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Autism and sf

Thoughts towards a future web page for my site:

I just read the first story in Gardner Dozois' 2004 collection - Pat Murphy's "Inappropriate Behaviour" - and it is about a girl with autism. Two of the stories in the Hartwell/Cramer collection also featured brilliant academics with autism - Terry Bisson's "Scout's Honour" and Brenda Cooper's "Savant Songs".

There are a number of other sf stories, some well-known, others less so, featuring autism. Elizabeth Moon's The Speed of Dark of course won the Nebula Award two years ago, and deals specifically with a "cure". Most of the others feature an autistic child as the centre of some almost (or even explicitly) magical events: Mary Doria Russell's Children of God, Zoran Živković's short story "The Whisper", Philip K. Dick's Martian Time-Slip, William Gibson's All Tomorrow's Parties. I also rather liked Brenda Clough's "Tiptoe, On a Fence-Post" where the autistic child was marginal to the story but gave the author an excuse for some sensitive character-building.

Other sf stories that I understand feature autism which I haven't read: Greg Egan, Distress; Dean Ing, "Portions of this Program…"; Diane Duane, A Wizard Alone; James B. Johnson, Daystar and Shadow; Megan Lindholm, The Reindeer People and Wolf's Brother; Jane Lindskold, "Brother To Dragons, Companion To Owls"; Charles Sheffield, Putting Up Roots; Elizabeth Hand, "Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol" and Winterlong; Jeffery D. Kooistra, Dykstra's War; Ian Watson, "The Boy Who Lost an Hour, the Girl Who Lost Her Life"; Kathleen Anne Goonan, Light Music; Kathryn Lasky, Home Free; Celia Rees, The Truth Out There; Mira Rothenberg, Children with Emerald Eyes; Eric Brown, New York Dreams; apparently the new Thomas Covenant series; Kathleen Burns, Something's At My Elbow; Lucius Shepard, "The Emperor"; Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, "The Meeting"; Paul Park, "The Breakthrough"; Robert Silverberg, Thorns; Alan E. Nourse, The Universe Between.

Anyone want to particularly recommend (or dis-recommend) any of those, or add to the list? I don't know for sure if autism is a subject which crops up more often in sf than in "mainstream" literature, but it seems rather likely; I can't think of any non-genre novel dealing with it apart from Mark Haddon's The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but then I don't read an awful lot of non-genre fiction.

For the sf writer, different ways of perceiving and sensing the world are of profound interest, and the enigma of the autistic experience is perhaps an attractive topic. (Of course, this tends to mean that the autistic characters are rather bunched towards the high-functioning end of the spectrum.) For a writer with personal experience of autism, projecting this crucial experience into a fantasy or far-future milieu may also be an important part of the coping mechanism. (I find it interesting that writer Nick Hornby, who has an autistic son, has never used autism in his fiction, which is set in the gritty contemporary world.)


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 28th, 2006 11:48 am (UTC)
I loved the Universe Between but do not recall it being about autism - I suspect it well pre dates our current fascination with it.
Jan. 28th, 2006 11:49 am (UTC)
Does Flowers for Algernon count?
Jan. 28th, 2006 05:07 pm (UTC)
No. Charlie is not autistic; he is simply of well below average intelligence.
Jan. 28th, 2006 11:51 am (UTC)
One from 2005: 'The Language of Moths' by Christopher Barzak. Which I'm personally not wild about, but a lot of people seem to like.
Jan. 29th, 2006 01:17 am (UTC)
you are a crazy, crazy man. I just had to say that.
Jan. 28th, 2006 11:53 am (UTC)
This list may be helpful, although it doesn't just include books with explicitly autistic characters, it also includes books with characters that may or may not be autistic.
Jan. 28th, 2006 12:06 pm (UTC)
They have included Eddings' Belgariad in there - I wonder which character is supposed to be autistic...
Jan. 28th, 2006 12:08 pm (UTC)
No, he hasn't. The only thing he wrote about his son is the introduction to a collection he put together to raise money for his school. I guess you'll have already read this? http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/generalfiction/story/0,6000,394220,00.html
Jan. 28th, 2006 12:29 pm (UTC)
Although you put it in quotes, the Lindskold is a novel. A shortish novel, but a novel.
Jan. 28th, 2006 02:00 pm (UTC)
Broken link, you forgot to prefix it with http://.
Jan. 28th, 2006 04:14 pm (UTC)
not sure from memory whether the character in goonan's "light music" is expressly an autistic person. i suspect it was more of case that in certain circumstances he displayed autistic like behaviour. apart from that, "light music" is something like the third in a series of novels - the first is "queen city jazz" and the second is "crescent city rhapsody". i quite enjoyed those novels, though crescent city and light music have the most direct ties, and of those two crescent city is the more enjoyable.

