Saturday, January 3, 2009

Speaking of the Mad

To be honest with you, neither the Thin Man nor I had intended to repost things that were already on the main website but we've been persuaded otherwise. We both agreed, if we were going to repost anything, then first and foremost should be the essay that is the very reason this weblog is entitled as it is. Some of you have seen this before and I hope you'll forgive the redundancy but, in the interest of getting it in front of the most eyes as possible:

On Autism and Society

One begins a circle drawing anywhere, especially if one is Asbergian. I must approach this subject by stalking it, circuitously tacking toward a central point that is not, in fact, a point but rather a hedge of possible relations. I will most likely say as many things that are wrong as I do things that are correct because, without permission to fail, no progress can be made. I speak from a broad foundation of knowledge, personal experience, and research. In order to provide examples, I have chosen to reference a New York Times Magazine article by Emily Bazelon ("What Are Autistic Girls Made of?" NYTM 08/05/2007). It is not the only source for the information I discuss, but it is representative of the current state of research and it is easily accessible.

Much of what I present is drawn from anecdotal evidence. There is a widespread fallacy in scientific circles that "anecdotal evidence is no evidence at all"; that the experiences and observations of one individual are not sufficient data to draw conclusions from. Setting aside that these specific anecdotes in question are representative observations, the root premise — that "anecdotal evidence is no evidence at all" — is a flawed one and its frequent invocation is a detriment to science and the increase of knowledge. At its root, all evidence is anecdotal. Even if I acquire empirical results from a bank of analytical machinery, my record of these results, my calculations, and my eventual conclusions are, in point of fact, anecdotal. All things are filtered through a singular observer. Finally, all evidence is anecdotal.

For my own part, I was diagnosed late in life with a host of mental "deficiencies", all of which may be lumped into a single category of "the boy ain't like us." I am non-neurotypical — crazy if you will. That's really all any mental "disorder" is: non-neurotypical, not like the rest of us. Further labeling is pejorative and facile. As I said, I was diagnosed late in life; every person who had known me previously responded, "So, you're the same as you've always been, but now it's official." If I were a child today, I would be caught, tranquilized, and relocated a safe distance from the "good" people. Instead, I grew up among people, not unlike myself, who accommodated my idiosyncrasies (this was a time when eccentricity was quaint rather than threatening). In the meantime, I learned to mimic the average human and do a credible impression for short periods of time.

I would add to this one further personal note. Once I could no longer maintain the mask and was forced, by the cost to my personal health, to retire from the field, I found within the government — within the institutions so publicly dedicated to "serving" the differently-abled and so vocally the defendants of the downtrodden — the highest levels of discrimination and harassment I have ever faced. At times, the situation came to resemble Camus' The Stranger as I was punished by the system for not properly cringing and bowing, for not giving up and dying quietly. There are decent people within the system, but the overarching bureaucracy itself is a condescending evil.

As a society, we still relegate our insane to asylums. Only now, the walls are invisible and the padding is around those who must deal with us, to protect them from us, an insidious imprisonment of arbitrary regulations, a subtle prejudice cloaked in platitudes of compassion. Because they are afraid of us.

To clarify terms, autism is now defined as social and communication impairments and restricted interests. Allow me to present this definition as it is seen from the other side of the mirror: doesn't tolerate inanity or stupidity well, speaks directly, and doesn't give a damn what was on SNL last night because there are more important things.

Autism now includes Asberger's syndrome, considering it high-functioning autism. As the study of mental abnormality expands, it is increasingly common for one disorder to "swallow" another in this manner. It is my own studied opinion (and I am not alone in this), that most mental abnormalities are simply variations on a theme. There is a continuum of behaviors and functionalities all sliding and blurring into each other and only severity separates one "disorder" from another. Further, the mental state of every human being exists on this continuum and that the normal and sane have the same potentials and traits as the abnormal, simply less pronounced. If you need further proof, I ask you to consider the societal virtue called logical thought. It is defined as the ability to consider a situation or problem objectively rather than subjectively, to separate one's personal interests from the situation. Psychology also has a term that matches this definition: dissociative thinking, the first symptom of schizoid behavior.

