First off —spoilers y’all. Read further knowing I will reveal pieces of a story, not the story complete itself. I highly encourage you to go read the book, but for now, my review. Second, these are my opinions and should in no way reflect how the writer intends this book to be read. Okay. Good? Good. Here we go.
Before we get started, it’s important to my review that I point out that I am Autistic, and the group I am referring to is the Autistic community. I do not speak for every autistic in the world, and I want to repeat that these are my opinions, not any one else’s.
What sucked me into this book originally was the descriptions of sound. They’re so perfectly visual that my brain immediately grasped what was happening, and painted a beautiful picture. What kept me reading was a dynamic story with representation I saw myself in, representation I think many of us would see ourselves in.
This world includes Operators or “nauta” as they prefer to be called. They are born with a mutation referred to as a K mutation I believe, that makes them reliant on support for basic needs, and also gives them abilities beyond what the average human is capable of—using a piece of tech called a navis, which literally plugs into their brain. This entire group is considered less than, controlled, dependent, and a bunch of other stuff I think Autistics would be familiar with. And the story revolves around these folks finding their voice and their place in this world—through magical sci-fi lovely weirdness, but still, they find it!
The story revolves around five main characters, but I will mostly be talking about three of them: Caran, Jordis, and Noa. Each of these individuals is nauta, but they are all completely different from each other, tied together by the way society sees them and a piece of technology. Oh, and also electricity bending aliens, that I super can’t do justice describing, and are an integral part of the story. (But I’ll talk about that in a bit. )
The differences—beyond the nauta stuff—are how I saw the representation being reflected. I’m not sure if the writer intended this, but I want to share a couple of things that I noticed personally. Jordis has these tightly controlled expressions and routines that remind me of the masks I have built to pass as normal as possible at work, with family, with friends, with my husband. We do this for survival; she used her control to move through her world as well. I will say, I’m super jealous of a piece of technology that makes it so Jordis can literally write code that handles executive functioning as a repeatable Function, capitol F intended. Heck, that would be convenient.
Noa has this brokenness about her—a broken navis, emotional trauma, physical trauma—yet the story around her reflects beauty, solidness, being functional. I think this is a story many of us would think sounds familiar. Who hasn’t been called broken in our community? Who hasn’t been bullied for the way we process information? Who hasn’t been treated unfairly due to a stereotype controlled by society? That Noa can be beautiful and broken in a way that I can instantly recognize literally made me cry, so thanks, Dora, for that!
Caran feels like the main character—if I had to pick one—and his relationship with sound is threaded through the book in both subtle and obvious ways. I kept going back to re-read passages, to make sure I had the sounds being described firmly in my head, to accompany a visual. It was hard to sit still reading, because of the thumps and taps and what not. The descriptions of what I would call stimming are integral to the character, how he makes music, how he lives, how he survives. It’s incredible. Caran is fiercely sensitive to sound, and his descriptions of the good and the bad, the background noises versus intentional noise, the mapping of all of that. I can see myself in pieces of that story as well. Not his musical ability, which is truly astounding—more the flinching when an alarm goes off bits.
The sensory commentary running throughout the book is fascinating in its accuracy to experiences I have either had myself, or others have described yet we often struggle to express. And there are so many of them, I feel like this could not have come from one person’s story, but from a ton of research and actual experience in the community. It could be a subtle way to reflect that to someone without sensory sensitivities, but it was obvious to me!
The handling of consent from multiple different angles was something I was sensitive to, perhaps because of the world we live in today. There is the lack of consent between the Operators and their care takers, with the implication that they should be grateful for being fed and housed etc. There is the complicated consent between a human and an “elan vital” with every single one of their interactions. There are friendships, partnerships, sexual relations, professional relationships, and I saw consent as a subtle background detail that only came into the foreground aggressively right at the end. I think it is handled realistically, and I think it is challenging in its perceptions—and I think that is important to a conversation about consent. The idea of consent is both simplistic and infinitely complicated. This book handles that well.
Now, I want to get down into the scrumptious details like what the navis does and how connecting with the elan vitals works, but this is a review, so if you want that (and you do) go read the book! There is history, there is science, there is art, there is fashion, there are adorable animals and interesting people and complex societies and real stakes!
And beyond all that, it’s a good story. I care about what happens with these characters. I recognize an anti-hero when I see one, and I still care about them all. I wanted to see how this would resolve. The way it’s told, from the perspective of a Researcher interviewing them for their stories, is unique in a way I think works primarily because of the use of the elan vitals. The alien’s being able to connect folks directly into each other’s memories and thoughts sure does cut through a whole lot of things, doesn’t it? The book hinted or outright stated what the conclusion would be, but this way of telling the story made the details matter, made you want to see them more.
This book is an amazingly complex cyber punk/sci-fi version of an autistic world. And this doesn’t seem to be about advocacy or representation of that community being the primary goal—it’s about the characters, the story, the world this writer has built. All of it has depth, and mysterious windings, and satisfactory conclusions.
If I see myself represented in these characters, then yay, I see representation. But mostly I see real characters, with real stories that matter. As I am a real person, with a real story that matters. And isn’t that sort of a form of resonance, in a way? Maybe? A little bit? (Do you know how hard it was not to use the word resonance a thousand times in this review!!!)
Alright, if you want a great sci-fi book with interesting tech, lives at stake, a dash of a revolution, and a little bit of romance, this is the book for you. Go. Read it. And enjoy.