Autistic Reader Interview: E.A. Alderdice
"SFF is comforting escapism but it’s also a safe place in which to explore stressful and scary issues. I go to SFF to look at alternative ways of being, thinking, and doing."
E.A. Alderdice is a nonbinary Scottish author of science fiction who has written content for Inspiring Scotland's ‘Different Mind’s' Autism Website, and is represented by John Baker of Bell Lomax Moreton literary agency. They are a member of the British Science Fiction Association. They were late-diagnosed as autistic when they were twenty-one and in their spare time they make collage and poetry zines about gender and autism, and dabble in wood carving and pyrography.
Tell me a little bit about yourself. Is there anything you've written or made recently that you'd like other readers to know about? Other than what's in your bio, is there anything about your connection to autism, books, and reading that you'd like to share?
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I’m currently working on a new novel manuscript so I’m currently going through the frustrating swing between thinking it’s dreadful and I can’t write to save my life, and thinking it’s going to be the next big hit, so that’s fun! Other than that I’m working on building up my pyrography stock again (I used to do craft fairs etc) as I find breaking up writing sessions by doing craft-based stuff helps my brain avoid melting out my ears, and that’s going well. As for something I’ve made recently- I made a small bookshelf a couple of months ago having never really done much carpentry before and to my amazement it’s still in one piece! It sits opposite my bed so I can feel vaguely smug each time I look at it.
What are some of your favorite works of fiction? What makes them your favorites?
I’ll mention some of my other favourites later on so I’ll only list a few of them here to avoid repetition-
My current favourite short-story collections are probably The Paper Menagerie by Ken Liu and Bloodchild by Octavia Butler.
Paper Menagerie I came across in a second hand shop at a time when I still thought I didn’t like short stories, I made myself read it anyway because I wanted to try and at least understand how short stories worked and the result is that I now love short stories. So thanks for that Ken Liu! Bloodchild I discovered once I’d started down the short-story rabbit hole and I thought I’d give it a go even though I’d tried reading Butler’s The Parable of the Sower and found it much too close to reality to finish reading. To my pleasant surprise I found the Bloodchild stories fascinating, especially because the author wrote her thoughts on each one and included that with the collection- I love hearing authors’ thoughts on their own work and the stories themselves felt like they had the brutality and complex morality of other authors I enjoy like Kameron Hurley with the intellectualism I loved about Le Guin.
One thing I always found frustrating about older more academic sci-fi was that it was written by men, for men, about men. It made the stories feel very limited and unwelcoming, whereas Le Guin , though still often writing about male main characters, understood that women exist and that the world holds far more realities than those experienced by her male characters. Butler goes further and I wish I’d found her sooner- she wasn’t afraid to write about women and she wrote engaging stories that deal with complex themes in a way that remains enjoyably readable (unless like me you find some of it uncomfortably close to home). For those reasons I’m very glad to have her short stories as a permanent feature on my bookshelf.
Moving on to novels- my list of favourites (some of which, as I say, I’ve talked about later on) will probably always include John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids which was probably the first time I’d come across a book that talked about the experience of being invisibly different or disabled compared to those around you. I found my first copy of the book in one of my old English classrooms at school, in a box kept under a desk in the corner, I’ve no idea who chose which books went in there but I remember picking up The Chrysalids because it had a really weird cover- someone wearing a bug-like spiky mask and holding a spear.
The cover turned out to be nothing to do with the story at all, but what I found was just as fascinating to me as what the cover suggested.
The story not only talked about the experience of characters who have to hide their differences and teach themselves coping strategies to fit in, but it also talked about this using Christian language. The society the characters live in is controlled by a version of conservative Christianity that is only too familiar to those of us who grew up with or around that style of thinking- for me to see characters having to square their faith with their own lived experience of difference- that made it extra meaningful. Both the disability element and the religion element were relevant to my own experience growing up, and the book echoed much of my own thinking on both matters. So it was very meaningful to see some of my own feelings and internal struggles reflected in a story that I found readable and interesting. It’s still a comfort-read to me decades later and remains one that I go back to again and again and would love to write an academic paper on to lovingly rip it to shreds and analyse every word.
What are some of the characters in fiction that you find most relatable? Some autistic readers love autistic representation, and others prefer aliens, robots, or characters who they relate to in a subtler way; do you notice any patterns in the kinds of characters that resonate for you?