another novel, which isn't listeed there would be simon ings "painkillers", where the lead character had an autistic son. it was actually less SF than most of his work, and was set at the time of the hand over of hong kong to china, but there was certainly a central SF macguffin thing, and from memory it tied into the whole autistic son plot.
Jan. 29th, 2006 04:09 pm (UTC)
Megan Lindholm's listed offerings were fun reads, but not great.

Have you ever read any of Temple Grandin's books for laypeople, like _Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior_? As someone more familiar with animals than autists, I have to say it reads a lot like sci fi. I found it very interesting and I wonder what you would make of her parallels.
Jan. 29th, 2006 07:07 pm (UTC)
Hi neighbour! I guess you wandered in via friendsfriends?

I'm aware of Temple Grandin, of course, and I think rfmcdpei was talking about her recently. Not, of course a science fiction writer per se, but one I should keep an eye out for.
Jan. 30th, 2006 06:57 pm (UTC)
Hi neighbor! I did indeed wander in on Juleske's coattails.

Grandin says things like, 'wolves domesticated us,' or, elaborating, 'it's a known fact that when you domesticate an animal, its brain shrinks by 10%' and "wolves socialized with people long before they became doglike' and 'it is beyond circumstance that when actual dogs appear (15K years ago) in the historical record, humanoid brains have shrunk 10% to match those of modern man..." If that doesn't sound like sci fi, I don't know what does!

I couldn't find rfm...'s entry, sadly.
Jan. 29th, 2006 07:38 pm (UTC)
Speaking as the sister of someone with autism I am not impressed with any attempts so far to portray it. Leaving aside the high-functioning ones and the ones with Aspergers, it isn't something anyone would want to have to put up with. I have never seen "Rainman", it's a film I refuse to watch as it paints a completely false picture of what autism really is like and how it affects the whole family.
Jan. 29th, 2006 07:53 pm (UTC)
The only one of the above that I found remotely satisfying in that respect was Brenda Clough's "Tiptoe, On a Fence-Post"; not coincidentally, I suspect, the one where autism played the least prominent role in the story.
Oct. 27th, 2007 01:22 pm (UTC)
I look at your book journal from time to time and find it very interesting, though I am not an esp. big fan of SF. I do read some, though, and tend the like your recommendations. I have worked with autistic children so have a little experience of them--I've not really found a book other than personal narrative, that really "gets" it but might I recommend Kenzaburo Oe's books? He is a wonderful writer and sometimes wrote about his son, who has various disabilities in addition to autism, I believe. A Personal Matter is the book you should read. I am not absolutely certain what his son's diagnosis is, but you can have a look.

And the Warden's Niece was my eight year old twins hit of the summer.
Thanks. Yolanda Pupo Thompson, yolanda.pupo@talk21.com
Oct. 27th, 2007 02:50 pm (UTC)
Re: Autism
I did indeed read A Personal Matter some time back, and found it gruelling but worthwhile; there is an important difference, of course, in that Ōe's son had noticeable disabilities right from birth, whereas with most autistic children it only becomes gradually apparent. But thank you for the thought!

(Your twins must be very advanced! Not sure if my eight-year-old is ready for the Warden's Niece yet!)
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )

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