Let me get right to it: The Speed of Dark is one of the best books that I've read this year. It is almost perfect, with a fascinating protagonist who has a distinctive voice, and intriguing ethical questions.
Lou Arrendale is an autistic who works for a pharmaceutical company, finding and creating elaborate patterns. His entire division is made up of other people with autism. The workplace makes accommodations to facilitate the work that they do: a private parking lot, cubes with doors, a special gym that features preferred music. Lou doesn't understand how his work fits in the bigger picture, but he doesn't worry about that because he likes it, and he has an underlying sense of gratitude that there is a job for someone like him, someone who isn't normal.
The question of what is normal permeates the novel. For those younger than Lou, autism can be cured in utero, or infancy. Autism is in the process of dying out, and Lou recognizes that technology-assisted evolution as a good thing, even if he is ambivalent about the idea of being normal himself.
All my life I've been told how lucky I was to be born when I was—lucky to benefit from the improvements intervention, lucky to be born in the right country, with parents who had the education and resources to be sure I got that good early intervention. Even lucky to be born too soon for definitive treatment, because—my parents said—having to struggle gave me the chance to demonstrate strength of character.
What would they have said if this treatment had been available for me when I was a child? Would they have wanted me to be strong or be normal? Would accepting treatment mean I had no strength of character? Or would I find other struggles?
Lou has also been told that, as an autist, he's no good with things where the pattern isn't discernable. As the book unfolds, life gets more and more in the way of his routines. Lou is shocked by what happens, discomforted, but he adapts.
I want the day to be some other day, when I am in my car and driving to work on time. I do not know what to say; I want help only because I do not know what to do. I would like to know what to do so that I do not need help.
It is in moments like this that Moon, who has a son with autism herself, makes us connect with the character. Lou perfectly articulates the feeling of frustration that I've had when forced to deal with unplanned unpleasantness, like a fender bender. I just want to be somewhere else, doing something within my comfort zone, something over which I can exert some measure of control. This uneasiness in the face of change is a relatively common trait, but one which Lou has been told is one of the flaws of those who are autistic.
Maybe if the things I was told about myself were not all correct, the things I was told about normal people were also not all correct.
This conclusion is at the core of Lou's reevaluation of everything. As his workplace maneuvers to put the autists into an experimental treatment program, Lou wonders what it would be like to be normal. He wonders if he would have been able to achieve some of his dreams if his brain hadn't been wired in quite the way it is. He watches the normal people around them doing things he was trained out of doing—getting angry, fidgeting compulsively—things he was told not to do, things he was told weren't normal, and he wonders what it all means that they aren't autistic but they are doing these things. He realizes that being normal isn’t the same as being infallible:
I never thought of normal people as needing to explain their failures. I never thought of them as having failures.
Ultimately, this book is about what it means to be human, and what makes us not only part of the mass of humanity but unique individuals within that bigger picture. How are we more than our labels? Lou is autistic; is that everything he is? If he changes that, will he still be himself? And do the things we let define us create who we are, or limit who we might be?