Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Autism and Modular Minds in Elizabeth Moon's the Speed of Dark

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

Autism and Modular Minds in Elizabeth Moon's the Speed of Dark

Article excerpt

Late in Elizabeth Moon's Nebula Award-winning science-fiction novel The Speed of Dark, the autistic protagonist Lou Arrendale asks a doctor what effect an experimental surgery to remedy his autism might have on his basic intelligence. "Shouldn't have any, really," the doctor responds: "That whole notion of a central IQ was pretty much exploded last century with the discovery of the modularity of processing--it's what makes generalization so difficult--and it's you people, autistic people, who sort of proved that it's possible to be very intelligent in math, say, and way below the curve in expressive language" (265). The doctor's explanation is informed by the precepts of cognitive science and the modular theory of mind. In keeping with this framework, he explains that the mind/brain is like a computer, at least insofar as it is constituted by a series of modules, or systems, that have each evolved to perform distinct tasks: a module for math, a module for expressive language, a module for facial recognition, etc. But while the doctor seems confident in his vision, Moon's novel is less so. Indeed, The Speed of Dark betrays considerable ambivalence about modularity and other computer metaphors.

Strictly in terms of plot, this ambivalence marks the fact that the experimental surgery is both a promise and a threat. Lou Arrendale is a high-functioning "autist" who enjoys fencing and has a job at a pharmaceutical corporation, where he engages in highly advanced information analysis. Both he and a small group of similarly employed autists are granted certain support measures in light of their special skills: a gymnasium, regular counselling, personal sound systems, private parking lots, etc. They are a highly productive group, but their boss, the vile Gene Crenshaw, winces at all their "luxuries." As he explains in threateningly banal tones to the group's supervisor, Pete Aldrin, "this company is going places, and it needs a workforce of unimpaired, productive workers--people who don't need all these little extras" (14). Aldrin counters that dismantling the support apparatus would lead to decreased productivity and end up costing the company more. Crenshaw does not see it that way. He is convinced that if Section A undergoes the new experimental procedure to remedy their autism, then they will no longer need the perks.

The reader's response depends in part on how seriously s/he take the idea that the mind/brain is a computer. If the reader takes it seriously, then it more or less follows that Lou should have the operation. If cognition is computation, and autism is a processing failure, then repairs are in order. Since autism is characterized by slow and patchy sensory data processing (according to many cognitive scientists), then clearly the thing to do--and such things are possible in a speculative novel set in the near future--is to build a faster processing chip in order to get sensory processing up to speed. However, if one rejects that there is a proper speed and an appropriate level of intensity for human perception of the world, then matters are quite different. Moon's ambivalence on this point, I would argue, is thus a multivalent strategy for underscoring what is at stake both in terms of our understanding of autism and in human cognitive development more broadly speaking.

Autism has become a high profile syndrome in recent years, in large part because many cognitive scientists as well as popular-fiction writers (one thinks also of Mark Haddon, Marti Leimbach, Ann Bauer, Nick Hornby, David Lodge) see it as a window onto "normal" cognition. In autism the cognitive functions and behaviours considered to be most seriously compromised are those dealing with "mindreading," the ability to attribute intentional states to others. Autism is typically described as impairing social intelligence, the powers we normally take for granted to comprehend one another, to connect with one another on an emotional level, and to form human bonds. …

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