“Movement” by Nancy Fulda

May 24, 2012 at 2:39 am | Posted in Short Stories | 1 Comment
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This is the third of five short stories nomianted for this year’s Hugo award. Originally published in Asimov’s, for now at least it is freely available on the author’s web site.

The people around you say you have a mental disability and want to “fix” you, but you don’t agree. That’s a bad situation, and it serves as the premise of “Movement”. Hannah is a girl growing up in the not-entirely-near future whose parents want to cure her of her sort-of-autistism. I say “sort-of” because the author has apparently invented an imaginary variant of autism for the story, something I feel weakens a story of this kind. No matter how successful the story is in making us reconsider our preconceptions about the character’s condition, it will have only convinced us about “temporal autism”, not autism as it actually exists. It’s not easy to talk about a story like this, since I personally don’t have any personal experience with autism and there are a lot of people online who do, including many who have reviewed this story already. Then again, I’ve seen examples of such people reacting to the story both very positively and very negatively. And as someone who rarely thinks about autism under normal circumstances, I suppose I’m really the intended audience for the story more than they are. Unfortunately I lean toward the negative camp.

My guess is that those in favor would say that stories that force us to confront issues like this, and especially those that enable us to empathize with those who think differently, are very valuable. I agree to a point, but any discussion of an autism cure makes me think of those families I have known dealing with schizophrenia. What do you do if a schizophrenic refuses to take anti-psychotic medication and cannot function as a result? The obvious objection here is that autism is extremely different from schizophrenia, and that’s true, but saying that is acknowledging that the specifics matter, and that when you change the specifics (say, from autism to “temporal autism”) then you might well change the answer.

Since I approach these questions this way, “Movement” left me cold, because the argument it makes is fundamentally an emotionally one. Viewed analytically, it actually advances two separate arguments. One of them is summed up metaphorically by the protagonist:

“No new shoes,” I say. “I couldn’t dance the same in new shoes.”

What this seems to be saying is that who-I-am-now is me, and that if you change who I am, I am no longer me, I am someone else. This is problematic. It seems equally effective as an argument against treating disorders like schizophrenia or even intoxication. Worse, it’s grounded in assumptions that are not true either biologically or philosophically. We are always changing, a fact repeatedly brought up in “Movement” but never taken to the obvious conclusion: there’s no point trying to defend the status quo because the status quo is an illusion. Everything is changing, so we must weigh which changes are desirable and which are not, presumably by their anticipated outcomes.

The story’s other argument is along these lines. Early on, a neurological specialist has this to say about the prospects of a patient with “temporal autism”:

Without treatment, some children like Hannah develop into extraordinary individuals. They become famous, change the world, learn to integrate their abilities into the structures of society. But only a very few are that lucky. The others never learn to make friends, hold a job, or live outside of institutions.

At the end of the story, Hannah’s monologue takes this as her final justification for refusing treatment:

I do not want to live small. I do not want to be like everyone else, ignorant of the great rush of time, trapped in frantic racing sentences. I want something else, something that I cannot find a word for.

If we take this argument further than the story’s brief summation, it seems to be saying that Hannah’s way of seeing the world is capable of generating unique insights, insights she would be denied if she was like everyone else. There’s an implicit utilitarian justification that while the chances are low, the payoff is great, making it worth the attempt. Temporal autism is like a lottery ticket, apparently, and if you win, you become a world-historical figure. If you lose, though, you’re not just out a few bucks, you live in an institution for the rest of your life. One is tempted to quibble with the specialist’s assertion, for surely we all have some small chance of becoming famous and changing the world? But even if we take it for granted, it’s a brutal argument. For those with the philosophical fortitude to relentlessly follow a utility function wherever it leads, it might make sense to seize on this small chance, but few live their lives that way. Most of us would rather avoid suffering the likely huge loss even if that means we miss out on that tiny chance of an even larger win.

There are probably excellent arguments against cures for autism, especially given the track record of “cures” in the history of mental health treatment, but I suspect most of them involve patient’s rights, not low probability outcomes (deontological instead of consequentialist reasoning, if you want to be technical). As for “Movement”, despite the fact I was unconvinced, it’s both well-written and thought-provoking, which is at least enough to elevate it over the Resnick and Scalzi stories it shares the ballot with (separated from them by “No Award”). Although I’ve read all the stories already, however, I’m still undecided as to how to rank this story and the remaining two I have yet to review.


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