In the specific case of autism, researchers are quick to point out that autistics, especially female patients, suffer from tremendous levels of anxiety and depression. It is currently their belief that the anxiety and depression arise from the situations created by the necessary lifestyles of the autistic. Personally, I think they overcomplicate the matter. Autism and bipolar disorder are both stops on the mental continuum; to attempt to divide them into two separate disorders based on cause and effect is pure sophistry. More troubling, it is counterproductive.

Let the hunt begin. Observe the trail signs.

""All I require is a purple marker," the boy said over and over again, refusing to write with the black marker he had been given."

A small track indicating a huge beast. If you, as a researcher, are preparing to perform a study involving autistic patients, is it unreasonable to expect this kind of simple resistance? Of course not. This kind of action is so common, a researcher should be surprised if it doesn't occur in a sample population. Yet, to me, there is an even brighter warning flag waving, an obvious question that strikes to the core of the matter. What is so important about the color of marker the patient uses that the doctors must bring the entire proceeding to a halt until this single individual is forced to conform to their arbitrary decision? Why not give him a purple marker? Why must the doctors establish such trivial dominance, like dogs squabbling for pack supremacy? For an autistic patient, this small measure of situational control is paramount to his comfort and his ability to continue to function in the environment; he needs to maintain some level of control and has chosen to express it in what is, ultimately, a very reasonable request. He is neither disruptive not demonstrative, merely resistant. This kind of irrational power struggle on the part of the normals is common, bordering on systemic, in the handling of non-neurotypicals. Why? Is there an unacknowledged psychosis common to doctors, a kind of deity-complex megalomania, or is it something more widespread?

"...they [girls] often fare better than boys at an early age because they tend to be less disruptive."

The question begs itself: do the autistic girls fare better or do the normals around them fare better because the autistic does not intrude on them? Yet, that question is never asked, never investigated. It is a problem that the autistic faces throughout society. Docility is confused with success. Culturally, we are conditioned to the thoughtless rigors of classroom passivity to prepare us for the drone mechanics of the industrial world. Indeed, a quick perusal of the writings of Horace Mann, founder of the modern educational system, makes it clear that the entire purpose of the system is not, in fact, to educate the student but to prepare the student to accept their place within the social strata and industrial mechanism without thought or question. The autistic, by their very nature challenges — must challenge — this basic presumption. By definition, they are not satisfied with social minutia or polite small talk. They are driven to focus on those matters that interest them. In generations past, these traits were used to define geniuses and future leaders, not mental disorders. It is reasonable to speculate that, perhaps, the climbing numbers of autistic diagnoses is due, not to an actual increase in mental abnormalities, but to a change to the cultural fabric. The societal bar has been lowered and, when the autistic refuses to lower themselves, they are marginalized.

"A psychology professor and director of the Autism Research Centre at Cambridge University, Baron-Cohen has characterized autism as a condition of the 'extreme male brain.' His research shows that in the general population men are more likely than women to score low on a test of empathy and high on a test of recognizing rules and patterns, or 'systemizing.' High systemizing together with low empathy correlates with social and communications deficits and, at the extreme end of the scale, with autism...Baron-Cohen says that he believes that autistic girls are strong systemizers. That quality may manifest itself in letters rather than numbers."

Baron-Cohen may be the leading autism researcher of our generation. In this, I find great hope for the future. Although it may not be politically correct to call autism "extreme male brain", I believe he is correct. It is frequently noted that autistic males have an obsession with numbers, music, and similar "arcane" knowledge. It has also been noted that Asbergian females are some of the leading readers and writers of fantasy and fan fiction.

I would add to this body of evidence my own experiences with other authors and readers, especially women. Accepting the terminology of masculine for traits such as patterning and feminine for traits like empathy, Baron-Cohen's observations are, in hindsight, almost intuitively obvious. I fear that his work will be obscured by rhetoric because of phantom perceptions of sexism; but I wonder how many women among my own fellow writers and readers recognized themselves in his definition. Given the historic predisposition of authors to mental illness (or vice versa), I believe this aspect of his research lends itself not only to a better understanding of autism but also a greater understanding of literature and especially the current state of fantasy literature and children's literacy. In this culture of specialization however, I fear this will never be explored, unless by a fellow non-neurotypical.

I would like to take a moment to address the contention that autistics have communication difficulties. This is a sweeping generalization based on definitions created by normals. Most autistics (depending on severity) do communicate. What they do not do is communicate trivially. A request for permission to an autistic that is not met with dissent is permission; they see no need for wasteful pleasantries. A statement that does not require a direct response will not receive one. That does not mean the autistic did not hear or care, they just have no need to respond. Of course, the "difficulties socializing" are co-morbid with this minimalistic communication.

