Speed of Dark: Recap

Elizabeth Moon’s Speed of Dark was the second 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 2002. Notably, where Bold as Love was written before 9/11, as Niall observed, Speed of Dark was finished after it, and reflects that in a scene in an airport, where security is not quite as we know it. Major airports now have separate access to the gates for arriving and departing passengers (much as international transfers have long had):

This is not the way it used to be. I don’t remember that, of course – I was born at the turn of the century – but my parents told me about being able to just walk right up to the gates to meet people arriving. Then after the 2001 disasters, only departing passengers could go to the gates. (41)

But that’s not what the book’s about, merely an observation of a way in which it is part of its time.  Speed of Dark is set in our near future, when space exploration and brain manipulation are both somewhat more advanced than they are in our world. It’s about Lou and his distinctive, wonderful, evocative voice which positions the reader so clearly in his head. It’s the clarity and accomplishment of that voice which meant the ending disappointing me: Moon doesn’t give her readers a chance to get to know the revised version of Lou, and so I didn’t feel the ending was earned. I liked and admired the journey; I stumbled on the destination.

Niall hosted this month’s discussion, exploring Lou’s voice, the arguably brittle construction of the book’s antagonists, and the ways in which Moon resolves the book’s major narratives. That last post in particular resulted in a number of thought-provoking comments as to why the ending does or does not work for some people.

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, Part II, and Part III
Discussion and reviews from December, when Speed of Dark
Recent Reviews
David Hebblethwaite’s Review
Alex Ward’s Review
Kilroy bounced off of it
Speed of Dark was a March Group Reads suggestion on GoodReads

Contest: Guess the Winner of the 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award

This contest is now closed! The winning book will be announced on the evening of 27 April and a winning entry chosen at random from those who guessed correctly at some point after that.

In just over four weeks, we’ll find out which book has won the Arthur C Clarke award for the best work of science fiction published in the UK in 2010. The jury will meet for a second time, to whittle the six shortlisted novels down to a single winner.

The jury doesn’t yet know who will win. I don’t know who will win; but perhaps you do? Or at least have a hunch about it?

***

The Clake Award has a second contest for you this year! A month ago, we asked you to guess which six books would be on the shortlist. Three of you correctly guessed four of the six books. This time around, you need to guess only one book.

There’s a real prize for this contest too. It consists of two books, both generously donated by NewCon Press.

The first is Fables from the Fountain, the forthcoming anthology edited by Ian Whates from NewCon press. Fables is a collection of all-original stories written as homage to Arthur C. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart and published in honour of the Clarke Award’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The volume includes new stories by Stephen Baxter, Ian Watson, Paul Graham Raven, James Lovegrove, Neil Gaiman, Colin Bruce, Liz Williams, Charles Stross, Eric Brown, Steve Longworth, Henry Gee, Andy West, David Langford, Andrew J Wilson, Peter Crowther, Tom Hunter, Adam Roberts, and Ian Whates. If you can’t wait on the off-chance you’ll win it, you can order a pre-copy of Fables here, with a share of profits going directly to support the Clarke Award’s current fund raising efforts. (A good cause!)

The second part of the prize is Celebration, an anthology of all-original stories published in honour of the fiftieth anniversary of the BSFA (which publishes Vector, of course), also edited by Ian Whates. It includes stories, original to this volume, by Ken MacLeod, Kim Lakin-Smith, Ian Watson, Tricia Sullivan, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, M. John Harrison, Molly Brown, Brian Stableford, Dave Hutchison, Liz Williams, Brian Aldiss, Martin Sketchley, Alastair Reynolds, Ian R. MacLeod, Christopher Priest, Adam Roberts, and Stephen Baxter.

To enter, comment on this post. Your comment must contain two things: the name of a single one of the six shortlisted books; and an explanation of why you think that book will win. No entry is valid without both parts.

Your explanation can be anything you like: your personal favourite, the one you think the judges will pick, a random guess, or a simple ‘because’. We want some kind of justification for the choice, whether minimal or essay-length.

You may not enter this contest if you are a current Clarke award judge, a family member of a current judge, or if you are on the board of Serendip or the BSFA. You may not enter the contest multiple times: only your first entry will be entered into the contest. You are welcome to enter from wherever you are: the prize can be shipped internationially.

The winner of the prize randomly drawn from among all the correct, valid entries. This contest will be judged by Tom Hunter, director of the Clarke Award, and his decision in all aspects of the contest is final.

Tom writes that

“The recent guess the shortlist competition with Torque Control was so much fun we thought we’d do it again. The secret aim with the last comp was to show that guessing the right shortlist combination is much harder than it looks, and with something like 25 million combinations of books possible, guessing 6 books from a selection of 54 you can see why.”

