Queer SFF Spotlight: 4 books with autistic protagonists

In celebration of Autistic Pride Day (18 June), this month’s Queer SFF Spotlight features four brilliant science fiction and fantasy books with autistic protagonists.

Let’s jump right into it!

Human Enough by E.S. Yu (link opens in a new tab)

Human Enough is a fast-paced paranormal fantasy novel with a sweet romance at its heart. Noah (he/him) is a vampire hunter with a secret: his boyfriend, Jordan, is a vampire. The story is split into two alternating timelines. In one, we see how Noah and Jordan meet; in the other, Noah investigates some discrepancies at work that soon turn dangerous…

Noah is a highly engaging character. I loved that the book makes space for quieter character moments alongside the intriguing plot. In the narration, Noah touches on many aspects of being autistic, including masking, special interests, and auditory processing. The story highlights how ableism—particularly in Noah’s workplace—constantly makes social interactions difficult for him. It also explores intersectionality: Noah is Chinese-American, and people’s incorrect assumptions about his race and about autism combine to have a huge impact on how he is perceived.

Noah had always suspected that one reason people almost never pegged him as autistic on sight—aside from the fact the most people had an abysmal understanding on what autism actually was—was due to his race. White people tended not to think it odd if an East Asian guy was quiet, socially withdrawn, and not big on eye contact. In any case, he preferred having complete control over deciding whether and who to tell about his being autistic. Because society was ableist and crappy, and he didn’t have the time or the energy to fight against everyone’s inaccurate preconceived notions, or explain why he wasn’t like Rain Man for the gazillionth time.

As for the queer rep: Noah is pansexual, and his boyfriend Jordan discovers during the course of the story (in a really lovely scene) that he is grey-asexual. Thanks to the dual timeline, we get to see the two of them getting to know each other as well as them as an established couple. Their relationship is so soft and caring—the support they show each other gives the story a feel-good centre.


Reading for writing craft

Human Enough is a great example of:

  • a story told across a dual timeline (all from one character’s POV);
  • strong characterisation and character dynamics;
  • close third-person narration with a consistent and engaging voice.


The Outside by Ada Hoffmann (link opens in a new tab)

The Outside is a whirlwind of a science fiction novel that mixes space opera with cosmic horror. Set in a galaxy where AIs have evolved into powerful soul-eating Gods, the story follows Yasira (she/her), an autistic scientist who strays past the limits of permitted knowledge and into dangerous heresy.

Yasira’s home nation Riayin has a progressive stance on disability and neurodiversity, but once Yasira steps out into the wider galaxy, people aren’t always so accommodating. Even as the head of a revolutionary scientific project, she faces infantilisation from her colleagues and her needs are often forgotten or dismissed, and this has understandably worn her down.

Yasira’s neurotype was supposed to be all about joy, about being so in love with science and knowledge and patterns that they eclipsed everything else. She’d been like that as a child, throwing herself into dusty physics texts the way other kids played games or ate candy. So excited when she tackled a new problem that she’d abruptly throw the book down and run around the house laughing. At some point, maybe in grad school, that had faded somehow.

But the story shows that Yasira being autistic is an inextricable part of her power. Without giving too much away about the plot, being autistic is what allows Yasira to push at the hazardous edges of human knowledge more safely than others. And her pattern-spotting mathematical genius means she can do things even the Gods themselves cannot.

In terms of queer rep: Yasira is sapphic, and her relationship with her girlfriend Tiv is a standout part of the book. I was rooting for the two of them the whole way through.

I loved the morally grey characters that populate the story, especially the ‘angels’—humans who serve the Gods and are heavily augmented with their technology, making them into almost omniscient and immortal beings. I could never guess which way the plot was going to turn next, and the directions it did go in delighted and enthralled me.


Reading for writing craft

The Outside is a great example of:

  • dual POV—particularly because the two POV characters spend a fair amount of time together, so the POV is chosen to show the reader particular things;
  • introspective scenes that are engaging and move the story forward;
  • fictional epigraphs at the start of each chapter that give the reader valuable information about the story world.


An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon (link opens in a new tab)

An Unkindness of Ghosts is a hard-hitting science fiction novel set on a generation ship reminiscent of the pre–Civil War US South. White people live a life of luxury on the upper decks, while Black people and other people of colour are enslaved and confined to the lower decks under a harsh regime of constant violence.

Aster (she/her), one of the ‘lowdeckers’, is a talented healer. She isn’t described as autistic (since that label doesn’t exist in the worldbuilding), but she is strongly coded as such. For example: she speaks literally and struggles to understand figurative speech, she has a voracious appetite for medical and scientific knowledge, and she stims. Other people note that she is different, too:

“Call me he’lawa. I am a healer, like you. Well, not quite like you. You’re a little off, aren’t you?” The woman grabbed Aster’s chin, turning her face so they were forced eye to eye. “You’re one of those who has to tune the world out and focus on one thing at a time. We have a word for that down here, women like you. Insiwa. Inside one. It means you live inside your head and to step out of it hurts like a caning.”

