30 May 2008

Novel Characters with Disabilities: Postsingular, by Rudy Rucker

I love reading novels, particularly fantasy and science fiction. Too often, a character with a disability is either a. tragic, b. inspirational, or c. the narrative is focused on the person's disability to the exclusion of any personality traits, hobbies, feelings, or interests. There are numerous exceptions to this, but they are still quite rare. The interesting, well-developed character who has a disability is practically on the endangered species list.

I recently read a book that made me want to shout its name from the rooftops! There are eight or so main characters, and one of them has autism. He was a fully realized character, he was a hero, and he was definitely autistic. The book is Postsingular, by Rudy Rucker (Tor Books, 2007). It can be found in any bookstore or downloaded for free from Rudy's website.

The novel starts out with Chu as a little boy. Chu has autism. He can only repeat words that he hears, but he cannot use them purposefully. He throws tantrums daily and he loves tv and videogames. The work of caring for him puts a strain on his parents' marriage. His father says to his mother, of Chu's future,

“Don’t give up,” said Ond, reaching out to smooth the furrow between Nektar’s eyebrows. “He might get better on his own. Vitamins, special education—and later I bet I can teach him to write code.”

“I’m going to pray,” said Nektar. “And not let him watch so much video.”

As Chu grows up in the book, he learns to express himself verbally, his intelligence shines through, and he makes some friends. All these details are very typical of kids with autism. When nanobots are destroying the earth, Chu's father asks him to memorize a very long string of code, a sort of computer virus, that can reverse the damage that's been done. Chu takes his task very seriously. He is able to save the world (I'm not giving away the ending--the world-saving takes place in the first few chapters!) thanks to his memory and persistence.

He laid his sheaf of papers down beside Chu, thirty pages covered with line after line of hexadecimal code blocks: 02A1B59F, 9812D007, 70FFDEF6, like that.

“Read the code,” he told Chu. “See if you can memorize it. These pages are yours now.”

“Code,” said Chu, his eyes fastening on the symbols...

Chu was oddly unconcerned with the apocalypse. He was busy, busy, busy studying Ond’s pages of code. He’d become obsessed with the challenge of learning every single block of symbols...

“02A1B59F, 9812D007, 70FFDEF6,” said Chu when Nektar went to tuck him in that night. He had Ond’s sheaf of pages with a flashlight under his blanket.

“Give me that,” said Nektar, trying to take the pages away from him.

“Daddy!” screamed Chu, a word he’d never used before. “Stop her! I’m not done!”

So Chu is a genius that saves the world. He's also just a teenager: awkward, struggling with his emotions, falling in love, occasionally being a jerk, sometimes brave, always protective of his friends and family. This scene shows a teenaged Chu, on a mission with his father and another character in a parallel universe:

“Thuy misses her boyfriend,” said Chu in a bratty tone.

“I’m worried about him, okay?” said Thuy...what if he was dead? What if that...was to be Thuy and Jayjay’s last time together? “I’m capable of worrying about other people, Chu. You could learn from me.”

“It’s not my fault I’m autistic,” said Chu, making his voice very small.

“Don’t pick on him,” said Ond. “It’s not easy being Chu.”

“Sorry,” said Thuy. “I’m all keyed up.”

This is why I enjoyed his character so much. Chu is just a regular kid, who is autistic. It's that simple. The only other books I am aware of with interesting autistic characters are "The Speed of Dark" and "The Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night-Time."

As for the book overall, I LOVED it! I would highly recommend it to anyone. Rudy Rucker writes science fiction with really "out there" wild ideas. He will have your brain spinning by the end of chapter one. The ideas are complicated and yet very easy to read and understand. There is also nonstop action. Mr. Rucker has a great sense of humor and strong sense of empathy for all his characters. Start reading it right now! You will be hooked right away.

ETA: My post mentioned in Rudy's blog. And again in Rudy's blog.

Image: The book cover: it reads 'Rudy Rucker, Postsingular'. The cover is green and shows a purple cuttlefish (like an octopus) falling into a sort of mathematical black hole.


Donovan S. Brain said...

My son was autistic when he was young, but seems to have bootstrapped up to Asperger's. The better he was at memory tricks, the worse he was at being a person. As he grew up and got more personality, he seemed to disdain using those talents(only occasionally speeding through math homework). He knows a lot about trivia and pop culture, but it isn't just rote-memory but ranked and connected information. I thought Rudy's characterization was well done; he walked a nice balance between Chu being a person and being a memory machine.

Donovan S. Brain said...

Ever read "Sucker Bait" by Asimov? Mark Annuncio is an obvious Asperger kid.

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