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Literature / The Speed of Dark

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The Speed of Dark is a 2002 science fiction novel by Elizabeth Moon.

20 Minutes into the Future, a cure for autism has been invented, but it only works in the womb or in infancy. Lou Arrendale is part of the lost generation of autistics, born too early for the cure. He works as a bioinformatics specialist in a department with many other autistic people. When a cure that works on adults is developed, Lou's boss pressures him to take it. Lou and his coworkers must decide whether to undergo the treatment or not, even though it will change the essence of who they are.


The Speed of Dark contains examples of:

  • AM/FM Characterization: Lou loves classical music. He plays it while he works and listens to different composers to bring out different kinds of patterns in the data.
  • Bizarre Taste in Food: Lou likes soggy noodles with peanut butter.
  • Cardboard Box of Unemployment:
    • After Gene Crenshaw is found to have broken the law, Lou sees him carrying a cardboard box with a pair of expensive running shoes balanced on top.
    • Later, Linda and Chuy bring boxes for all their coworkers who won't be coming back after the treatment.
  • Character Tics: Lou's coworkers all have at least one.
    • Eric doodles colorful geometric patterns.
    • Dale blinks his left eye.
    • Cameron twitches his arm, bounces, and plays with dice in his pocket.
    • Linda bounces her fingers in complex mathematical patterns and flaps her hands when she's excited.
    • Chuy twists his neck back and forth and grunts when he eats.
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    • Bailey bites his lip and makes noises with his tongue.
    • Lou himself tries to avert this by sitting perfectly still. It doesn't work - Cameron tells him he looks like a block of wood.
    • Lou notes that his neurotypical crush Marjory flaps her hands sometimes, but nobody seems to notice because she's otherwise normal.
  • Department of Redundancy Department: During an evaluation in which Lou is asked inane questions about the names of objects, he thinks, "I am uninterested in that uninteresting bowl."
  • Everyone Hates Fruitcakes: When Lou bumps into Marjory at the grocery store, they talk about how pretty fruitcakes are and how disappointing the taste is.
  • Hates Being Nicknamed: Lou's coworker Cameron dislikes being called Cam.
  • Hates Small Talk: Lou and his coworkers only talk when they have something to say.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: This is Cameron's motive for undergoing the treatment.
    Cameron: You'll say that normal people do what we do, only in smaller amounts. Lots of people self-stim, but they don't even realize it. They tap their feet or twirl their hair or touch their faces. Yes, but they're normal and no one makes them stop. Other people don't make good eye contact, but they're normal and no one nags them to make eye contact. They have something else to make up for the tiny bit of themselves that acts autistic. That's what I want. I want - I want not to have to try so hard to look normal. I just want to be normal.…I want to get married. I want to have children. I want to live in an ordinary house in an ordinary neighborhood and take the ordinary public transportation and live the rest of my life as a normal person.
  • I Need to Go Iron My Dog: When Joe Lee, one of the cured autistics, invites Cameron and Lou to dinner, Cameron says, "I have a date," and Lou says, "I have a meeting."
  • Limited Wardrobe: Lou wears the same outfit to fencing practice every week.
  • Longevity Treatment: LifeTime, an expensive new brain therapy. Some of the employees demand this if they go through the autism treatment, although they don't get it.
  • Morally Ambiguous Doctorate: The doctors who invented the treatment are extremely shady. They plagiarize and mislabel medical images and push the autistics to go through the treatment all at once, even though one at a time would be safer. Because treating adult autistics isn't very profitable, Lou strongly suspects they have ulterior motives. They do - they want to market an attention-control treatment to employers. They test it on Lou's coworker Bailey, who ends up severely brain-damaged.
  • Parenting the Husband: Don Poiteau, who fences with Lou, had a girlfriend named Helen who spent eight years trying to parent him. It didn't make him any more mature.
  • Pointy-Haired Boss: The new boss, Gene Crenshaw, rose to the top through his skill at bossing people around despite having no practical abilities. He tries to either shut down the autistics' section or force them all into a cure because he thinks their accommodations are too expensive, even though they're some of the most productive workers in the company. He also disrupts the middle managers' work by calling pointless meetings so he can look important in the big chair. When one of his underlings dares to complain about his unwillingness to work with the team, he says, "I'm a natural leader. My personality profile shows that I'm cut out to be a captain, not crew.… My gift is inspiring others and giving a strong lead."
  • Profiling: Lou gets stopped at airport security because of his unusual behavior.
  • Sore Loser: When Don lost his first fencing tournament, he drank a six-pack, threw up behind a tree, cried, and said it was the worst day of his life.
  • Talk About the Weather: Lou notes that it's considered polite to say something about the weather to cashiers, even if the person in front of you already said something similar.
  • Throwing Off the Disability: What the new treatment promises to do for autistic people. Everyone except Chuy ends up taking it. Even Linda, who was the most opposed, takes it years after the others do.
  • Twitchy Eye: Lou's coworker Dale has an eye tic. Lou sits next to Dale at lunch because he likes to watch it.