I’ve read about half of Ada Hoffmann’s The Outside, a weird-SF novel that my friend Marc backhandedly recommended after I complained of feeling mortally terrified by some Donald Judd sculptures. While I may have had my fill of this story for now, I have enjoyed my time with it so far.

It posits a far-distant future where humans have colonized the galaxy, but at the cost of overt subjugation by their own AIs. For all that, though, we still enjoy a pretty good deal: the main character is an ingenious young engineer whose autism plays a central role in her career, within a society that puts its neurodivergent citizens to work in fields that play to their strengths while supporting their special needs. Not bad, for a trade-off of having a city or space station reduced to its constituent atoms now and again when a scientist accidentally makes a “heretical” discovery in the eyes of their AI overlords.

This character is written so thoroughly that I very quickly caught a strong Philip K. Dick current from the novel, along an axis that PKD pastiches rarely explore. Dick liked to center his own work around protagonists with mental illnesses, especially schizophrenia, and built entire science-fictional worlds around the topic. The Outside clearly wishes to explore similar possibilities through SF, with an authorial voice displaying at least as much empathy for mental disability as Dick ever had.

Following a hunch before I wrote this post, I confirmed with The Outside’s about-the-author page that Hoffmann identifies as a person with autism. I don’t know how much Dick carried similar identifications, but he wrote about schizophrenia in his novels with not just interest but a startling level of empathic understanding, often to the point of letting this understanding (as much as possible in the 1960s) drive his stories’ plots and settings. My brother Ricky, who has lived with schizophrenia for most of his life, recognizes a certain genuineness in Dick’s novels, and treasures them for it. I see and appreciate a rare and similar genuineness in Hoffmann’s work.

But much as I liked these central, autistic characters in Hoffmann’s novel, the other people it presents all hit rather dully. The secondary protagonist, introduced as an intimidating super-genius cyborg, has POV scenes reducing him to mainly capricious decisions and unforced errors. He’s primarily motivated by fear of his boss, a wincingly cartoonish villain given to make You will not fail me a second time! speeches to trembling lackeys. I found it quite hard to feel any connection with the cyborg’s struggles, and actively dreaded the next scene involving his superior—and not for the right reasons.

Between the friction I continuously felt against the writing style and the impending deadline to finish it—this being a library-loaned ebook, and quite a lengthy one—I think I need to call it good at around the halfway mark.

Still, as a Providence expat I always like to see fresh attempts to remix ol’ Lovecraft, our own homegrown problematic fave, by discarding his uglier hangups and decanting his core themes into stories with modern social awareness by a diverse authorship. This particular story mixes good old mind-blasting cosmic horrors with the unusual mental perspective of its protagonist, and that’s such a fantastic concept that I feel utterly doomed to keep turning the pages of this one until the unknowable and uncaring force powering the library loan on my Amazon Kindle rips it screaming out of my hands about 18 hours. So, that feels only appropriate.

This article was also posted to the “books” section of Indieweb.xyz.

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