“Now the odds are shorter, but I don’t think that makes the choices involved any easier…”

The deadline for your guess and explanation, posted as a reply to this post, is Tuesday, 26 April 2011 at 23:59 BST.

Speed of Dark: III

Speed of Dark cover

(Previously)

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.

Speed of Dark: II

Speed of Dark cover

(With apologies for the delay.)

(Previously)

One of the few scraps of information we gain while outside Lou’s viewpoint comes in a conversation between his line manager, Pete Aldrin, and his new boss, Gene Crenshaw. The latter feels the supportive environment their company provides for Lou and his colleagues is an expensive indulgence; the former defends the cost by pointing out that Section A is “person for person, more productive than any other department” (18). Rationality has no effect on Crenshaw, who launches a crusade to get Section A’s “privileges” removed, and its personnel more “integrated” into the company — on which more tomorrow — but we get the point. In the right context, someone like Lou is better than most of us.

Lou’s great skill, we are told, is pattern recognition (a skill that, by the by, for me is emblematic of twenty-first century sf). It’s what enables him to excel at his (rather vaguely defined) job; it’s what makes him a skillful fencer, once he’s mastered the physical basics. “What I like is learning patterns,” he tells us, “and then remaking them so that I am the pattern too” (34). Patterns structure his daily life, from the regimented day to day activities — the routine — to any social interaction. Lou knows the rules of the psychiatrist’s office, and the rules of the office, and the rules of the supermarket; what is expected, how things should go. And he sorts people by the patterns they enact: friends, acquaintances, colleagues. And, perhaps more pertinently, when he doesn’t understand people, he assumes it’s because he can’t see their pattern.

Moon is good, as I already said, on Lou’s analytical approach to life, his constant assessment of patterns, of testing behaviour against expectation and projection: good at conveying the seductive functionality of it all. Inevitably, however, a major strand of the novel turns on the problems that this approach to the world — so successful at work — can cause. And on that front, I’m less convinced.

Among Lou’s fencing friends, there is a woman called Marjory on whom he has a crush (and who seems to like him), and a man called Don, who is rather obnoxious (and not much liked by anybody). He seems — to us, and not to Lou, who has Don firmly in the “friend” category — that Don is jealous both of Lou’s talent, the skill it gives him it fencing, and of his friendship with Marjory. Matters take a darker turn the week after Lou enters, and excels in, his first fencing tournament. They day after the next fencing class, Lou discovers that the tires on his car have been slashed. The pattern is clear to us but, this time, opaque to Lou.

Put another way, at this point, there are two possible stories that could be developing. (OK, more than two, but two obvious ones) In one of them, the reader’s intuition that Don is responsible will be correct; in the other, Lou’s assumption that the tire-slashing is a random event will be proved valid. A week later, Lou’s windscreen is smashed; and a week after that, a small explosive is attached to his engine. At this point Don’s name finally enters the frame — Lou and a cop have an entertaining conversation about the mathematical validity of “once is accident, twice is coincidence, three times is enemy action” — and see that Lou’s affinity for patterns led him into excessive rigidity, refusing to recategorise Don until it’s almost too late. But the problem with making the reader right and Lou wrong in this way we readers haven’t, in fact, worked out the right answer based on a superior understanding of people, the understanding that the text wants us to recognise that Lou lacks; we’ve worked it out on the basis of a superior understanding of the formulae of fiction. Lou is trapped inside a pattern that he can never know, but that we can solve easily.

The other story, I think, would have been more interesting: the story in which Don may well resent Lou, but the vandalism has nothing to do with him; where the challenge to Lou’s behaviour is not that he recognises the wrong pattern, but that it’s hard for him to tell when there’s no pattern to recognise; where we as readers are denied the neatness of pattern, and put in the same position as Lou, not opposed to him. (What proportion of incidents of vandalism are random or targeted, I wonder? Which narrative would be more “true to life”?) That would be a story in which it’s easier to accept the argument — made forcefully in another strand of the novel — that Lou’s cognitive approach to the world is only a point at one extreme of a spectrum of human behaviour, that we are like him in crucial ways. In a similar way, there could be a more nuanced understanding of the interplay of class, money and power, of the forces that make an executive gym earned, but Section A’s gym a luxury. It’s one thing to be shown that autism can be as effective as “normality”; it would be another to be shown that normal can be just as error-prone, as fooled by life, as autistic.

(Continued)

Diana Wynne Jones (1934-2011)

I was so sorry to wake up to the news that Diana Wynne Jones died early this morning. It was not unexpected – she came off of treatments for cancer last year when they were no longer really helping her – but I am still sad that it’s actually happened.