There are other non-neurotypical characters in the book, as well—in fact, all the major characters are coded as neurodivergent in various ways.

In terms of LGBTQIA+ rep: All the major characters are genderdivergent. Aster, like many of those on the lower decks, is intersex. She is also genderqueer: “I am a boy and a girl and a witch all wrapped into one very strange, flimsy, indecisive body.” Theo, a major supporting character, is trans feminine. There’s also an aromantic and asexual supporting character.

The worldbuilding in An Unkindness of Ghosts is simply breathtaking. Each of the lower decks has its own culture and language. The crop fields that the lowdeckers are forced to work on are a series of platforms that rotate around a miniature, human-made Sun. And there’s so much going on in the background and in the subtext: the history of the ship’s social structures, politics, religion, the effects of multi-generational trauma. The world feels abundantly real and lived-in. Combined with the depth of the characters, this makes for an unforgettable read.


Reading for writing craft

An Unkindness of Ghosts is a great example of:

  • extensive and immersive worldbuilding, with no info-dumping;
  • deep character development and strong on-page characterisation;
  • close third-person point of view, with occasional chapters from supporting characters’ points of view in first person.


Failure to Communicate by Kaia Sønderby (link opens in a new tab)

Failure to Communicate is a remarkable science fiction novel full of political intrigue and high-stakes diplomacy. Xandri (she/her) is the head of a Xeno-liaisons team, responsible for first contact and negotiations with aliens. When a notoriously xenophobic alien species develops a deadly new weapon, Xandri and her team is called in to try and negotiate an alliance.

Xandri is autistic—and one of the few remaining neurodivergent humans in the universe. The story is written in first person, so it feels like you’re right there with her as she navigates both routine and extraordinary experiences. Xandri does face difficulty and ableism from some of her human colleagues (not to mention human society as a whole), but there are plenty of people—and aliens—who love and accept her for who she is. There’s a beautiful found family theme running through the book.

Ancient Earth knowledge about people like me—autistic people—said we couldn’t read other people. We lacked the empathy necessary, or some half-baked psychological shit like that. But as I’d discovered—in large part out of necessity—non-verbal language was language, and like most languages, it could be learned. So I learned. I spent hours learning, exhausting myself with learning, until I had the faculties I needed to analyze most of the people I met.

As for the queer rep: Xandri is bisexual, and the possibility of a polyamorous relationship between her and her two love interests blooms throughout the book. (I understand that the romance comes to full fruition in the sequel, Tone of Voice.)

I’m a sucker for stories about learning to communicate with aliens, and Failure to Communicate certainly lives up to that. The book includes a huge number of inventive alien species, and I found the plot exciting and delightful in equal measure.


Reading for writing craft

Failure to Communicate is a great example of:

  • inventive alien characters and cultures;
  • first-person narration with a consistent and engaging voice;
  • deep character development and strong on-page characterisation.


Outro

Thank you very much for reading this post! I hope you enjoyed it and have added a book or two to your TBR.

If you’ve read any of the above books, let me know what you thought of them! And if you‘ve got any recommendations of other queer SFF books with autistic protagonists, I’d love to check them out. You can leave a comment down below or tweet at me @JakeCNicholls (link opens in a new tab).

This post is part of my new regular Queer SFF Spotlight series. If you’d like to stay up to date with these posts, plus posts about writing craft and querying agents (among other things), consider signing up for my newsletter to stay in the loop!


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Resources and further reading

Ada Hoffmann’s Autistic Book Party

On their website, Ada Hoffmann has a fantastic series of reviews of SFF books/stories with autistic rep. Their reviews index (link opens in a new tab) is a great place to start.

Thanks to Ada for pointing me towards Failure to Communicate! Read Ada’s review of Failure to Communicate (link opens in a new tab) and their review of An Unkindness of Ghosts (link opens in a new tab) for a more in-depth discussion of the autism rep in these books.

Queer SFF Book Database

Thanks to the brilliant Queer Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Database (link opens in a new tab) for pointing me towards Human Enough! The database is a fantastic resource for all queer SFF fans.

“Autism voice” in fiction

The article ‘Narrative Devices and the Autism Voice’ by Corinne Duyvis (link opens in a new tab) goes into depth about the “autism voice”, a style that allistic (non-autistic) authors have frequently used when writing autistic characters. It is harmful because it continually others autistic people. It assumes that the outward characteristics of autistic people are their only characteristics. And it fixates on those outward characteristics, so that, as Duyvis puts it, “narrative affectations become the characters’ defining elements, rather than their actual actions or personality.” A hugely important read for readers and writers alike.

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