To be a perfectly logical creature with no emotions and no social needs is not really perceived as an advantage by most NTs on earth in the 21st century – NTs or “neurotypicals” is what Aspies (people with Asperger’s Syndrome) call everyone else. No NT will pray to whatever god they believe in to turn them into an Aspie, whereas an Aspie may well wish they were not so. This is where science fiction greatly differs from the rest of that human construct we call the world – it is full of Aspies in major roles, not just in minor, abject ones.
Before I go any further, let’s get our labels pinned down. I dislike labelling, but it can be a helpful shorthand when you have a word limit. The two important labels for this article are Asperger’s Syndrome and PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance). Both are considered pervasive developmental disorders on the autism spectrum. Both are “pure” forms of autism, not accompanied by any complications like learning disabilities. By “pure” form, I mean it is “only” a social disorder, which means a (complete) lack of empathy and real difficulties in communicating with others. It is not an illness or a handicap; the brain is simply wired differently.
Aspies appear everywhere in fiction now – think of characters who are brilliant, incapable of lying, unable to “read” the people around them (or even their own emotions), literal in their responses and who show obsessive and anxious behaviours. The brilliant is a bit unfair because Aspies are like anyone else – they can be of just average intelligence. Aspies may have a touch of PDA, which is now finally being seen as a disorder in its own right. PDA is an inability to adapt to the world or its demands, usually due to extreme anxiety. It is much harder to romanticise which is why fiction is not full of people with this disorder. PDA behaviours include aggression (leading to severe meltdowns and violence in some cases), psychotic behaviours and an internal fantasy life often more real to that person than the external world. Both Aspies and people with PDA have no empathy –they have to learn how to interact with others. They can learn to successfully navigate the world of NTs, but it is skilled acting and imitation, never more than skin deep. Neither of these disorders must be confused with childhood traumas such as Attachment Disorder, where a severe form of neglect leads to some Aspie/PDA behaviours.
So, where are all the Aspies in science fiction? They are, quite simply, in our fascination with logic, robots and androids. I will limit myself to a spectrum of R. Daneel Olivaw from Asimov’s robot novels, the Star Trek canon (Spock, Data, Lore and Lal) and a film that explodes all boundaries but could be considered a mix of fantasy and horror, “Heavenly Creatures”.
The R in R. Daneel stands for “robot”. Today, we would call him an android. Daneel has a “positronic” brain, a CPU so advanced that he is a sentient being and one who is literally “wired differently”. Daneel is the typical Aspie – he does not really understand human drives and emotions and he is very literal in his way of seeing and understanding the world. Like Aspies, he has a very formal way of talking and an expressionless face. He is an android detective partnered with a human, Elijah Baley, and, like an Aspie can, he learns from Baley. Daneel appears in four robot novels but, unlike Aspies, he is ruled by the “Three Laws of Robotics”, which artificially prevent him from harming humans.
My favourite conversation between Daneel and Baley is in “The Caves of Steel” when Baley attempts to explain the Bible and a particular story in it to Daneel. Baley describes the Bible as a code of behaviour and a higher law. He tells Daneel the story of the adulterous woman that Jesus saves from stoning (“he that is without sin, let him cast the first stone” – “go and sin no more”). Daneel struggles during the conversation to understand the case of a guilty party that is not punished as society dictates, and he is totally baffled by the notions of mercy and forgiveness. For someone without a “theory of mind” as Aspies are sometimes described (an inability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes), a parable or an allegory can be hard to grasp because it is based on a purely intuitive and emotional gut understanding of the world and other people. At the end of the book, Daneel has progressed far enough in his understanding of NTs to apply the story to the situation at hand saying: “it suddenly seems to me that the destruction of what should not be, that is, the destruction of what you people call evil, is less just and desirable than the conversion of this evil into what you call good”. Note though that Daneel says “you people” – he has understood how an NT would apply the Bible story but does not really feel the same way. That is quintessential Aspie.
The Star Trek canon – I shall proceed chronologically and start with Spock. He is of course not an android but a human/Vulcan hybrid. Vulcans pride themselves in being logical above all else. The original “Star Trek” series was not subtle and Spock’s character was often used for comic effect – his literal (mis)understanding of things said to him, in particular. Spock values reason and science – Aspies (with no PDA to muddy the waters) often end up in jobs where science and computers play a major role, as they function well in a structured, orderly universe. Spock has an expressionless face and a deep, mesmerising voice (this is less accurate, Aspies can creep people out with a total lack of inflection when speaking); he is loyal and makes few but lifelong friends (this is more accurate). It is not that Spock does not have feelings – Vulcans have strong emotions and primal instincts if we think of their mating rituals in “Amok time” – but he chooses not to express them (an Aspie would probably not feel that they had a choice). Apart from the moments where his abysmal social skills make for laughter, he is a respected part of the Star Trek universe and a valued part of the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triangle. If you have nothing better to do tonight, go on to YouTube and hunt out the video of the many, many times Spock says “fascinating”. He is ultimately a positive image of an Aspie in space.
