, hastening the process. As Lou himself points out, he has changed already, and would have done even if Gene Crenshaw had never impinged on his life. But the possibility of removing his autism feels more fundamental. The crucial passage probably comes when Lou goes to church, and finds himself confronted with a sermon about the necessity of choosing to be healed. He asks whether he should want to be healed, whether God would want it; the best his priest can do for an answer is, “only if it doesn’t interfere with who we are as God’s children, I suppose” (347). (And Lou is more than his autism, the novel has been telling us.) At the fencing club, his friends can scarcely believe it when he tells them he’s going to take the treatment, some being sure that he must be doing it to be accepted by Marjory; at work, Pete Aldrin can’t quite believe Lou really understands that there’s no longer any pressure from the company, or threat to his job. Lou’s choice is not unexpected — if you hang a miracle treatment on the wall in the first act of a science fiction novel, it’s almost unthinkable that you won’t do anything with it in the third — but it feels like a choice nonetheless, suffused with ambivalence and uncertainty. The chapter in which Moon breaks down Lou’s voice and then reconstructs it, the same but different — not out of love, nor out of fear, but out of curiosity and ambition — is very effectively controlled. Of course it changes things more; changes Lou’s job, his friends, his relationships. (Though not, in the case of Marjory, in the way that the earlier Lou would have hoped.) But at least, he tells us on the final page, at least “Now I get to ask the questions” (424). The call-back is one more neatness in a novel that has too many of them; but this one, I think, is earned.

11 thoughts on “Speed of Dark: III

  1. Moon’s treatment of Crenshaw worries me in particular as it appears to me to mark a turning point in the way Moon regards her villains. In the Familias Regnant sequence, Moon’s villains have at least some depth – we may see their actions as wrong, but the villains themselves genuinely believe their actions to be justified on (warped) moral grounds, even if we sometimes see this only chapters or books later.

    Crenshaw comes across as an automaton – Moon gives him no character beyond a shell of management speak. I think I remember Moon somewhere stating that she agonised for a while over giving Crenshaw no redeeming characteristics but then decided that as Lou would not be in a position to see these, it was OK if readers didn’t either.

    A rationalisation, I think. It’s noticeable that none of the villains in the Vatta’s War sequence ever seem to have motivations beyond greed – and while Oath of Fealty seems possibly a little better in this respect, I still wonder if Moon has effectively given up on providing her villains with depth.

    Though in other respects, Speed of Dark does seem to be at least one of the best (and quite likely the best) novels Moon has written.

  2. Peter – since one of the functions of the Aldrin character is to give the reader a look at Crenshaw from the non-Lou viewpoint, that excuse is particularly thin.

  3. I have to admit this is the only Elizabeth Moon novel I’ve read, so I can’t speak to how it stands in context with her body of work. My impression was that it was something of an outlier in several ways, though.

  4. Niall – This is definitely quite different from her usual work; I like her writing a lot, but this kind of stylistic experimentation is not what she usually goes in for.

    Re: black-hat villains – even in the Serrano Legacy there’s a fair number of EV0L bad guys. The New Texas Militia, frex. And I’m not sure the Oath of Gold trilogy has *anyone* with much of a shade of grey. It’s just more visible here, I think, because it’s not about a Battle of Good and Evil.

  5. I’m not entirely happy with the last line. Pretty much all the interesting questions in the book are posted by Lou, often in the form of questions; what’s changed is that, presumably, he now verbalizes them more frequently, asks the questions of other people, rather than being more self-contained in his answer, research, exploration of questions. But Moon doesn’t show us that externality of questioning which is what, for me, would earn that conclusion.

  6. This may well be Moon’s best work, but for me the relevant question is whether it’s a good work. Whether it’s one of the best works of SF written by women during the last decade.

    Because if it is, this doesn’t speak well at all for women-written SF.

    Everyone who’s commented here seems to feel that the work is flawed to some degree. There must have been quite a few people who voted to place it onto the Decade’s Best list. Is there no one who will come forward to defend this choice?

  7. I don’t know if I can defend naming Speed of Dark as one of the top ten SF books by women of the decade (I can’t recall whether I voted for it myself, but my reading within that group has been so limited that I’m not really qualified to say). But I do think it’s one of the better SF books of the period. It has serious flaws, but for me they’re overcome by Lou and his voice, by the nuanced examination of the question put before him, and by the way that it so gently and thoughtfully does something that is fundamental to the genre – ask how technology will change the lives of ordinary people.

  8. I’ve got different views here. I didn’t find Crenshaw to be cardboard – in fact, the character successfully pushed my anti-bullying buttons, and I was quite angry while reading this book. Perhaps I’ve just had worse experiences with workplace bullies.

    On the other hand, on a second read, the end now disappoints. It feels rushed, as if Moon has set out the plot where Lou will become a new person at the end, but has no interest in that new person. The way the fate of Bailey is wept under the carpet slants the view of the treatment Lou receives, concealing the potential risks.

    I feel now that the effect of Lou’s treatment is presented in an overly favourable light. Moon makes it out to be simply a development of natural change, but change at this accelerated pace is extremely traumatic. The old Lou is pretty much destroyed, and a new Lou comes along. Lou’s previous friendships are pretty clearly destroyes, and we never fully get to see the effect of that on the likes of Tom and Lucia, or Marjory, who must be devastated by the loss of a friend in whom she’s clearly romantically interested.

    And the reader feels that loss. Because it is the voice of Lou-before, the way Moon gets into the head of a high-functioning autistic, that makes this novel special.

  9. Crenshaw also tapped into my experiences with bullying managers – he seemed pretty accurate from some of my experiences.

    I actually liked the way that the book ended. I didn’t want to see whether Lou’s choice was universally good, and how it played out – that would have felt like an entirely different book to me. The book felt like it was about the situation of someone who could make a choice to become someone else, and how they (and their friends) would react to that – it would feel presumptive (to me) to second-guess those changes.

    After all, a person in that situation doesn’t know how their decision will turn out, and so it makes sense that the audience wouldn’t either. I would, in fact, have felt happy with the book ending just before he made the choice.

    I liked the book a lot – it’s survived multiple clear-outs of my bookshelves. It resonated with me a lot, and I’ve lent it to a few friends, who also enjoyed it.

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