Goodreads: Average 4.0. Mode: 4 stars.
Amazon: Average: 4.4. Mode: 5 stars.
Thoughtful, poignant, and unforgettable, The Speed of Dark is a gripping exploration into the world of Lou Arrendale, an autistic man who is offered a chance to try an experimental "cure" for his condition. Now Lou must decide if he should submit to a surgery that may change the way he views the world—and the very essence of who he is.
Understandably, one might be wary of an author writing a novel from the first-person point of view of a character struggling with a disability she does not herself have. Elizabeth Moon seems to have done the work to handle this well. She has an autistic son herself, and from the reviews the book has received (including by autistic readers and families of autistics), she got that part right.
Lou Arrendale lives in the near future, where early intervention for autistic children can now "cure" them (I keep putting "cure" in scare quotes because that's one of the main issues around which this book revolves), so he and his peers are among the last generation of autistic persons. When Lou was a child, there were treatments and intervention programs better than those that exist now (in the real world), so he is able to function independently and makes a decent living at a technology company with his pattern recognition skills. He also has a life outside of work and interacting with fellow autistics: he goes to church, and he fences. There is a woman at his fencing club whom he has a crush on. Throughout the book, we see him go through his daily life, mostly getting by quite well and fairly content, but sometimes struggling with the limitations that autism has given him in terms of interacting with others.
Then the company he works for offers an experimental new treatment that will supposedly cure even older autistic people like himself who weren't able to receive the treatments now given to children. In fact, he and his autistic coworkers are pressured into accepting this "cure."
Where The Speed of Dark excels, unsurprisingly, is in its examination of the main character, whose internal struggle is painful, poignant, and thought-provoking. He questions whether he would be the same person without autism, and whether he truly needs to be cured. For the most part he is able to do everything "normal" people can do, and some things they can't. There is a lot of debate over the ethics of human experimentation and trying to "cure" people who may not need to be cured and whether someone is "disabled" just because their behavior makes it more difficult for "normal" people to interact with them. A lot of this debate happens externally, which I think was a narrative weakness, as the book takes us out of Lou's head and gives us third-person conversations between other characters when it's convenient. I suppose at times this may have been necessary as there were certain plot elements that would have been harder to introduce from with a purely Lou-centered POV, but at times I thought it was just laziness on Moon's part.
This is a book worthy of serious thought and discussion. I liked the way Moon handled her main character. That said, if you're primarily a story-oriented reader, this book has a lot more internal monologuing and examination of issues than plot. There are some conflicts (besides Lou's company, which wants him to accept the cure, amongst hints that they have a more sinister agenda, there is also the woman he is in love with, and the jealous friend who resents him for it), but these are all handled a bit too summarily. The story never ratchets up the tension to the point that it's a page-turner, and there are long stretches that are nothing but Lou going shopping, Lou driving to work, Lou going to church and thinking about the sermon, Lou fencing and wishing he could ask the woman he likes out, etc. I suppose Moon felt this was necessary to help us get inside Lou's head, and it does, but really, the book is too long.
The writing also felt flat, and while I'm tempted to attribute that to the fact that we're seeing everything from the POV of an autistic person, I kind of got the same feeling from Sheepfarmer's Daughter, the only other Elizabeth Moon novel I've read, which consisted of long stretches of: Paks learns how to drill, Paks digs latrines, Paks marches from place to place, Paks fights a battle, etc. Very simple and straightforward storytelling, not lacking in details, but certainly lacking in excitement or originality.
The Speed of Dark is often compared to Flowers for Algernon, another sci-fi classic. It's also worth mentioning The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, another excellent book with an autistic main character narrating.
Verdict: This book does what the best science fiction should, examining real-world issues through a speculative lens. While it's not preachy, it will make you think. For its unconventional protagonist and thoughtful handling of autism, it deserves to be read. But about all I can say about the story is that there is a beginning, a middle, and an end.