Let me say that I have, of necessity, made sweeping generalizations regarding the condition of autism. I understand and acknowledge that each case is different, that the level of functional severity alters the situation significantly. Primarily, my focus has been on high-functioning autism or Asberger's Syndrome. I humbly admit that I am not an expert on this situation, merely a participant, and apologize in advance if I have offended anyone or seemed insensitive to any specific circumstance.

I believe I speak for many non-neurotypicals when I say that I do not want "cured". I am not a ham or a side of bacon. There is nothing wrong with me. There is only wrongness as it relates to our interaction with mainstream round-peg culture. Rather, I wish to be understood and accepted as I am. If this is not possible, which I suspect it is not, I wish the society of normals to permit the necessary accommodations for my people to live among you. We cannot go to your schools (I suspect that you should not go to them either) and we cannot conform to your nine-to-five cages. This does not make us less, only different.

All I require is a purple marker.

Originally posted:

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Calamity's Child

And here's the interview for Calamity's Child.

An Interview with the Author of Calamity's Child

Q: How'd it all get started?
A: Originally, there was no Calamity's Child; there was only a short story. In fact, before there was a short story, there were two authors at a convention...
I had known John Scalzi for a few years previously. Old Man's War had only recently come out and he was gearing up to edit a special edition of Subterranean. It was to be a theme edition and he chose sci-fi clichés. All the old, ugly, beaten-to-death ideas that filled every submission guideline under the heading of "Do not send us this", but done right. He asked if I'd send something in and, after a bit of noodling, I came up with Subject Real. Its cliché was one of my own pet peeves—the holodeck episode. (If a machine messed up half as often for no more benefit than various incarnations of VR in sci-fi, then we'd lynch the inventor and outlaw the premise. My challenge was to make the risks of the technology worthwhile; I vent a bit of my own opinion when Ivan insists that anyone trapped in VR deserves to stay there.)
In the end, the story didn't fit the issue. John tracked me down the next time we were in the same building and made sure I knew it was a matter of making the issue consistent in tone (he opted for more hard sci-fi than space opera); he was quite happy with the story. (John's a class act that way and he doesn't blow smoke. If he'd disliked it, he'd have told me that too. I'd expect no less and I respect him for it.) To digress a bit, it is ironic that,in the Foreword to the book, the editor compares Calamity's Child to Scalzi's work (as well as Mike Resnick's).
I shopped the story a bit but, as most RGR (Ray Gun Revival) readers know, space opera is not a sellers market (though, with the benefit of hindsight, I probably could have sold it to Jim Baen’s Universe). To shorten a long story a bit, a reader of mine pointed me at RGR and asked if I'd send something over. I sent Subject Real and overall, I think everyone was happy.
Several months passed and I didn't give the matter much thought, but I kept getting mail asking where the rest of the story was—the object real part. Roughly parallel to this, timewise, I pitched a serial to RGR (“FT7" for those who've read the slush). That story didn't go, but out of the ensuing give and take emerged Calamity's Child.

Q: After Speakers and Kings, why space opera?
A: Timing mostly. I had actually started work on two other books—one epic fantasy, the other military sci-fi, also on an epic scope—when RGR (and Double-Edged Publishing) picked up the pitch for Calamity's Child. In addition, after S&K, I felt that I needed to do more work on character development and character-driven stories.

Q: You're happy with the characters in Calamity's Child?
A: I am. One of my biggest worries was Kylee herself. I was really worried over whether I could present a teenage girl accurately—that split between little girl and grown woman at the same time. Plus, she has a good deal of other problems mixed in as well. I worried that, in presenting her baggage in addition to the 'normal' behaviors of that age, she might come across as forced. As it is, I've had a couple of early readers tell me that I hit it spot on.

Q: Why write space opera at all? It's not exactly a hot commodity with publishers these days.
A: More's the pity, assuming it's true and I'm not so certain it is. I am sure that the reading public has an appetite for it.
To understand space opera, you have to understand the history of the entire genre. First, space opera is part of a larger block of literature: the literature of the frontier. It includes space opera, westerns, H. Rider Haggard, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling, and a host of others. With the recent success of shows like Firefly, a lot of people have the misconception that space opera is westerns in space—Bat Durstans—but it's a lot more that that. It's the literature of man on the edge, away from 'civilization' and truly free. To paraphrase Kipling, it's where a man must be who he is and do what he must.
The one great defining theme of all these works is loyalty, with honor and duty vying for second. I believe that, while these themes may go out of vogue with publishers, they will always have a place with readers.
As for space opera specifically, it all began with the pulps. Most readers and almost every writer fondly remembers a childhood diet of Doc Savage, Tarzan, John Carter, the Lensmen, and Tom Swift or their equivalents. You have to ask yourself why. The pulps were the gateway to science fiction, the entry-level books. They were clean and simple. You could enjoy them without an extensive knowledge of the genre or literary theory and the science involved didn't stand in the way of seeing the story. Many were poorly written, but there was always an earnest energy to the writing and a feeling of mutual enjoyment between the author and the reader. The honest enthusiasm, straightforward presentation, and sheer fun of the books hooked more people on reading, and on reading science fiction specifically, than all the fancier, 'better' books around at the same time. More importantly, without these books—these much-maligned pulps—the 'better' books would never have been read at all, because it's the pulps that suck you in. Come for the gunfight, stay for the show.
Somewhere along the way, we lost a lot of that. Science fiction talked about itself and to itself more and more often. As it did so, the reader base dwindled. That's not an accident. You have to start reading somewhere; it's unrealistic to assume that the average reader is going to jump straight into the hard core dystopias of John Brunner or Gibson's cyberpunk. And heaven forefend that a reader's first exposure to science fiction is the Left Hand of Darkness, because then they're gone for good.
To come full circle, look at the excitement for Firefly, Star Wars, and Scalzi's Old Man's War. They're the pulps come back again with a new coat of chrome; the stories of war and the frontier, good versus evil, the stories of and for the Everyman.
Without space opera, we give up our childhood. To dismiss space opera and pulp as 'junk' is to disdain the very heart and love of the science fiction genre itself.
Q: The obvious question then is: what did you do with Calamity's Child to stay true to that history and still give a good story for modern readers?
A: Good storytelling is timeless; worrying about the 'modern reader' as opposed to any other reader is largely a waste of time better spent writing. For Calamity, I set certain guidelines for myself early on. The story should be clean enough for young adult readers but deep enough for the hard-core sci-fi fan. I wanted to keep the main themes of loyalty, duty, honor, sacrifice, and the frontier ethos intact without turning the characters, even the antagonists, into mere caricatures. Ivan, for example, is initially presented as a grizzled, cynical bounty hunter; a stereotype that the reader starts to see through by the second chapter. I also wanted the story to be approachable to anyone, not just science fiction readers. That meant I had to back off the fancy technical descriptions, keep the vocabulary simple, and really focus in on the story itself and the characters. In some ways, it's harder to write that way because all your bells and whistles are put away and you're back to the basics of the craft.
That's not to say the book is simple; it's not. There's depth, but it's the kind of depth that springs from the characters themselves, not the fancy technology or sweeping worlds. Good versus evil is primal and basic, but not simplistic.
I also tried to make certain that my aliens, the few that there are, were truly alien, not just humans in funny hats; and that my humans, like the Kwakiutl, were real and diverse as well. That meant a lot background work on biology and cultures that never made it into the novel. Especially in the case of Red Dog; if you've got a few hours to kill, ask me to explain the nidus and the vespiary.

Q: Last question. Overall, which is a better book, Speakers and Kings or Calamity's Child?
A: Apples to oranges. S&K is about big, sweeping gestures: language, communi-cation, the coming of age of an entire race and what it means to be unique. Calamity is about the smaller scope. It's more intimate, more driven by characters than plot. If I were to guess, I'd say with S&K either you love it and it really sticks with you or you don't get it at all. Calamity offers entertainment over a wide scope but might not strike as deep. S&K was serious and consciously thematic. Calamity is just a fun ride.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Speakers and Kings

I thought I'd round out the year by posting the two interviews the Thin Man has done for Kilimanjaro magazine about his novels, just in case you were new to the site and wanted to know a little more about them. First, the S&K interview.

An Interview With the Author of Speakers and Kings, M. Keaton
Q: To start with, what is Speakers and Kings about?
A: The short answer is: wartime epic fantasy in a medieval, quasi-Arabic context. The long answer is, well, longer. The “what if” premise is a race of spirit beings (called the Eerith) that are telepathic, which means they have no language, and are ex-slaves with no history; they joined the world ‘in progress’ and were immediately enslaved. With no history and no language, what kind of people are they? What do they do? That’s where it all starts. How important is the past to the present? How important is history and a physical body to language and how important is language to individuality?

Q: So, pretty heavy philosophy?
A: No, yes, a little. Those are the underlying themes that drive the actions and the story is about the actions. The book really covers the decade or so of jyhad with these spirits being caught in the middle of the war. There’s plenty of action. Let me try it again: the book is the story of a war and the focus is the people caught in the middle of this war. The deeper themes come into play with the actions of the Eerith on both sides. The story is on two levels. There are some parts that can get deep if the reader wants to really dwell on them but if the reader doesn’t want to, they don’t have to, the action moves things along on its own.

Q: You dedicated the book to the men and women of the armed forces. Why?
A: First off, the fact that they are out there defending my country is always sufficient reason to dedicate something to them. In this case, there was a little more to it.
A lot of my ‘beta-readers’, the folks I run my rough drafts past, are in the military and they were a lot of help to begin with since this book is about a war. But, while I wrote it, there was the attack on the USS Cole and the embassy bombings and then 9-11. I was about halfway through the final version when the US was attacked and I just froze. It just didn’t seem right to be writing about a made up war when we were in the middle of the real one.
Now the humbling thing occurs. These guys out there, going off to fight and die, start e-mailing me to see if I’m all right. That’s the kind of men and women we have in this country’s military, that kind of selflessness. They tell me, to paraphrase, “Write the book. We need it. Distract us and tell us a story of honor and nobility, good versus evil.” The book became a lot deeper, a lot more personal, and a lot more important then because it really became for them. I went to press right before we rolled into Iraq.
As a nation, really as a culture, we’ve lost the good wholesome stories. Everything is about ‘sensitive cultural issues’ and angst and navel gazing and shades of gray. Nobody’s telling the good tales of men being men and fighting the good fight. I’ve always said that my writing was to balance that kind of thing, that I’d tell the good pulp adventure and let other people worry about writing the great novels. I really hope that with SK I’ve done that, for them.

Q: Did you do anything different in this book than you would have otherwise because of that?
A: Yes, but no one seems to have noticed it. I broke a lot of the so-called rules of writing to cater to the real-world needs of my readers. I’ve jokingly called myself the modern master of the serial because of the way I structured the book. Every chapter is like an episode in the old movie reel serials. Each chapter begins and ends and the reader can put the book down at the end of each chapter. Like the old serials, there are cliff-hangers and the like but I break the rule that says never give the reader a good stopping point. Also I tried to keep each chapter under fourteen thousand words so that it could be read in about an hour and I don’t slow down or repeat myself or explain everything to death. The reason is, these guy have a few hours a day of free time and then hours of duty at station, much of which is watching and waiting. I tried to give them a book that they could read one chapter at a time, in the time window that they had, with enough meat on the bones that they could think and talk about it while they were on duty if it was a boring day—and I pray that every day on duty is a boring day.
The one thing that I couldn’t change that I wish I could is the price. I truly wish that the economics were such that I could give the book to our soldiers for free. That’s part of why I’m such a proponent of the ASEs. We pay fat toad Senators a small fortune to pass laws stealing our freedoms while we give the poor guys risking their lives to protect our freedoms a shiny nickel and a pat on the head. Free books are the least we should do.

Q: What about non-military people, is the book accessible to them?
A: Oh yes. It’s a solid book no matter where you come at it from. In fact, I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from teenagers and women who really like it. That surprised me because I figured that I was writing a very masculine book but I also have strong women as main characters too. I think the, well, moral clarity of the characters and the fact that they struggle with themselves without selling out, angst without lapsing into self-pity; I think that’s really refreshing to a lot of people, especially young readers.

Q: A required interview question, why buy your book?
A: I need to buy groceries. Seriously though, it’s a good book, maybe a great one. That’s not me talking, I can’t judge my own work. That’s what the readers are telling me. They don’t just like it; they’re blown away. I have a weird kind of second-hand confidence. Enough people have told me it’s good that I have to admit that it is.

Q: Last question. What is Dog?
A: (laughs) Nope. No way. I’m not telling.