Moon, Elizabeth (2003). The Speed of Dark. New York: Ballantine.

Reviewed 08 March 2003

Moon, Speed of Dark (cover) This book, along with a very few others, is perhaps beyond my ability to review completely objectively. I feel fortunate that I have no truly autistic relatives. What I do have to deal with in my family is more than close enough.

This book marks a welcome change from Ms. Moon's previous concentration on more action-adventure-militarish fare. It is such a significant departure that one might not initially believe that the same author wrote Dark. The novel's paradigm is completely foreign to more "adventurous" fare in being adventurous. Rather than the plot-and-character axis all too common to "military SF," Dark is a much, well, darker work that organizes itself in shifting patterns around the character-theme axis. Plot, and even environment, are clearly subordinate to the interaction between character and theme. The theme, though, is much more subtle than one might initially expect if one bought into the misdireciton of the first few chapters.

Lou Arrendale is "autistic" (the reason for the quotation marks will become apparent near the end of the book). In an indeterminate near-future America, he has adjusted well enough through both personal therapy and workplace accommodation to hold down a job analyzing processes at a pharmaceutical company. Anyone who thinks that's an easy job is welcome to try even yield-ignoring process control in a basic synthetic chemistry lab; knowing enough chemistry to understand the safety issues presented by alternate paths is strenuous enough. Moon posits a process tracking system that allows Lou to find otherwise unrecognizable patterns in the graphic representation of the process. Lou then fine-tunes these patterns to make the process more efficient, much to the benefit of the nameless pharmaceutical giant.

Lou is interested in fencing, too, despite the (presumed) disapproval of his less-than-compassionate psychiatrist. The novel is structured very much like a fencing match in which a novice exceeds expectations against more-experienced opposition. (Lou's experience at his first tournament is a bit hamfisted, perhaps for the benefit of "normals" who have no experience with "anormals"—a not entirely inappropriate concern.)

Of course, some self-centered careerist asshole new manager (an all-too-realistic touch) decides that the accommodations are too expensive; he wants the results without the costs, in an effort to make himself appear the true paragon of efficiency. Although Lou does not spot this pattern, it is a simply one: a mirror. For, in this sense, Crenshaw (the manager) is as abnormal as is Lou, if not moreso. Lou has difficulty relating directly to people, and makes an immense effort to fit in socially. Crenshaw, however, has the underlying skills, but aggressively denies the social aspect of personality in favor of a nearly autistic denial of social values in favor of his personal gratification.

Structurally, the novel continues to unfold as a fencing match, with touches on both sides, thrusts and counterthrusts, parries and misses. In one sense, it is a bit too "scientific" in that it gives too little attention to the problem of friction (although this becomes apparent only in hindsight). In any event, everyone follows the rules1 , except Crenshaw—and he is ejected from the tournament. Although each encounter is a clean bout with little ambiguity, the sum of them is disturbingly ambiguous, as it should be.

In most novels concerning any kind of mental illness, the conflict between Crenshaw and Lou would be enough to keep the whole work going. Dark, however, isn't that cheap. The moral and ethical contrast between Lou and Crenshaw is only a window into the ultimate question that theh novel really asks, one shared by all too few works, such as Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow and Children of God and Kristine Smith's Jani Killian books (Code of Conduct, Rules of Conflict, Law of Survival, and the forthcoming Contact Imminent):

Who is "human," and what does that really mean?

Moon has the good sense to not try to answer this question. If it had an answer, the Lou Arrendales (and Gene Crenwshaws) of this world—and they do exist—would be less than human. The point is that they are not. The abrupt epilog looks at first like a weakness, but it instead signals something different: that Lou's struggles are only the beginning of his story.

Overall rating: 4 stars
Excellent (award candidate).
The Speed of Dark shows a great deal, while telling a great deal more between the lines. It is a very postmodern work in the sense that what matters is not what is on the page, but what the reader brings to the book—and leaves with afterward. If there is a central conflict that must be resolved, it is between Lou himself and his vision of himself (which itself varies greatly). A Powell's Books Partner

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