(“Too Long, Didn’t Read” Version: The book itself is solid, but I spend most of the post talking about my lifelong desire for more characters like myself and how wonderful it is to read about a character who is that, rings true, yet isn’t exactly like I am as an individual. Also, I rant about my happiness to see a science-fiction novel that has something truly fascinating to say in this day and age. Also, this review spoils the ending of the novel and Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson.)
On this blog, I’ve tried to do my part to highlight works that help diversify the fantasy and science-fiction genres while remaining mostly objective about their quality as art and entertainment. And yet sometimes along comes a work where it’s next to impossible to truly evaluate without more than a little bit of bias due to how easy it is for the reviewer to connect to the work in question.
Let me explain—I am overall rather thrilled at how diverse sci-fi and fantasy have become as of late. There’s been lots more writers of color and LGBT authors getting prominent releases in recent years, ranging from such examples as Caitlin R. Kiernan’s awarding winning novel, The Drowning Girl (which I reviewed here), to authors making their novel debuts this year like Nisi Shawl (Everfair) and Yoon Ha Lee (Ninefox Gambit). Yet as good as this is, I do think there’s been an element where speculative fiction still hasn’t come far enough: disability.
Yes, there have been more characters with disabilities as of late, but as with women, people of color, and LGBT characters, the genre truly expanded when writers of this background began to get major marketing campaigns for their work in the mainstream publishing industry. Authors with disabilities and mental health problems typically only get this same recognition when they’ve already had a good run in the industry and have drawn attention to their private lives (a good example being young adult author John Green’s vlogs on his struggles with mental illness on the vlogbrothers Youtube channel). Thankfully, we now have author Corinne Duyvis, an author I am currently struggling to review objectively due to her writing about a character who is easy for me to relate to while writing from her own perspective.
Disclaimer: I, the author of this blog you are reading, am an American born in the mid 1990s who is a black heteroromantic asexual female Christian (talk about the ultimate privilege in America, right?) who was diagnosed first with Asperger Syndrome, and after DSM-V and my SSI got cut off, Autism Spectrum Disorder. I’ve found characters who’ve I’ve felt were fairly relatable (Meg Murray from the Time Quintet, who I headcanon as autistic; Harriet M. Welsch from Harriet the Spy, who I also get an autistic vibe from; Tori Beaugrand from R. J. Anderson's Quicksilver, and so on) but it’s been a struggle of my life to find a character who represents more than two or three of my traits. Most black female characters are extroverts and neurotypicals; most characters on the spectrum are white. I’ve been an avid reader since I first read Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy (which is still my favorite novel) back when I was ten years old, so I’ve spent quite a bit of time looking for others to add to the above list of “great characters who are like me.” The closest I can usually find is an introverted reader character, who’s often white. (There’ve been plenty of great characters, of course, just not ones who fall in that particular category.) At this point in my life, I’ve more or less resigned myself to the fact that I’m not likely to find too many characters like me, so I’ve taken to writing them myself, but then along came this book.
Corinne Duyvis is a Dutch autistic author. She understands my woes regarding representation considering she writes about it frequently on the Disability in Kidlit website that she edits. So I was understandably interested when she confirmed that her second novel would be a young adult science-fiction release that features a protagonist who is a mixed-raced (half-Dutch, half-Surinamese) black autistic girl. While I’m neither Dutch nor biracial, this book automatically represents a character who is more like me than most I’ve read. So. You can understand how hard it is to talk about the novel without going, “Oh my God! This is the book I’ve wanted to read since I was eleven years old! Where has it been all my life?!” I’ll do my best to explain why you should read it, however, as I feel that, like Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, I think it is one of the most important works of science-fiction of the 2010s, young adult or not.
The book is set about twenty years in the future, in 2035. In the future Duyvis describes, climate change had continued to ravage the Earth, but scientific advancement continued enough that NASA had found a habitable star system and there were plans made to explore. And then news of the comet came. The comet would primarily hit Eastern Europe and consequences would be devastating. Due to this, many people focused their attention on leaving Earth during the six-month period of warning. Generation ships were made purely for the purpose of avoiding the comet. The novel is set in the author’s hometown, Amsterdam, and begins on the day the comet is set to hit. From there, Denise Lichtveld, the protagonist, and her mother end up getting the chance to stay for two days after the comet on a generation ship just before it leaves. The plot, from that point forward, is how Denise struggles to find a place for herself, her sister Iris, and her mother on the ship and the interactions she has with other characters.