The actor Brent Spiner has said repeatedly in interviews that he did not set out to play Data as an Aspie, yet Data is the character most Aspies relate to best in “Star Trek the Next Generation”. They relate in particular to his struggle to understand social rules, taboos, manners, interactions and emotions. Data is a more pathetic figure than Spock because he wants to be something he is not. Spock is ultimately happy with who he is and chooses his Aspieness; Data is not, he is an Aspie who wants to be an NT. He is valued by the other members of the crew and saves the day on more than one occasion however, so it is not just a case of a wayward child being patronised by indulgent adults. He is shown as sensitive and, above all, curious and with a thirst for knowledge. Like Daneel, he has a positronic brain, is sentient, has an expressionless face and speaks in a formal manner. Data is also reminiscent of Asimov’s “Bicentennial Man”, an android who longs to be human and even succeeds in that most human act, dying.
The best Data episode in my opinion is “The Offspring” where he creates a daughter, Lal (“beloved” in Hindi). In her short life, Lal is “more human” than Data – her speech is more natural (she uses contractions like “I’m”) and she feels emotions. Her first emotions are fear and confusion, which I think most Aspies would relate to. Anxiety is probably the strongest emotion felt by many Aspies as they try to negotiate an alien and sometimes hostile and unkind world. Lal tells her father she loves him; Data replies he cannot feel love, yet his actions belie his words for he takes very good care of Lal and does everything in his power to save her, even if he fails in the end.
Daneel, Spock, Data and Lal are all characters that mostly call on our sympathy. We enjoy them and they are presented as “good”. If it feels like I am ignoring Seven of Nine from “Voyager”, I am. Not because of the way she is highly sexualised but because, for me, she is not a true Aspie. She is an NT that displays some autistic behaviours but is arguably a victim of a huge childhood trauma; a trauma that she learns to overcome in her dealings with other crew members in a safe and understanding environment.
Much more interesting is Data’s brother, Lore, the deliciously “evil” Aspie in the Star Trek universe. I like Lore because I am a little tired of fiction stressing the “wonders” of being an Aspie. If it’s so wonderful, why do Aspies have a higher suicide rate and suffer from depression more often than NTs? Not all Aspies grow up in a supportive environment; like anyone else, they can come from dysfunctional families and less privileged backgrounds and have their own unique hang-ups. Also, they are often presented as victims whereas a being with absolutely no empathy could be a very scary predator like Lore. Lore has absolutely no empathy, enjoys playing with others, is immoral (or at best, amoral), displays a weak sense of self and is a megalomaniac with psychopathic tendencies. Lore shows that Aspies can be the “baddies”, emotional and downright dangerous if they have not been taught to value the life and dignity of others in a meaningful way. It is a dark edge to Aspies but also a more nuanced view. And one without Asimov’s Three Laws to keep us safe.
Lore could be considered an Aspie with a large dollop of PDA. It is difficult to explain PDA to those who have no experience of it. Unlike pure Aspies, people with PDA can be very irrational. Their wild and constant mood swings, their extremely personally-directed meltdowns and aggression, their fundamental indifference to the feelings or concerns of those around them, their ability to hold an entire conversation with a cuddly toy, their immersion in a fantasy world and their lack of straight lines in anything they say can be very difficult to live with. So difficult that I couldn’t actually think of a well-known character in science fiction that displays these less than lovable traits. Whereas an Aspie can be a mad but lovable scientist figure, someone with PDA would probably be obsessing about a bedridden author they are terrorising in a Stephen King novel.
The closest I can get to a more nuanced example of PDA is a film that does not purport to be about PDA, “Heavenly Creatures”. The two teenage girls in the film, Pauline and Juliet, create fantasy worlds (Borovnia and The Fourth World) that are more real to them than the outside world and they lose themselves in their fantasies. The singer Mario Lanza, for example, is more real to them than their own parents. The girls become obsessed with each other and ruled by a fear of being separated. They end up murdering Pauline’s mother, Honora, who they blame for their predicament (blaming others can be a big part of PDA). The girls are able to kill Honora because they feel no empathy whatsoever for her. The most chilling thing is that the film is based on true events and the directors create a disturbing fantasy film where we see the worlds the girls have imagined in glorious Technicolor. The directors, Walsh and Jackson, did a lot of research to try to give the story psychological depth whilst avoiding judgement. As a viewer, I of course add my own interpretation to the film, which to me is an incredible illustration of what can happen when fantasy, aggression and psychosis operate unchecked by empathy. This article does not lay any claim to being scientific and objective. I think it’s great that we have so many Aspies in space. What I would like to see is perhaps more variety and a more nuanced picture where Aspies are allowed to be like everyone else – good, bad and indifferent. Yes, they make interesting heroes but they also make fabulous anti-heroes. Aspies do not show alien behaviours after all; rather, they show extreme behaviours of which we are all humanly capable. And science fiction is the ideal forum for considering human behaviour in all its permutations, even if we need to wrap it up in android form and put it in a space ship.
Mina is a translator by day, an insomniac by night. Reading Asimov’s robot stories and Wyndham’s “The Day of the Triffids” at age eleven may have permanently warped her view of the universe. She has published “flash” fiction on speculative sci-fi websites and hopes to work her way up to a novella or even a novel some day.