I think I relate most to characters who are coded autistic rather than specified as autistic. I think this is possibly because when authors write canonically autistic characters there’s sometimes editor pressure to make them very obviously autistic in very specific ways that don’t always allow as much subtlety to them as would be present in real life.
I remember asking a couple of literary agents about this and they were strongly of the opinion that labelling a character as canonically autistic leaves them open to publishers wanting to use that as a marketing point- but in order to do that you have to justify it by having the fact that they’re autistic be either a plot point or the dominant part of their characterisation. You also often have to exaggerate their traits in order to make the reader feel it was worth giving them that identifier.
For sci-fi readers especially- there’s a whole host of autistic-coded characters already out there, so a reader might feel confused as to why an author’s bothered to call one character autistic when another character with the exact same coding hasn’t been specified as autistic- there’s a tendency to think “why did you bother?” and an expectation of it being important to the plot somehow, which can then irritate readers if it turns out not to be a plot point.
I don’t think it’s great that things currently are this way and it would be nice if they changed so that a character being autistic is as mundane in a story as a character being blue-eyed. But as it stands this is the situation writers are often dealing with, and so the canonically autistic characters that often get written can feel less nuanced than I like. For that reason I like the freedom of characters who are just coded with either the author saying separately ‘yes I intended them to be read as autistic/don’t mind if they’re read that way’ or ‘yes the character is totally one of us, I just didn’t bother to crowbar it into the plot because in their world maybe they don’t use that word for it’. I feel this gives the writer more freedom to focus on just writing a well-rounded character and for me as an autistic reader I find that freedom helpful too because it’s not always possible to see myself in every autistic character, just as I don’t entirely relate to every other autistic person in reality. I want representation and I want autistic coding to be acknowledged when it’s there intentionally, but I don’t feel someone’s neurology needs to be acknowledged within the text- the characterisation should speak for itself and an author can confirm their intentions separately and I think that’s often just as meaningful.
My top favourite fiction characters who I read most often as autistic-coded are -
Murderbot from the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells.
I asked Wells in a Q+A once if she intended Murderbot to be coded autistic because its way of thinking and experiencing social anxiety was so incredibly relatable. Wells said she hadn’t intended that, she’d actually based it on her own experiences but because so many people keep saying to her ‘is Murderbot autistic?’ she’s starting to wonder if maybe she is autistic herself. I thought that was really sweet because she wasn’t trying to write an autistic character, she just wrote a well-rounded character with their own set of experiences and yet clearly autistic people were relating to it en-masse. I think if she’d set out to write ‘an autistic character’ it wouldn’t have worked as well because she’d have set herself more boxes to tick, rather than wriing what she knew.
Breq/ Justice of Toren from the Ancillary Justice books by Ann Leckie.
I don’t think Leckie set out here to write an autistic character (though I could be wrong), but Breq/Justice of Toren is someone who spends the entire series feeling out of place in a world that expects them to be one specific thing or another. Even though they’re stuck in a sort of limbo by these expectations of what and how they’re meant to be, Breq is very accepting of themselves and demands the respect of others.
They come up against that world’s equivalent of ‘well you don’t look autistic’ and their response is to punch the person who said it in the face, which for me was a hilarious and cathartic to read. They aren’t very outwardly expressive but they have a full emotional range, they just express and experience things differently to those around them, and once people understand them and tune into their way of expressing themselves, they’re actually not that difficult to read at all and are even surprised by how well certain people have learned to read their moods.
As someone who is described variously as both cartoonishly expressive and hard-to-read by different people in my life I found this experience very familiar and amusing to read.
St Alia of the Knife from the Dune series by Frank Herbert.
[spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read that far in the books or watched the original film]
Alia is Paul Atredies’s younger sister. She’s born with what is essentially an adult mind and sense of self, with the ability to converse with the consciousnesses of her ancestors. In many ways I don’t actually like Alia as a character, I have a lot of criticisms of the Dune books but reading Frank Herbert’s descriptions of Alia, especially when she’s still very young, made me laugh a lot. She’s described as this adult mind in a child’s body who freaks people out by saying extremely intelligent and insightful things, with the contrast between her body and mind being unnerving to those around her. For me reading it I was cackling my head off because it was basically an unintentional description of many autistic children, and for me I just couldn’t find it in any way creepy like I was supposed to, which made the other characters’ reactions to her amusing rather than understandable.
As much as it’s arguably problematic to run into depictions like this that accidentally other the real-life people who closely match them (not saying I have the voices of my ancestors chatting to me but I definitely freaked people out when I was younger by talking like a serious adult in a tiny kid’s body), I will never not find it funny, and that amusement value in itself for me makes characters like that an enjoyable read for me.
Lan Wangji from the Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation books by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu
This one’s an iffy one but I want to talk about it specifically because it’s an awkward one.
One of the issues with relying on coded characters rather than characters specified as canonically autistic, is that what reads as ‘autistic’ in one culture can be read drastically differently in another. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with relating to elements of a character’s personality or experiences and saying ‘as an autistic person this is relateable’ but I think we have to be careful we don’t conflate ‘relatable’ with ‘coded’ because they can be quite different things. To me saying a character is ‘coded’ autistic means that the author has either deliberately, or accidentally, taken traits and elements of life as experienced by autistic people in their real-life society and put them into fictional characters. Sometimes this is done for a purpose- see the numerous autistic-coded characters in star trek working out how to interact with others and also accept their own differences and limitations- sometimes it’s done just to make the character interesting because why the heck not? Other times however we run into the problem of different cultural presentations and misinterpretations.
It would be wrong of me, for example, to read a text based in Germany and then assume all the characters in it were autistic because they speak more directly and bluntly than characters do in most UK or US fiction that I usually read. This would be an instance not of ‘coding’ as such but of things happening to be relatable that are actually a cultural/societal aspect, rather than a neurological or personal trait. In other words- I’m not the intended reader and I’m not bringing the correct cultural knowledge to my reading of the text to understand the author’s intentions as they were meant to be understood.
Like I say this isn’t necessarily a ‘problem’ as such- does it really matter why we relate to things? But we do need to be careful not to claim characters as autistic when this context exists because it can be dismissive of cultural differences and it can also erase the experiences of people from those cultures who may have different experiences and presentations of being autistic to ours in the US or UK because of the context they exist in. In a culture where making eye contact for example is seen as rude or overly familiar, the English-speaking western stereotype of the autistic person not making eye contact essentially vanishes- it’s hidden by a cultural norm. Instead in that culture there might be a phenomena of autistic people being known more for making eye contact too much, but reading the translated text, that’s a nuance we might miss as western readers- autistic coded characters in translated texts might be easy for us to miss, and think of how frustrating that must be to those who understand the cultures involved when we as western readers then latch on to other characters and claim them as autistic instead.
That’s why I bring up Lan Wangji- from my UK-reader lense- I can see him as autistic coded, I can relate to his difficulty understanding and expressing his feelings, his obsession with sticking to the rules, even his insistence on reporting himself for breaking the rules when nobody would have known if he just kept quiet. He doesn’t speak loads, he gets flustered if he can’t navigate a situation using the social rules he lives his life by, he’s a very serious person and he has weird reactions to alcohol. All of this I find familiar and relatable, but is it meant to be autistic-coding? I don’t know. I don’t know because I don’t read Chinese so I can only read the translated text, and I don’t know enough about Chinese cultures or about the specific modern audience that the author was writing this for.
As an outsider looking in I don’t know whether I’m meant to interpret his difficulties being anything but formal, as something innate or as whether we’re meant to read him as having become such an excellent model student of his path he now finds other people confusing and chaotic when they behave in ‘normal’ ways. I don’t know whether I’m meant to read his difficulty understanding and expressing his emotions as something he would have had trouble with regardless or whether I’m meant to understand it as an impact of his upbringing and interactions with very specific people in his life. - I read the story knowing there’s subtext and nuance I’m missing, aware that my interpretation of characters and their behaviour is biased because I can’t escape the western lense I see through. I can enjoy it and relate to it but I have to be careful not to conflate my own interpretation with intended coding by the author. I’m reading something that may contain cultural (and linguistic) context that either doesn’t come through fully in translation, or which I simply don’t understand because I don’t share the same cultural context as the original target audience. It doesn’t stop the character being relatable but it does mean I should be a little more careful in case there’s other interpretations of the text that make more sense with full cultural context than mine does.
Have you ever had a special interest in a fiction series or genre of fiction? What makes a work of fiction special-interest-worthy for you - or do the interests seem to descend at random?
I absolutely do have favourite series and favourite genres. Well, a single favourite genre really- SFF is my go-to realm of reading.
As a writer I can’t imagine writing outside of SFF, maybe I will one day, but for my current thinking it provides everything I could want in terms of flexibility and scope for creativity. I enjoy reading historical fiction but I enjoy it in the same way I enjoy a lot of fantasy- as an escape to a place that never did/ no longer exists. I can’t imagine ever writing historical fiction myself because I would probably get so hung up on the accuracy of what I was writing, and the amount of research I should be doing. It irritates me so much when I read historical fiction and spot glaring errors that as a writing I’d be terrified of making similar mistakes. Fantasy however allows much more flexibility because there aren’t nearly as many rules to abide by.
That being said I do gnash my teeth in frustration when I spot things that still make no sense in-world- an example of this is in The Eye Of the World by Robert Jordan where a character constantly carries a staff by tucking it through her horse’s girth strap- a feat simply not possible if you know anything about horse riding. Considering everything else about horses and their tack in the novel seems to abide by the same laws of reality as they do in our world… this pushed the suspension of my disbelief a little too far for comfort.
But back to the point- to me SFF is comforting escapism but it’s also a safe place in which to explore stressful and scary issues. I go to SFF to look at alternative ways of being, thinking, and doing, I’ve drawn confidence from reading about other genders, other styles of relationship, possible futures. I look to it to explore what I think about violence, how to heal from past trauma, I look to it to explore the nature of cruelty and evil, what the ‘self’ even is, and what sort of person I want most to be. It’s a way to think about things, both the things I want to do and don’t, the things I like and hate, it helps me come to conclusions on things that, if they were framed in a contemporary setting, would be much too emotionally charged for me to focus on them without panicking.
SFF gives distance and distance gives safety to explore. Obviously not all SFF is like this, I can’t watch or read things that feel too close to home, too bleak and dystopian because for me that feels far too much like contemporary reality and there’s nowhere near enough distance there. Overall however, SFF is a genre that I find gives me space to get from it what I need, it’s a place I go to recharge, it’s a place I go to think, it’s a place I go to feel things- good and bad- in a way that isn’t overwhelming. And what I bring back from it is constantly changing and updating the way I think and approach my life in reality.
I think some people do this with religion, with science, with music- I see these things as different possible lenses that we experience the world through, and mine is definitely SFF fiction- that’s why I read it and that’s why I write it.
As for particular series within the genre- I think a series has to come to me at the right time to become special to me. I was a massive fan of the Wild Mage series by Tamora Pierce when I was in my teens- it expressed things I needed to express myself and gave me space to explore being an outsider among my peers, working out that I could find community in unconventional spaces. Like the main character I felt closer to animals than people, and it was a juggling act to balance the need for human interaction with the stress and sometimes harm that it caused me- animals in contrast were simpler and safer but they weren’t quite enough by themselves. Had I discovered the series earlier or later than I did, I don’t think it would have meant as much, but I came across her books at the right time and read my way through her Lioness Quartet and the Protector of the Small books after that and loved their exploration of gender and social expectations. Looking back on them now I have the rosy glasses of nostalgia colouring my experience of them, which does mean they’re still enjoyable, but if I’d discovered them for the first time yesterday I doubt I’d have been overly impressed. That’s not to say they’re shit books and I now have better taste, just that I’m not in the same place that I was then and now I find different things far more powerful.
I fell in love with Kameron Hurley’s work after reading her novel The Light Brigade. I put the book down feeling stunned- I didn’t know I’d needed it till I read it, and now I devour all of Hurley’s work.
I do find elements of it frustrating because there are sometimes continuity errors she’s missed that throw me out of the story, but I had no idea that what I needed in my life was brutal violent women who are the definition of morally grey. They’re queer, they’re violent, they’re dyslexic, depressed, traumatised, chronically ill, covered in scars, and I fall in love with each and every one of them.