And now it’s time to talk about the characters. As with Duyvis’s previous release, Otherbound, they are diverse. Iris, like Denise, is black, as well as bisexual and a transwoman. There are prominent women in a romantic relationship, Jewish characters, and Muslim characters. There is attention drawn to mental illness, as Denise and Iris’s mother is a drug addict who suffers from depression. I thought this was well-done as the characters are people first, and it only comes up when Denise notices it in the narrative. There’s no preachy “accept everyone” propaganda (unless you feel that just having the characters feels preachy, in which case this is not the novel for you). They are all well-drawn, the characters. While the reader is encouraged to want Denise and her family to be given a chance to stay on the ship, the other characters are also fighting for the chance for their own family members to get a shot. And they are not villainized by the narrative—the ship truly does have limited slots available and they are willing to take in people who are disabled as long as they are “useful” (we’ll get back to that later). An example would include the autistic doctor on the ship.
And then Denise. I can’t explain what it felt like to read an autistic character from an author who has it herself. Everything about her felt so real. On many occasions, she rambles, not understanding when it’s more common to stop talking. She’s something of a picky eater, considering she says she doesn’t eat almond paste, among other things. She has the classic sensory issues that makes her dislike being touched, particularly without permission. She stims (which can vary from person to person, but in myself manifests as pacing around my house every hour or twirling my phone stylus and in Denise as tapping her thigh). In many ways, Denise’s autistic experience is relatable for me: every symptom I listed we share, also we both didn’t get diagnosed until older than average (Denise at 9, me at 13), we both have books we’ve obsessively read over and over without tiring of, we both love just holding ourselves up in our bedrooms for hours on end, and neither of us really struggle to recognize facial expressions or understand sarcasm. And yet there are ways that we differ that I still thoroughly empathized with (Denise got poor grades in high school, while I only did badly the first year and had a high GPA the next few years after transferring to a school for people with autism; she prefers reading non-fiction about cats, while I prefer non-fiction in scholarly articles and fiction in books). At points in the story, she has meltdowns and needs to lock herself away in a room. She struggles with a mother who tells people about her autism without letting Denise share this information herself. In every way, it rings true. What clinches it for me, though, is how her narrative voice is done. Everything I list is stated in a very personal and matter-of-fact way, which makes perfect sense because for Denise, all of this is normal. She can’t imagine seeing the world another way. Far too often, I’ve read books about autistic characters where the protagonist’s worldview felt too detached from the narrative, which could be blamed on the author being neurotypical and not quite sharing the experience. By writing in her own voice, Duyvis has created one of the greatest characters with autism in fiction, let alone young adult or science-fiction.
As excellent as all that is, Denise is so much more than a good autistic narrator. She’s a well-drawn and rounded character who is autistic. She’s also something of a hero. So she saves people's lives in this book; she shows how smart she actually is despite the problems she had when she was in school. Denise, like most sixteen-year-old girls, wants to figure out just where she’s going to end up in life (in this case more literally than most). She struggles with social interaction, but forms close and deep emotional bonds with people. And she is far from flawless. She can be pretty rude, if unintentionally; she struggles with having empathy for her mother, since the woman has been pretty neglectful over the years. Denise also has her fears and insecurities, some of which have nothing to do with being autistic. She is human and that is the most important thing.
Also, I need to bring up the fact that Denise is not only a female autistic character but one who is not white. In a world where the face of autism far too often is that of white males, despite women being more common in population, and white males being far less common than media would suggest, characters like her are very necessary. Denise’s race is handled well, ranging from: people raising eyebrows at her mother being white and Denise and Iris not being so to Denise noting how white the population on the generation ship is. But what resonated the most for me was the following:
“It’s not that I don’t realize I’m pretty. I do, and I am. It’s just that people have certain expectations of girls who look like I do—confidence and extroversion and sass—and that’s not me” (page 123, first edition).
One of my favorite things about this story is how it really made me think about what we value in society and how we define “usefulness.” Are you only useful if you work? Are you only useful if you can reproduce? Are you only useful if you are young? That very word is at the heart of the conflict of this novel, and it’s an ongoing struggle of the characters to do their part. What made it all worth it in the end is that it ended up not being a story of an autistic girl learning to be better than the neurotypicals, but Denise working with others to redefine value and emphasizing the importance of compassion for all human life.
In order to continue that line of thought, I also want to talk about the ending. So if you don’t want to know how the book ends, hopefully I’ve told you enough by this point.
Spoilers From This Point Forward:
Spoilers From This Point Forward: