I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!
One of the goals of this challenge is to introduce my followers to more books written by women and femme people. I’ve also been trying to showcase literature written by women of multiple identities: women of color, queer women, neurodivergent women, etc. Ada Hoffmann is the first author for the challenge who fits this last category (as far as I’m aware): her author bio says that she is autistic, as well as queer and genderfluid, and her debut novel The Outside is an #ownvoices autistic and queer story.
#Ownvoices literature, or stories about people of a certain identity or multiple identities, written by authors who share those identities, has gained prominence as a hashtag on Twitter and other platforms. The #ownvoices movement calls for better representation of non-white, non-cis, non-hetero, and yes, non-neurotypical identities, written by authors whose stories are informed by their lived experiences as people with these identities.
I’ve been looking forward to reading The Outside for a long time. As an autistic femme myself, I’m frequently looking for good autistic and neurodivergent representation in media, but I rarely find it. Often we are simply not represented at all, or when we are, it’s as magical savants or socially inept proto-adults. The Outside succeeds beautifully both as a piece of good #ownvoices autistic representation and as a gripping, imaginative space opera.
Dr. Yasira Shien, the protagonist of the The Outside, is an autistic queer woman whose research on the cutting edge of physics, alongside her also neurodivergent mentor, Dr. Evianna Talirr, promises to unlock an infinitely renewable source of power for a human-built space station. But when disaster strikes at the Talirr-Shien reactor’s activation, tearing a hole in reality into the unreal spaces of the Outside, Yasira is tasked by the machine Gods that rule human civilization to find her missing mentor before more people die.
Hoffmann has created a rich, unique space opera universe in which human-built AI attained sentience and then Godhood centuries in the nvoel’s past. In exchange for providing humans with protection, advanced technologies such as warp drives and stargates, and figures of worship, the Gods absorb the souls–the personalities and memories–of mortals after death to sustain their own cognitive processes. The system has worked for hundreds of years, but it’s more of a stable dystopia than a utopia: for people like Yasira who aren’t particularly devout, it can uncomfortable; for heretics, those who question the basis of reality, it can be deadly.
The Outside is a reality parallel to our own, one whose physical rules don’t follow those of our world. Contacting Outside creatures can destabilize our reality. While the Outside is inspired by the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, which populated space and other dimensions with incomprehensible monsters, Hoffmann puts her own spin on it throughout the book, suggesting that communication even with things as different as Outside beings is possible if we learn to listen.
Yasira Shien is a wonderful protagonist: a smart lateral thinker (yet not a savant), empathetic, with a strong sense of justice. Realistically, her autism sometimes helps and sometimes hinders her, and it’s inextricable from who she is without ever being all she is. It also gives her valuable perspective into her mentor, Dr. Talirr. Their relationship in particular is very richly drawn: by the end, both the reader and Yasira understand that Dr. Talirr was damaged by being forced into a box that wasn’t made for her, yet we can sympathize without ever wanting her to succeed.
In case it isn’t obvious by now, I wholeheartedly recommend this book to both neurodivergent and neurotypical readers. Seriously, stop reading this blog post and go pick up The Outside. And when you’re finished, check out Ada Hoffmann’s blog, where she keeps a frequently updated roundup of the best (and worst) representations of autistic people in books and other media.