Speed of Dark: I

Speed of Dark cover

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.


Reminder: Speed of Dark

As Shana posted at the start of the month, I’ve been reading the second (chronologically) of the Future Classics identified in last year’s poll, Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon, and will be putting up some discussion posts here next week. So if you want to join in, time to pull your copy off the shelf!

This also seems an apt time to point out the discussion Ian Sales has been hosting about sf mistressworks, and the meme he’s put together as a result.

(And in case you were wondering whether I’ll be leading every discussion, after this I get a few months off, but I’ll be back later in the year.)

March: Speed of Dark

I’d like to invite you to join us in reading Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark this month, part of a year-long chronological reading of the novels nominated as the best science fiction novels written by women in the last ten years.

Published in 2002, Speed of Dark went on to win the Nebula Award the following year, and it was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke award. Elizabeth Moon was long-since well-established as a science fiction author, with several series under her belt. She’d been published for fourteen years at the time it came out.

I mail-ordered my copy a few weeks ago, and when it arrived, I found a UK mainline rail train ticket tucked into it, a long-forgotten book mark. It’s an open single from London Terminals to Stansted Airport for the 7th of March, 2003, bought the same day. I wonder if it was a domestic flight that ticket-holder was on with his or her full-priced single ticket. Wherever they were going, I can envision them sitting on that train, reading while en route to further-flung places. I love knowing that this book went somewhere, all those years ago.


In 2002, Astrid Lingren died. Gwyneth Jones won the Clarke Award for Bold as Love, her fifth time being nominated for the award. The Euro came into use, and the Mars Odyssey probe found signs of water on Mars. In the US, criminal proceedings against Enron began, the Department of Homeland Security was established, and WorldCom went bankrupt.

Appropriately enough, given the book’s topic, the UK designated 2002 as Autism Awareness Year.

Niall will, again, be leading the book discussion in the later part of March.  I hope you will join us in reading and discussing it.

Bold as Love: Recap

So that was 2001.

Bold as Love is a high-paced meander through several years of England’s potential future after the dissolution of the UK, as shaped by rock n’ roll. It’s not quite quest, and it’s not quite romance. It’s a thought experiment, it’s a tour of England, it’s about the messiness of change. It’s not a book which put me in the main characters’ heads: they might have known how the rest of the world was getting on, but they only shared in the ways it impinged directly on them. It’s not nearly as much Arthuriana as I feared, based on reading reviews. (It’s not that I dislike Arthuriana per se. It’s that I’m a medievalist, so it makes me picky.)

Gwyneth Jones’ Bold as Love was the first of the poll-topping best science fiction novels written by women in the last ten years that we’ll be discussing here at Torque Control over the course of this year. It was the only one of them published in 2001.

Niall hosted the discussion February discussion, and, speaking of 2001, he noted that the book could not really have been written any later than it likely was. After 9/11 that year, “terrorism” could no longer be conceived of the way it is in this book. But that’s not much of a distraction in the scope of such rich, intense, focused world-building. Much of the intensity it has is in the music, the festivals, the performances. Music is a central focus because, in this book, “what’s significant is the potential of music to be a vehicle for belief, at a moment when belief in all other systems of the world has been shattered by catastrophic cynicism.” Ax Preston, the guitarist/leader of the book and cultural icon, curates concerts as a means to his end of making the best of a difficult political situation. I can’t quite bring myself to call him Counter-Cultural, as the movement within the book is called because, cynical as the book is, it knows full well that this is just a label, and that the Counter-Culture are mainstream cultural avatars, in effect.

My thanks to Niall for hosting the discussion, and to all the commenters who joined in reading (or re-reading) the book.

Niall’s Discussion: Part I: Context, Part II: Characters, Part III: Music, Part IV: Utopia
Overview of Bold as Love and some of its reviews from December
Abigail Nussbaum on Bold as Love and other of Jones’ books.

Reminder: Bold as Love

Just a quick reminder that, per Shana’s post earlier this month, I’ll be kicking off a discussion of Bold as Love next week. So if you were planning to read it but haven’t got around to it yet, now’s the time!

(In other news, those who haven’t been following the comments on my post about Nina Allan’s short fiction may like to know that she seems to be eligible for this year’s John W Campbell Award for Best New Writer.)

February: Bold as Love

This month begins my chronological reading of the novels nominated as the best science fiction novels written by women in the last ten years. I invite you join me, starting with the first-published of the eleven books on the list, Gwyneth JonesBold as Love.


2001 was almost last week in the history of books, but a very long time ago indeed in the history of websites. That’s why I’m so impressed that the book-specific URL given in the introductory apparatus of Bold as Love is still going as a functional website.

The site has evolved along with the series, from an all-black version, to green with modulating rainbow-colored type, to animated falling leaves (lovely in concept, gawky in execution), to the more minimalist maroon with a rotating orb of leafery which the present version has retained for the last several years. That design evolution reflects the sheer distance which websites from 2001 have traveled to today.

I’m not telling you this because I’m particularly  prone to posting reviews of website design, but for two other reasons. The first is to think a bit about what the world, particularly the world of science fiction and fandom, was like in 2001. The second is to tell you that there is a copy of Bold as Love, available for free download there in PDF. The sequels are available too. You’ll miss out on the Anne Sudworth cover and the Bryan Talbot illustration of the major characters, but you’ll have the text.


Gwyneth Jones had been publishing fiction since at least 1973 and novels since 1977. By my counting, Bold as Love was her thirteenth novel. In 2001, she was Guest of Honour at Novacon, and won the Richard Evans Memorial Award for lifetime achievement in science fiction. She was also at A Celebration of British SF in Liverpool that year, a lively event, well-attended by authors and fans.

The cover of the 2002 edition of Bold as Love which I have proclaims it to have been “Shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award”. More importantly, it went on to win the Clarke Award in 2002, showing that the reprint must have been designed in the gap between the announcement of the shortlist and the announcement of the winner! Bold as Love was one of three Clarke-shortlisted books by women published in 2001, the others being Justina Robson’s Mappa Mundi and Connie Willis’ Passage. (The Clarke Award for books published in 2000 was given out at 2001: A Space Odyssey Event, organized by Pat Cadigan at the Science Museum. At it, China Miéville won his first.)

Women authors of science fiction and fantasy did fairly well in 2001 in terms of prizes. Mary Gentle’s Ash won best novel in the BSFA Award, while Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. J.K. Rowling won the Hugo novel award for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

In other 2001 news, Dorothy Dunnett, Tove Jansson, Douglas Adams, and Poul Anderson passed away. In Britain, the food-and-mouth crisis began and the Eden Project opened. While there is all sorts to be said about the events of 9/11 and their consequences, what still strikes me most in terms of Britain in particular is that it is referred to as 9/11 on this side of the ocean – even though that would normally be the ninth of November.


Niall will be leading discussion of Bold as Love in the second half of February. Check back for his posts then!

P.S. You can hear the short story on which the novel was based in Dark Fiction Magazine‘s newest issue.

Reading Future Classics by Women

As I mentioned last week, one of my projects for this year is to read through the eleven books voted by Torque Control readers as the best science fiction novels written by women between 2001 and 2010. Hopefully, some of you will be joining me in this!

Each month, I will post a reminder at the beginning of the month, along with a bit of background discussion. In the second half of the month, I will host a discussion of the book here. I’ll post round-ups of reviews and discussion elsewhere of the novels too, whether recent or from previous years. Sometimes there will be contributions exploring a novel from other people, and I would certainly welcome others. (Niall has volunteered!)

There’s no great incentive to read this list in ranked order. I suspect some of the rankings are a very close thing, and the given order of the list is no authority for subjective quality. So instead, this will be a chronological project. I’ve gone with global chronological dates instead of their publication dates in the UK in particular. Life has yet to be published here, and some of us are occasionally prone to reading books on import instead of waiting for the possibility of local publication. Further, a major proportion of the poll participants were based outside of the UK, and so this country’s publication schedule does not necessarily affect the local availability of a given novel for them.

(It’s been an interesting challenge: I had no idea how hard it was going to be to figure out the month in which some of these books were published.)

So here’s the schedule:

February Bold as Love, by Gwyneth Jones
March The Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon
April Natural History, by Justina Robson
May The Time-Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffennegger
June Maul, by Tricia Sullivan
July City of Pearl, by Karen Traviss
August Life, by Gwyneth Jones
September Farthing, by Jo Walton
October The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North, by Sarah Hall
November Lavinia, by Ursula Le Guin
December Spirit, by Gwyneth Jones

Yet More Top Tens

Because I have the data, and because I can, some alternatives to the overall list:

Top Ten SF Novels 2001-2010 by British Writers

1. The Carhullan Army by Sarah Hall
2. Natural History by Justina Robson
3. Spirit by Gwyneth Jones
4. Life by Gwyneth Jones
5. Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones
6. City of Pearl by Karen Traviss
7. The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston
8. Living Next-Door to the God of Love by Justina Robson
9. In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield
10. Hav by Jan Morris

Top Ten SF Novels 2001-2010 by American Writers

1. Maul by Tricia Sullivan
2. The Time-Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
3. Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
4. Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin
5. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
6. Passage by Connie Willis
7. Spin State by Chris Moriarty
8. Nekropolis by Maureen McHugh
9= Carnival by Elizabeth Bear
9= Hammered by Elizabeth Bear

