When I waded into Paul Elee’s piece in the NYT Book Review lamenting the lack of serious treatments of religion (by which he means Christianity) in current literary fiction, it seemed a long-shot that I would get any good recommendations out of it; and indeed, it proved to be a rather whiny and tedious squib, but it did provoke some interesting letters. Oscar Hijuelos wrote that Elee’s prayers would be answered if he read a novel by Oscar Hijuelos (confirming my impression that OH is a bit of a prick), and a couple of people suggested that Elee broaden his horizons to include genre fiction. Elizabeth Hand recommended some SF novels, including Elizabeth Moon’s The Speed of Dark, and since I like Hand, I decided to give it a try.
The main narrator of The Speed of Dark is Lou, an autistic man who has benefitted from near-future cognitive therapies and seems to be doing pretty well for himself: he lives independently, has a job where he works with other autists in an environment with supports such as a trampoline room (I think a lot of autists really dig the trampoline, though really who doesn’t?). He belongs to a fencing club and has a crush on one of the other fencers. But his life is certainly not normal he has to devote a lot of conscious energy to understanding people’s facial expressions and saying appropriate things such as “Thank you” and “Hello.” He can’t bring himself to ask Marjorie out because he can’t trust his reading of her signals, and also fears that he may be grossed out by intimate physical contact. His verbal ability shuts down under serious stress, as when he is grilled by the TSA guy at the airport. So when he is told of an experimental surgery that, if it works, could turn him into a non-autistic person, he is faced with a dilemma.
By this time, though, we have grown used to living in Lou’s world. Here’s a typical passage, where he and his colleagues go out for pizza:
Tonight our favorite table is dirty. I can hardly stand to look at the five dirty plates and pizza pans; it makes my stomach turn to think of the smears of sauce and cheese and crust crumbs, and the uneven number makes it worse. There is an empty table to our right, but we do not like that one…We wait, trying to be patient, as Hi I’m Sylvia (she has that on her name-tag, as if she were a product for sale and not a person) signals to one of the others to clean up our table. I like her, and can remember to call her Sylvia without the Hi I’m as long as I’m not looking at her name-tag.
We also feel the joy Lou finds in order and pattern, in classical music, the data he analyzes at work, the rituals of fencing, and for me more than most people, Lou’s way of being in the world includes much that is weirdly familiar as well as much that is just weird. When I saw Rain Man, I couldn’t help thinking that Raymond Babbit had a lot in common with the 8-year-old Roy, a kid who spent Sunday morning memorizing the baseball averages and had no clue how to make friends. I don’t think anyone considered me autistic, and my strangenesss was partly the result of a suboptimal environment, but I’m sure that if I were growing up today, I would be given drugs to try and make me less weird.
Lou sees his choice in religious terms: if God loves me as I am, and wants me to love myself, does he also want me to change? Am I like the man at the healing bath, to whom Jesus says, “Do you want to be healed?” The desire for transcendence and self-transformation is common to many people’s idea of religion (whether the thing to be transcended is our fallen, sinful nature or the cycle of reincarnation and the illusion of sensory reality) and is also pervasive in modern science fiction.
In SF (for example in Vernor Vinge or late Isaac Asimov), it is usually technology that allows people to become posthuman or transhuman Uebermenschen; in some cases they cross a Singularity and vanish from the world of the ordinary folks who are left behind; in others, faux evolution produces the “next stage” in our progress toward whatever it is we’re supposed to be progressing toward. It will surprise no-one that I am unenthusiastic about religious transformation, but really the science-fiction version leaves me at least as cold. Possibly somewhere out there is a story presented in such a way that I would feel that abandoning our humanity for something cooler constituted a happy ending—if so, I haven’t found it yet.
I have often wanted to be different in some particular way, but never, I think, in a way that would make me truly normal and like most people (if most people are really normal at all). So you can imagine what decision I hoped Lou would make: that he would turn down a treatment that might change basic aspects of what made him Lou, that he would ask Marjorie out, that he would enter more fencing tournaments…you get the idea. I wonder if most readers feel the same way.