Over her many books (more than 50), the one which has most influenced me in recent years was The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, thanks to its discussions of food. Her parodic skewering of lazy and derivative fantasy writing begins each chapter with a ridiculous ‘Gnomic Utterance’ (“no Utterance has anything whatsoever to do with the section it precedes. Nor, of course, has it anything to do with Gnomes”). Here is the one for D, by the fictional sage Ka’a Orto’o, as most of them are:

Doras II was a somewhat absentminded king. It is said that, when Death came to summon him, Doras granted Death the usual formal audience and then dismissed him from his presence. Death was too embarrassed to return until many years later.

But Death did return.

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.

(Continued)

London Meeting: BSFA Award Discussion

With only about a month left until voting closes for the BSFA Awards, it’s time for the annual BSFA Award Discussion at the London Meeting. Our panelists this year year will be Tom Hunter, Clarke Award Director; Martin McGrath, BSFA Focus Editor; and Donna Scott, the BSFA Awards Administrator.

As a reminder, here are the shortlists. I hope many of you will be able to come and join in the discussion there!

Date: Wednesday 23rd March 2011

Venue: The Upstairs room at the Antelope Tavern. 22, Eaton Terrace, Belgravia, London, SW1W 8EZ. The nearest tube station is Sloane Square (District/Circle) A map of the location is here.

All are welcome! (No entry fee or tickets. Non-members welcome.) The Interview will commence at 7.00 pm, but the room is open from 6.00 (and fans in the downstairs bar from 5). There will be a raffle (£1 for five tickets), with a selection of sf novels as prizes.

Future London Meetings

Wednesday 20th April 2011 ** – DAVID WEBER: Interviewer TBC
Wednesday 25th May 2011 – SARAH PINBOROUGH: Interviewer TBC
Saturday 4th June 2011 – BSFA/SFF AGM
Thursday 30th June 2011 ** – GILLIAN POLACK: Interviewer TBC

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.)

BSFA Award Nominations: Art Statistics

Interest in the art category was down this year compared to the year before. Or perhaps there were just fewer works which happened to catch the eyes of BSFA members.

This year, a total of 24 BSFA members nominated a total of 44 works of art for the art category of the BSFA awards. That means that it was the second-least nominated-in category, although non-fiction trailed well behind it with both sets of numbers. Only 4% of the BSFA’s total members nominated in this category.

It’s important to note that this isn’t a consistent pattern. Last year, about as many entries were nominated for this category as for the art entry, although a larger number of nominators – 30 – nominated the same number of works, 44. Still, that makes it far more competitive than two years ago, when nominators agreed on only 22 works to nominate.

It strikes me every year how dominated this category is by cover art. There’s nothing wrong with that! But it is the common way by which imagery reaches the households of voting Eastercon and BSFA members, arriving on the cover of an anthology, a magazine, or a novel. Perhaps that’s even what tipped the balance to buying it, judging a book by a quite magnificent cover. There is plenty else out there though, from the artwork for board and card games to artists’ published collections to the work shown in the art shows at conventions such as Eastercon itself or Novacon.

In any event, this too is a category about which prospective BSFA award voters might like to be more mindful for potential nominees as they go through the coming year.

Sooner than next year’s ballot is this year’s vote however: as a reminder, here are the shortlists for the four BSFA awards. Ballots were sent out with the most recent BSFA mailing, and will be available at the forthcoming Eastercon, Illustrious, where the votes will be tallied and the awards presented.

On guessing the 2011 Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist

Thank you for all your enthusiasm in trying to guess what the jury would choose for the Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist!

Out of the six most-voted for novels, only two of them were on the shortlist the jury actually chose which just goes to show, yet again, that it is a challenging award to second-guess. Of the actual list, The Dervish House received 40 guesses, Zoo City 30, Lightborn 14, Monsters of Men 4, Generosity 3, and only one person thought that perhaps Declare, originally published a decade earlier in the US,  might make it onto the shortlist. I suspect that most people didn’t necessarily vote for what they would personally have nominated for the award (based on what they have read in the last year) but the books which, thanks to buzz and pre-existing awards and nominations, seemed most likely to be respected by other people. Not that there isn’t overlap between the two categories!

Of all the entries in last week’s contest, no one guessed the whole shortlist. No one even guessed five out of the six books. Three different people, however, submitted guesses which correctly identified four of the books which were on the actual shortlist: Niall, Lal, and Kev McVeigh. Good instincts, all of you, and congratulations on getting more right than everyone else who entered the contest!

With a three-way tie and only one set of prizes, our contest judge, Clarke Award Director Tom Hunter, put all three names into a hat and had an independent assistant blindly pull one of the slips of paper out of it.

And that is how we now have a winner of copies of all six of the short-listed books, plus a copy of the forthcoming anthology, Fables from the Fountain, edited by Ian Whates and being sold in honour of the Clarke Award’s twenty-fifth anniversary. The prizes were generously donated by the Clarke Award and NewCon Press.

And so – congratulations to Lal, our contest prize winner! Tom Hunter will be in touch with you soon if he has not already done so to arrange for prize delivery.

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