It’s not uncommon for me to be slow to warm up to a novel only to find myself writing a glowing review and recommending it by the end. (For some reason, these are the novels I’m most compelled to review.) It happened with Cory Doctorow’s Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town. It happened again with Douglas Coupland’s JPod. And, as you probably guessed by now, it happened most recently with Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark.
I started off loving the voice that Moon writes in which is that of Lou Arrendale, an autistic bioinformatic specialist. In fact, it was only on the second page (of the Kindle version, anyway) that I came across this fantastic quote (which, by the way, I think speaks for far too many of us “normal” people as well as autistics). But as I read on, I was disappointed to find that book was plagued by what I initially interpreted as cliches:
- The ultra-evil executive at Lou’s office before whom all his minions tremble, and who is constantly on the prowl for cost savings.
- The buffoon from Lou’s fencing class who reminds me of Clint from Chad Vador.
- The girl who you are certain Lou is going to end up with by the end of the novel.
- The prospect of Lou undergoing surgery to become “normal” and losing that which makes him special.
Confident that I had the book figured out, I read on only to find the story tilt and shift out from under me in unexpected ways (spoiler warning):
- The executive in Lou’s office turns out to be way too over-the-top even for future corporate America, and is therefore unceremoniously canned.
- The bully who targets Lou transitions from an annoying crybaby into a dangerous and borderline psychotic stalker.
- Lou ends up entirely losing interest in the girl I kept waiting for him to finally muster up the courage to ask out on a date. No sappy tear jerking, after all.
- After his surgery, Lou becomes neither better nor worse: simply different in a way that turns out to be impossible to judge.
I’m currently reading Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age which contains some wonderful and poignant passages on moral ambiguity, hypocrisy, and contradiction, all of which I believe are signs of sophistication in both worldview and art. The word “ambiguous” is exactly how I would ultimately describe The Speed of Dark . None of the characters reach the place you expect them to, and where they do end up is neither good nor bad. As in the real world, it just is.