I’m at a place where I don’t want to read books that give me binary moral choices- I’m living in a confusing world where I’m asked to make snap decisions on which side I’m on with all sorts of issues and quite often I can’t work it out that fast. So having stories where characters struggle to work out their own morals, to work out if there even is a ‘right’ thing to do all the time or whether sometimes it’s just down to personal priorities- that’s helpful to me. It’s also cathartic to see characters expressing extreme despair and anger and expressing those feelings as irresponsibly as possible- because it’s not something I’m able to do in real life because I care about consequences. But the characters can go wild, make awful mistakes, shoot the wrong people in a fit of rage, and I can feel it with them, but it’s not real, I get the release, but not the consequences I would have in reality, and I get to cry over the characters when they face consequences of their own.
Sometimes though I just get hooked on something and I can’t really explain to you why- I hated the first book of the Dune franchise (begun by Frank Herbert and continued by his son Brian Herbert with co-writer Kevin J. Anderson) and yet for some reason I found myself reading the next one, and then the next one, and now I’m hooked on the prequels and I still cannot explain fully why. I could write whole essays about the problems I see with those books, but I also find them engrossing, the co-written prequels more than the originals. I think maybe I enjoy the ambition of it all, the level of world-building publishers allowed the authors to go into. I used to think that what got published reflected what authors wanted to write, but now I’m an agented author myself I realise that’s not the case. I read the Dune books and I wonder just how many other authors there are out there with worlds just as detailed as this but who aren’t able to get their visions out there because it’s too big of a risk for publishers. I find the Dune books make me think about publishing, about story-telling decisions, about characterisation choices and I enjoy that.
But sometimes I also just want to read about giant sandworms and knife-fights in space and that’s all there is to it.
SFF is my special-interest genre because there’s space for all of that- the intellectual and the silly escapist, it can be meaningful and meaningless.
Individual series and authors come and go in terms of importance to me but I think it would take an awful lot to make me lose interest in SFF as a whole, it’s just too big and too beautiful.
What makes a book difficult for you to read? What, if anything, helps make books accessible to you?
What makes a book difficult for me to read is if it’s badly written.
If a book clearly hasn’t been properly proof-read and I spot errors throughout it, whether that’s plot-holes, continuity errors, or elements of world-building that break the book’s own internal laws of nature- that all throws me out of the immersion and means I can’t settle in and enjoy it.
I remember reading a book a little while back that had a character scavenging for food in a snow-covered woodland and coming back with a handful of mint, mint! This obviously doesn’t bother some people, especially if you don’t know (or don’t care) about what plants grow where, but when I spot things like that where I know better than the author… it irritates me so much it becomes distracting because I can’t just move on, I’m bugged by the urge to write to the author and say, ‘Mint? In the middle of a wood? In the snow? What?’ I never give in to the urge but it’s still there and it gets in the way
I also find it difficult when a book doesn’t know what it’s trying to do- when it introduces plot points or ideas that then peter out again, or when it promises something inventive and then just veers off into unoriginal and over-used tropes that feel lazy and rushed.
It’s difficult to pin down a difference between something being ‘difficult’ for me to read and me simply not liking something because in my experience of reading those things are pretty much the same.
I don’t have any physical trouble reading (for the most part anyway) but I have trouble concentrating on things unless they hold my attention. The more emotions something triggers in me (good or bad) the more memorable it’s likely to be. If a text frustrates me I have no reason to keep reading so I generally won’t bother because it’s too much effort to try and push past the frustration with little gained even if I manage it. I will however remember that I hated it and will generally find myself biased against the author’s other works out of anxiety I’ll find them just as stressful…which in itself makes it more difficult for me to read them, even if they’re better written than the one that caused my initial frustration.
What makes books accessible to me is when they’re well-written in the technical sense so I’m not jarred by odd formatting or spelling mistakes (partly because spelling mistakes lead me off on a tangent of trying to work out whether the author’s spelt the word wrong or whether I spell the word wrong myself), when stories are well-told in the creative sense, and generally when authors have a clear understanding that white able-bodied cis-het men aren’t the ‘norm’ and everyone else the anomaly. If I can see myself in a book and stay immersed in that world the whole way through without being thrown out of that immersion- that’s a welcoming place for me. If there’s a diverse spread of characters that feels respectfully done and makes sense in-world, that’s an accessible book for me.
This month at Everything Is True, we’re interviewing a wide variety of autistic readers with questions like these! You can find a schedule with the rest of the interviews here.
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