My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I received an ARC of this Angry Robot book via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest and unbiased review. My opinions are my own 🙂
Autistic writers are severely underrepresented in SFF, despite the fact that we make up a huge proportion of the fanbase. One could make a case for autistic people being absolutely foundational in SFF–we are often the super-fans, in this genre. And yet, as far as I am aware, no autistic SFF writers are published by the Big 5. (I would absolutely love to be corrected on this–let me know if I’ve overlooked somebody.)
We seem to find better representation with independent presses, and Angry Robot in particular have a pretty good track record for publishing neurodiverse writers. I’m always keen to see more ownvoices autistic novels out there, though, and when I heard that Angry Robot were putting out a Lovecraft-influenced space opera featuring an #ownvoices autistic protagonist, I jumped straight on it.
Please note, this review contains minor spoilers, especially towards the end of the review.
“The Outside” follows Dr. Yasira Shein, an autistic scientist existing in a far-future space faring society. The setting is a good one, bordering on science-fantasy: humanity created powerful AI, who “ascended” to godhood and decided to take over. Y’know, for humanity’s own good, and all that. With a rather Machiavellian flair, they legitimised their control by building a religion around it, one which draws heavily on Judeo-Christian terms (eg, angels) aspects but isn’t shy of borrowing from a myriad of other influence.
It’s an odd juxtaposition, especially considering the hard scifi feel to much of the narrative, but works well for both obscuring certain technological explanations, and gives a believable framework for why the general population put up with such a disadvantageous situation.
Feeding into the concept of angels, religion, and technological prayers is the darker concept of heresy (a word that invariably gives me 40k flashbacks, but that’s no bad thing.) Much of the book centres on the efforts of various characters to contain the spread of heresy, in this case referring to psychological and metaphysical influences from a force that exists “outside” of known time and space (where the novel draws its title from.)
To shortcut for the sake of review, the concept of Outside is very similar to Lovecraftian lore: an existence or understanding beyond human ken, that defies the laws of physics and nature. It’s tied into the idea that reality is mostly illusion and perspective, and interacting with this force has a tendency to drive people insane. Even when it doesn’t, the AI gods are not keen on its subversive nature, and do their best to stomp out anything remotely heretical. Suffice to say, the setting was a huge plus for me. I have a quiet fondness for religion of any kind in a scifi setting, and a lasting fondness for all things Lovecraft inspired.
Back to Yasira, before you forget about her! I don’t want to go in-depth with plot spoilers, as that’s not the sort of review I tend to write. The main thrust of the conflict is that Yasira unintentionally kicks off a heretical “incident” and rather than put to death, they put her to use: she therefore becomes caught up in the gods’ efforts to stomp out certain Outside influences, which they’ve been struggling to contain. The person at the heart of this heretical contamination is none other than Yasira’s former academic mentor, Dr. Talirr.
Naturally, the gods are far from completely honest, and it quickly becomes apparent that they are more concerned with maintaining control, even at the expense of human life. The more Yasira is drawn into their schemes, the more disillusioned she becomes. On the other side, Dr. Talirr is attempting to wield the forces of the Outside to fight the gods, who are responsible for abuse she suffered as a child, and who quietly oppress the population they rule. She spends much of her time trying to recruit or influence Yasira from afar, though she has ways and means to be “present” in the novel (I’ll refrain from saying too much here.)
There’s an underlying nod here to the abuse experienced by autistic children who are forced to undergo ABA, which is a type of “therapy” designed to train autistic traits away in the name of making us seem more neurotypical. (If you’re not familiar with this history, a quick google search on ABA and PTSD will bring you up to speed.)
Against that backdrop, you might expect Dr. Talirr to be the obvious good guy character, a sort of Han Solo esque figure who shows Yasira the “truth” about the proverbial evil empire. But in fact, Talirr is a secondary antagonist–and I think this is one of the strengths of the novel. Her history and experiences have warped her worldview, shaping her into a person who is as dangerous and twisted as the angels she is fighting, and as indifferent to the lives of other humans. Although she does have truths to reveal and lessons to teach, her cause isn’t just, and her goals are unpleasant.
Because both Yasira and Talirr are on the spectrum, the novel offers an interesting and nuanced examination of a particular spectrum trait–the tendency to see issues in black and white. Talirr’s tendency has been exacerbated because of her experiences, and people are either on her side or against her; right, or wrong; useful, or expendable. Challenging the gods is valid, as is Talirr’s pain, but her methods and motivations are fundamentally selfish, and she lacks–or rather, has lost–the ability to consider the situation in shades of grey.
I don’t really want to make this about me, but I do feel compelled to mention that learning to see situations in shades of grey has been one of the biggest challenges of my adult life re autism. It’s a point of view that affects every discussion, argument, conversation, relationship, political stance, life goals, on and on. I found Hoffman’s exploration thoughtful and interesting.
Yasira therefore ends up in a situation where she is offered two extremes to a very serious problem, and neither are the correct option. There are no good choices. This is on top of the other issues she faces in the novel–loss of friends, livelihood, girlfriend, and the enormous stress the situation puts her in, all of that exacerbated for someone who is autistic.
SOME SPOILERS AHEAD.
In brief summary: The Outside’s influence is spreading across a certain planet. Not everyone dies, and sometimes the effects are bordering on beneficial, but Yasira believes very strongly that it isn’t fair to inflict such changes on people without their consent, and her argument for that is persuasive. Besides, the loss of life and madness experienced by others is inarguably problematic.
The gods/angels want to squash the problem in any way possible, even if that means killing thousands of people. Talirr wants to bring the gods down, even if it means ruining the lives of thousands of people.
Yasira’s solution is to reject both of the extremes offered, and cobble together her own half-way point. I don’t want to give explicit spoilers (leave SOMEthing for those who have read this far!) but the underlying premise of her solution is communication and connection. Allowing empathy to shape the Outside, and using communication to break gods’ stranglehold. When people connect, talk, and share, they are stronger for it in a myriad different ways; not only as individuals, but politically and socially. This is a reoccurring theme in the novel (especially with the ‘gone’ people, who I won’t get into here–talking with people who communicate in different ways from us.)
There is something fundamentally brilliant about an ownvoices autistic character choosing connection and communication as her solution, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Much of autistic life is spent trying to connect and communicate with other people, and perhaps more than many allistics, we are acutely aware of the painful need to make ourselves heard and understood. And what an empowering experience it can be to finally wield your voice. Connection is powerful–literally for Yasira, but all people everywhere, too.
I did enjoy the book very much but–and here is where we get into subjectivity–my science education and understanding is pretty poor, so there was some stuff which went way over my head, especially early on. Talirr was the most interesting character to me, and I would have liked to see more of her and less of Akavi, but that’s again a subjective preference. Still, the novel is overall a very strong read, especially in a sub-genre I don’t often feel gripped by (space opera) and I would very much recommend it to SF fans, and especially for any autistic SFF fans who might enjoy a bit of well-deserved (and well written) representation.