The Speed of Dark
by Elizabeth Moon
2003 Nebula Winner for Best Novel
I can't stand how certain people online seem to have no middle ground between spectacular and horrible. The medium contributes a bit to that since not many people are going to go out of their way to say, "Well I thought it was alright but it didn't really stick with me." Looking back at my recent Nebula winning novel reviews I have been particularly bad. I've hated with passion a lot of them, was thrilled by a few of them, and only had a moderate response to the smallest fraction. I'm not going to try to hide my honest opinions out of a perceived need to have balance in the reviews but it does bother me that I have had such extreme reactions.
That brings me to The Speed of Dark: it is easily among the best novels that have won the Nebula. Borrowing elements heavily from one other Nebula winner and one other Hugo winner Moon takes the ground work set down by others and frames it in a very different light.
In the not too distant future autism a prenatal cure for autism has been found. The protagonist is one of the last autistic people born before that cure became available. He's functional and his different method of pattern recognition has made him and a few other autistics valuable to a pharmaceutical company in productivity and tax credits despite certain allowances made to them. A new aggressive manager doesn't see the benefits, just their social awkwardness and expense to the company. Since there is a new potential cure in development that has worked on chimpanzees this manager wants to force them to be the human trial for the treatment.
That's the hook for the novel's plot but things aren't that simple as the protagonist decides if removing his autism would be to his benefit or not. He's mostly satisfied with his life the way it is and sees advantages in keeping his unique point of view but complicating things is a budding romance (which he has difficulty pursuing but isn't sure if it could continue if he was cured), murder attempts, and ulterior motives by his boss.
The most striking thing about The Speed of Dark is the unique viewpoint. Most of the book is told in the first person by the autistic protagonist. Moon goes beyond the just providing the character with a great voice and uses the present tense in those sections to seperate his different viewpoint from the reader. It's there both for his difficulty in making social connections and the fact that he thinks differently from others. Occasionally she switches to a third person limited view which often repeats a scene to give another perspective. The book as a whole is very effectively written and that alone would be justification for reading it.
The characters all make for facinating reading, too. The reactions to the possibility of a cure among the autistic community range from raging at the suggestion that they are different to immediate demand for a chance to be like everyone else with plenty of shades between. Moon does a very good job at putting the reader into a community built upon their separation from everyone else and dealing with the possibility of changing that (I suspect this was inspired by the deaf community's reaction to the development of cochlear implants). The humans tend to be divided between tolerant and intolerant but Moon makes most of the incidental hostility that is encountered a consequence of the normal person not receiving the expected social reactions.
Thanks to having such well defined characters Moon takes the opportunity to explore the nature of the self. If you use medicine to change yourself are you still the same person? How much of your being is a change in the quality of your life worth? Those are not simple questions and Moon does not provide any answers; there is a give and take in each choice and each person in the novel has to judge it for themselves..
The corporate plot line might just be the thing that shocked me the most in The Speed of Dark. How many times have you seen the evil corporation who does terrible things mainly because they're evil and ignoring the fact that it's obvious, would cause a major scandal, ruin their stock price, and get the entire board ousted and then arrested. Yes companies do bad things in real life all the time but when they get to around half the scale of the evil we see in books and movies the result is usually an Enron or Worldcom. Moon subverts this by making it into a much more realistic corporate scandal; the reactions and behavior of everyone involved is very well depicted. I'm so used to seeing companies being portrayed as stupidly self-destructive instead of simply money grubbing that I was surprised to see a difference in this book.
All in all I found The Speed of Dark to be a superior book by any standard. It is not simply Flowers for Algernon repeated or a follow up to the ideas in A Deepness in the Sky (which was just about the last book I expected to be referenced by this novel), it provides a very unique voice on those same issues. I enjoyed it quite a bit and highly recommend it.