Welcome back to Short Fiction Fridays. This time I have chosen to go full-on Sci-Fi, with one of the most curious stories I have read recently, and one that left my head cracked open with so much thinking!
One of the traditions of Science Fiction nearly since its beginnings, has consisted on imagining what lies beyond this blue orb we inhabit: Earth. Imagining who and what lies beyond, if there is life and how that life gets on.
Another tradition of Sci-Fi is that it participates in the range of genres that can be speculative fiction, in which stories are set in a world other than out own. This allows for a certain intellectual distance between both reader and work, and audience and work. Being a few steps away, authors can explore difficult, complex or sensitive subject matters without the metaphor hitting too close to home.
In Spectrum of Acceptance, published in Escape Pod’s 689th episode, the author Nyla Bright does just this with a subject close to her heart. Usually when thinking about speculative fiction, I tend to imagine stories about different political situations or scientific achievements, and while Spectrum includes both, its focus is the lives of non-neurotypical people.
Somewhere in space, there is a planet called Acceptance, to where thousands of Earth immigrants arrive every few years to seek a new life for themselves. It is a world in which every house has its rules, every person their needs and all must be respected and met.
My counselor assures me people don’t care what you can’t do. People only care about your abilities.
Our protagonist is a teenage girl named Ada, an NT (neurotypical) who lives in this planet. She is still learning how to navigate her world, checking herself constantly: don’t point, don’t make unsolicited eye-contact, don’t imagine what everyone else is thinking.
The rule is you didn’t ask people questions. It annoys them and interrupts their thoughts. If they want you to know something they will tell you.
There are aspects of life on Earth that she is curious about, as she feels different than everyone else around her.
This is stirred when Leon, a man seeking to create an Embassy for Earth on Acceptance, comes into her life. He is an NT, with everything that entails; he touches her shoulder, looks to where she’s pointing, he makes eye contact with her. Ada feels understood by him.
It was like he could read my mind. Another touch. I wondered if he did hugs.
Leon is used to the world being adapted to fit his wants, and finds all the rules baffling, restricting. So, he doesn’t follow them. He expects things to be don the way that make sense to him, because they are, he says the “normal” ways to do things. That is where he and Ada have their first disagreements.
In Nyla Bright’s house, no one is neurotypical. She herself is dyslexic. Her bio on Escape Pod describes how “family members have been known to sleep on an inch of books with a katana by their side. Average is boring”. I imagine her conception of Acceptance came from her own experience and her family’s and imagining a world where being like them is what is “normal”.
We do use that word very liberally, us neurotypicals. It is easy to throw it around regarding things in which you fall into the norm, into the average. There is a comfort in that and we rarely stop to think about how that makes those “not normal” feel. I think we can agree it is an incredibly arbitrary world.
Finally he shook his head. “I don’t understand. His résumé looks normal. Having someone in charge who won’t — can’t talk to me isn’t normal. This is not normal.”
As a neurotypical myself, I admit it is hard to imagine a world like the one Ada lives in. While the author has a clear stance on Acceptance by the end, I think they may be differing opinions of readers as to whether the story does right by Ada in the end.
In the world where she lives, she must learn to suppress her wants and some of her needs like physical contact. She must adapt the way she thinks for everyone to be able to understand her. I am a little ashamed to admit I found this troubling. I had the intrusive thought of “well that’s not fair on her, is it?”. But then I had reality crashing down on me. She had to adapt the very way she understands and interacts with the world in order to adapt to everyone else. Sound familiar? Like, the exact same thing non-neurotypical people must to in order to adapt to the world we currently live in. Is that fair on them?
My heart jumped into my throat. No, that isn’t right. It didn’t actually jump up into my throat. That is metaphorical thinking.
And isn’t that just so interesting? This is one of those stories that made me lean back into my chair slowly and stare blankly at the wall for a good amount of time. Bright poses questions in her narrative that she answers for herself, but that she leaves open for the reader to answer for themselves. Should we live separate lives? Who should adapt to whom? What constitutes true acceptance?
The story is a fantastic use of the speculative fiction sub genre. I have people on the spectrum who are in my life and live with varying degrees of adaptation and/or isolation. Despite my best efforts, I know I will never be able to truly understand what they go through every day when they go out into the world. I believe Spectrum of Acceptance is one of the best exercises on empathy I’ve had. It made me imagine myself in a world molded to them, not me. I definitely recommend you run to read this story. It’s worth it.
A few days ago I read another story on Escape Pod, Lab B-15 (part 1) by Nick Wolven. It is a hard sci-fi concerning a mysterious lab, a time loop and a disgruntled scientist. It’s a story that gripped me with its mystery. By the time this is published, part two should be up and running.