Top Ten SF Novels 2001-2010 by Writers from the Rest of the World

1. Maul by Tricia Sullivan
2. Farthing by Jo Walton
3. Moxyland by Lauren Beukes
4. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
5. UFO in Her Eyes by Xiaolo Guo
6= The Etched City by KJ Bishop
6= Lifelode by Jo Walton
8. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes
9. The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson
10. The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Sincere apologies if I’ve mis-nationalised anyone in any of these lists — do let me know. [last update 12/12/10]

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #1

The Carhullan Army (aka Daughters of the North) by Sarah Hall (2007)

The Carhullan Army cover

And so, the top-rated novel in this poll — by a healthy margin, in the end — is Sarah Hall’s Tiptree Award-winning and Clarke Award-nominated The Carhullan Army. Victoria Hoyle’s review gets at the book’s merits very well, I think:

…the inevitable irony of Carhullan’s insurgency, and of Sister’s membership of its “army,” is that it leads her to repress others against their will, and even to kill in her turn. She becomes party to another administration of terror, and a willing subject of a dictatorial regime. Whether this terror, driven by Jackie’s autocratic paranoia, is necessary or justifiable is left unanswered; the answer being, of course yes and, of course no. It is the embodiment of an essential dilemma, perhaps the most pertinent of our time: is it more courageous to passively follow your principles unto death, or is it your duty to use the tactics of the enemy, however disgusting, to overthrow them? Is it acceptable or reasonable to use the methods of tyranny in the name of restoring or protecting civil freedoms and human rights?

Either way, Hall understands that this dilemma is not an abstraction; it is the central difficulty of Sister’s existence and lies at the very heart of life at Carhullan. In the process of exploring it she makes and destroys and remakes Sister over and over again. Like us all, she is a malleable creature, eager to be inspired, happy to be galvanized to action, begging for a role to play in the world. The novel is an incredibly tender and multi-faceted portrait of her troubled journey, concerned almost entirely with the mechanics of her reasoning and her understanding of her cause. This is why, no doubt, Hall omits to describe the novel’s main scenes of violence and conquest—Sister’s narrative tapes are “corrupted” at all these critical junctures—but instead focuses on the tension of the long road to a short and bloody aftermath.

Other reviews: Colin Greenland in The Guardian, Nic Clarke at Eve’s Alexandria, AI White at Open Letters Monthly, Rachel Hoare in The Independent, Michael Arditti in The Telegraph, Tom Gatti in The Times, Abigail Nussbaum at Strange Horizons; and more critically, Adam Roberts at Punkadidle, Karen Burnham at SF Signal, and Cheryl Morgan.

And as Adam helpfully pointed out yesterday, with impeccable timing Radio 4’s Book Club has just had The Carhullan Army as its subject; you can listen to the programme, which includes an interview with Hall, here, discussed slightly by Dan Hartland here.

All of which leaves us with the following top eleven:

1. The Carhullan Army/Daughters of the North by Sarah Hall
2. Maul by Tricia Sullivan
3. Natural History by Justina Robson
4. The Time-Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
5= Spirit by Gwyneth Jones
5= The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon
7. Life by Gwyneth Jones
8. Lavinia by Ursula K Le Guin
9. Farthing by Jo Walton
10= Bold as Love by Gwyneth Jones
10= City of Pearl by Karen Traviss

So: Eleven novels; nine writers, four Brits, three Americans, one American-Brit, one Canadian; three novels only published in the US, three novels only published in the UK, five novels published in both; four books published in 2003, the most recent nominee published in 2008; nine novels published as “genre”, two published as “mainstream”; two novels that at least some people think are fantasy. What do you think?

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.

Future Classics: #2

Maul by Tricia Sullivan (2003)

Maul cover

As Nick Hubble said yesterday, there is sometimes a sense that Tricia Sullivan is under-appreciated as a writer, but not by voters in this poll; the Tiptree, Clarke and BSFA-nominated Maul claims the number two spot, and each of her other books picked up multiple nominations. Let’s have a bit more of Justina Robson’s review:

The women who run this world are most definitely not the utopian feministas of earlier decades of SF. They have a very present-day administrative verve, and pursue the ancient female preoccupations of shopping and chocolate as they struggle with careers and children. The surviving men, meanwhile, have assented to be locked up safely in castles from where they are periodically paraded for sales purposes, like a neverending series of Fame Academy .

The story hangs on the fact that there are natural survivors of the Y-plagues. These are aided on the inside by a political movement called Bicyclefish – you remember: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” – and Dr Baldino’s match in this story is much less disappointing than most heroes on offer.

All the elements of this novel work very hard all the time, carrying not only a complex plot and fascinating ideas about microbiology, but a heavy satirical charge aimed at contemporary culture and also at SF itself. That it manages so well and is so entertaining is testament to Sullivan’s skill and intelligence. I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in a long time.

Other reviews: John Toon at Infinity Plus; Adam Roberts at Infinity Plus; Cheryl Morgan in Emerald City.

Ranking calculated from 101 responses to a poll run during October, November and December 2010.