Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Neurominorities in Science Fiction

Jason M. Robertson

Statement of Autistic Self-Advocacy

I am autistic. Until this most recent year of my life, I was unaware of this. In this year and possibly before, I suffered a number of ischemic strokes. In the wake of these I became depressed--a post-stroke depression as it is called--and had increasing difficulty with my job duties at the University of Chicago Library. In the wake of these events I saw Dr. Maureen Lacy for neuropsychiatric evaluation. Along with triggering my psychiatrist’s suspicions (dual-degreed Dr. Judith Badner MD/PhD) that I was on the autism spectrum. As it was, I evaluated as on the spectrum. Dr. Lacy was the qualified tester who evaluated me.

So, please, as a first order of business: if you experience a sensation much like a Novocaine injection encompassing some portion of your body wonder if you are having an ischemic stroke: as I also have a family history with multiple sclerosis from my mother, I did not approach it that way. I should have.

I write this as someone who has not made an enormous mark in life, but likes to think he has finally overcome most cultural prejudices I was born into. I am aware of my white privilege, my heterosexual privilege, my cisgender privilege, my monolingual privilege, my generally able-bodied privilege. But I am different from a presumptive majority of you in that I have autism spectrum disorder. And so, I present this paper as a neurominority myself, recently discovered. Nothing about us, without us.

The Primary Texts

This paper looks at three major texts: Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon; Distress by Greg Egan and Blindsight by Peter Watts. Two of the three titles feature central protagonists who are classic neurominorities: autistics. The third, Blindsight focuses more on hypothetical engineered neurominorities while connecting some of the attributes of its other characters to actual autistic splinter skills. Echopraxia, the sequel to Blindsight, may also have some minor spoilers. While my initial encounters with all of these were in dead tree editions, I am taking the ebook editions as the canonical copies, notable for the updated 2013 edition of Distress.

Narrow Dreams of the Future

The first title I will address is Speed of Dark, by Elizabeth Moon. This is a conventional and no doubt very earnest narrative. I do, however, believe it is also the most problematic. Lou Arrendale is an employed autistic adult who is first in a hostile relationship with his boss at work who wants him and his similarly autistic colleagues to undergo a radical gene therapy wherein they will effectively 'remature' their brains: this time redacting their autism--and ultimately defeats the attempt to force him to do so, and yet chooses that path of his own agency.

The intervention achieves its goals: but Lou is greatly remade and much of what he had hoped for the future is no longer desired by him. He does achieve substantial human contributions. But is he Lou? It seems open.

The Integrator

Our other natural autist is Andrew Worth in Greg Egan's Distress. Worth lives life via a narrow set of synthetic rules: he has no name for why. Ironically, he declines testing while investigating the Voluntary Autists movement for his documentary. As we meet Andrew Worth he is finishing up a documentary on some alarming science trends. Once done: he chooses to work on the upcoming Theory of Everything conference held on the anarchist island of Stateless. Wunderkind Violet Mosala is thought to be approaching a Theory of Everything. Meanwhile radical anthropocosmologists threaten everything.

As the story progresses we witness Worth demonstrate difficulties with intimate relationships and his own confusion about that. It is in the wake of such turmoil that he arrives on Stateless. Once there he becomes embroiled in the anthropocosmological conspiracies afoot, and suffers in a successful attempt to murder Violet Mosala.

Eventually, he reads and comprehends Mosala's theory and ends Distress in a near-literal apotheosis. The final barrier he has surmounted to achieve this state: his own recognition of his own autism.

I find my experience as an autistic to have most kinship to Worth. I do not have rigid rules for life like Worth. Instead, I use cognitive empathy in place of affective empathy that the allistic can use.

The Synthesist

Our last protagonist is Siri Keeton, our first entirely fictitious neurologically atypical person. When he was a child Keeton underwent a radical hemispherectomy, the experience changed him, as indicated by his best friend's discomfort after the procedure. The entire premise of Blindsight is that Keeton's professional speciality is bridging the distance between the other that can understand the world as it is, and less capable baseline humans.

As Keeton's story begins, he is tasked to perform this task with a veritable bestiary of human-derived scientists/science-instruments seeking to investigate a nonhuman intelligence which has recently surveilled planet Earth in an event called 'Firefall'. Chief among these, the vampire--a member of an extinct hominid superpredator that has been cultured from fragments of genome in homo sapiens. Superb pattern matchers, these deadly predators are harnessed by the powers that be of the Firefall-verse for commercial and research purposes. Other transhumans on the mission include basic cyborgs and surgically-created multiple-personality-core linguists.

As the mission vessel Theseus approaches its destination, a near-interstellar brown dwarf, somewhat repetitive and stereotypic contact is had with the alien vessel, dubbed Rorschach, it takes little time for the human-derived crew to decide that the alien intellect is only a Chinese Room.

It is in this divergence that the thematic relation with vampires is made clear: both vampires and this extrasolar intelligence seek to gain functionality by devoting less 'wetware' to qualia ruthlessly paring away in pursuit of cognitive supercapacity.

The sources of alleles for the vampire resurrection are traced to autists and psychopaths, a somewhat less-than-flattering comparison. To be fair, Watts emphasizes the fictious nature of his characters.


After doing the rereads necessitated by this project, I see the classic and approachable Speed of Dark as the clear laggard in autist-acceptance, requiring its protagonist to erase himself before reaching his potential. Blindsight, while broadly brilliant has some problematic concerns where splinter skills and philosophical zombies come up. The victor in advocacy is Distress.

Jason M. Robertson is a founding and active  member of the Chicago Speculative Fiction Community.

Please be sure to check out the other papers from our panel.

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