Speed of Dark: II

Speed of Dark cover

(With apologies for the delay.)


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.


7 thoughts on “Speed of Dark: II

  1. This is an interesting take on the problem that just about everyone identifies with Speed of Dark – Moon’s determination to make Lou a put-upon saint, and her choice to accomplish this by pitting him against such caricatured villains. I don’t think I’ve encountered a single reader of the book who hasn’t ranted about Crenshaw, and you’ve just reminded me how quickly Don’s abuse of Lou enters the realm of insanity.

    The problem, as you put it, is that Moon is invested in establishing Lou’s goodness and worthiness. That’s the point of the novel, much more than examining the validity of different modes of being, or questioning the meaning of normality.

  2. There is one point where the Don character actually functions to develop Lou as a moral person. Throughout the book, we see Lou’s morality as something he has learned by rote, a set of rules he practices in order to avoid social rebuke. But when he objects to Don being chipped, he displays actual empathy.

    It also shifts Don from the set of the normal into the set of the impaired. So that the oh-so-understanding members of the fencing group, who admire Lou despite his impairment, are being as intolerant and hostile to Don as Crenshaw is towards Lou, with the difference that in his case it is a personal intolerance.

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