Buy this book. Read it. Treasure it.
The Speed of Dark is the Nebula Award-winning novel for 2003. From nearly the very first word, it invites comparisons to the beloved Flowers for Algernon, but it goes places that that earlier novel cannot. Lou Arrendale is autistic but has received treatments that help him adapt to the social situations from which autism would separate him. He has a job for a pharmaceutical company, he has his own home and his own car, and he is a fine fencer. But throughout this narrative of his life, he reminds us that he is not "normal" while constantly questioning what "normal" is. He points out, for example, that autists often perform hand motions that are distracting to others, but Lou also ponders why people teasing their hair or drumming their fingers or chewing their nails are considered normal when they are so like the things that are used to set him apart. Lou always speaks literally and takes the time to consider the words he is choosing in order that they convey as best he can manage what it is he is trying to say. And he wonders why "normal" people aren't as considerate to him as he is to them in that regard.
Elizabeth Moon pulls off the amazing feat of endearing Lou to the reader as we feel sympathy for him and cheer him on in his struggles while simultaneously commenting as only an outsider can regarding the hubris of being normal. She and Lou pick apart the everyday, causing the reader to question why we do the things we do. Lou is kinder than most people and smarter than most people and as we come to realize this, he is set upon by the antagonists of the novel, normal people who are as limited in their perceptions as Lou is supposed to be in his.
I found it difficult to put this book down; Moon makes me care about Lou, not only in the way that we are supposed to care about those "less fortunate" than us, but with real compassion. My anger at those who oppress him was no less real for being based on fiction, and my fear as he faces both physical and emotional danger was just as real. Perhaps Moon writes beautiful prose in her other novels, but the only beauty in this novel is in Lou and the emotions he inspires in others as he grows. And perhaps that beauty is more palpable than that of the finely constructed sentence. I know I felt that beauty as I turned the last page, finding that Lou had made the hardest decision he would ever face and finding in him a simple strength that I wonder if I myself possess.
Blessedly, while the power in Flowers for Algernon lies in what may be the worst tragedy that could befall a character, the power of The Speed of Dark moves in the opposite direction, in the growth and success of a character that we come to love. As I read, I realized that The Speed of Dark is only minimally science fiction, arguably on the borders of how I would describe the genre; the setting is clearly in a not-too-distant future and there are hints of the continued difficulties we currently face with technology and the environment. But this book, like Flowers for Algernon, transcends genres in its power. We learn from Lou, much as we learn from Charlie, and that knowledge makes us want to be better people. I find it hard to believe that a novel, a character...a writer...can give a greater gift.