Saturday, September 1, 2018

Hoshi and the Red City Circuit: An Excellent Debut by a Neurodivergent Author About Neurodivergent Protagonists

[image: Illustrated cover of the book Hoshi and the
Red City Circuit, by Dora M Raymaker,
featuring a person in silhouette sitting
on the ground fending off rays of power from
a pitchfork-wielding person silhouetted in red.]
Kelly Israel


Introduction


Hoshi and the Red City Circuit, the debut work by Dora Raymaker, is first and foremost an excellent page-turning detective story about private investigator Hoshi Archer’s race to discover who murdered three Operators. Operators are a caste of people with disabilities. They are also the only people who have the ability to run the multi-layered, complex technology of the future. It is next a story about Hoshi herself and the many friends, allies, acquaintances, enemies, and lovers she has known and cared for on her way to becoming the person that she is.

Hoshi is also a story that grapples with the intellectual and developmental disability (I/DD) community’s ghosts and collective past. It attempts through showing—rather than telling—to explain how it is that an individual person with I/DD can live in a world that alternatively hates and pities them, loves and loathes them, supports and exploits them.

This is important because we are a community with a painful history. Many autistic people and others with I/DD have experienced terrible ableism as well as both emotional and physical abuse, often at the hands of the very people who were supposed to help us. Hoshi echoes this sordid history in many of its plot threads, and thereby explains it via fiction to those who do not have it burned into their flesh and bone. Above all else, it is a complex and interesting read.

The Positives


One of the primary characters of the book besides Hoshi (both literally and metaphorically!) is the place where Hoshi lives—The Red City. (I won’t spoil for you how the Red City becomes a literal main character.) The Red City exists in a human civilization of the extremely distant future, on a non-Earth planet with its own intricate politics, social constructs, crime syndicates, and religions.

Dora Raymaker made me love the Red City. It is to the author's credit that The Red City has a clear and unrelenting sense of place. I never once was given the impression that it was an artificial or simplified construct. The history of Red City began long before the reader got there, and it will continue long after the reader has left. It has its own slang, look, and feel to its culture. The people of the Red City are take-no-shit-from-anyone hardworking police officers, exhausted dock workers trying to make a living, arrogant no-nothing jerks, criminals and crime lords, and esoteric mystics who commune with very real aliens that live on a different plane of existence from us. Hoshi Archer’s own description of how Red City looks from her window describes it best:
"Outside my cathedral window, the jagged skyline of Red City reached for crimson clouds. I traced the graceful spiral of the Arts and Culture Building, the triple towers of the 100 Worlds Trade Union joined by their series of sky-bridges, the prickly quills of the Red City Reporter, the dip of Lan Qui Park all the way down to Landing and Marcie Bay. I loved Red City. Loved every street corner and sky-lift, every tree in every park, every rumbling tube beneath her crust." -Hoshi and the Red City Circuit, Ch. 1
It’s worth pointing out that Hoshi repeats something similar to this description many times. She, at any and all opportunities, describes her read on the history of each quarter of the city that her investigation takes her to. Beholding her favorite buildings in the city is both satisfying, and likely a form of stimming. It’s fun and exciting to listen to her and find out what she knows. Raymaker could not have picked a better special interest for their protagonist.

Dr. Raymaker makes no attempt to hide that, although the Operators have a fictional developmental disability known as K-Syndrome, they are very much intended to be similar to autistic people and others with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Only a few years ago, all Operators were slaves forced to do nothing but program and operate the future-tech machines and linked Internet-like space called the Mem that keeps Red City running. They were feared for their fine-tuned control of this space, and yet were absolutely necessary for its functioning. Their connection to it was deliberately limited by oppressive rules and regulations that bear a probably intentional similarity to those that govern institutions in the United States. In the present, due to a law known as Integration Law, Operators like Hoshi can work non-Operator jobs. It is an uneasy compromise, with both Operators and non-Operators alike having a variety of different opinions on the rightness of the law and whether it achieves its goals.

Hoshi Archer is an attractive, interesting, lovable neurodivergent protagonist. She is a brilliant detective, able to piece together disparate pieces of information nearly faster than the reader can. She has a powerful coffee addiction that reminds me more than a little of myself. She is incredibly brave yet deeply afraid of becoming a slave again, to the point where her fear can cloud her understanding of who is her friend and who is her enemy. She can be rigid and obsessive in her pursuit of justice, and has difficulty comprehending the more obtuse social and metaphorical aspects of life and society, such as religion.

One of my favorite passages occurs just after the Red City police officer Hoshi works closely with, Sorreno, forces Hoshi to take a weapon even though Hoshi despises being armed. The passage conveys in a way that I cannot what it is like to be a person with I/DD traumatized by a past in which people have forced specific choices upon you:
"I sulked in front of my window, watching the tiny people on the streets twelve stories down, weaving through their hours. If I squinted, the colors of their clothing melted them into long rivers of pattern. 
"None of them were forced to carry a shocker. Or to report in to the IO. Or to be under constant threat of being displaced from everything they loved and thrown into a supervised livestock pen in a job they hate but will be imprisoned or even killed for not doing with no hope of anything better if—forbid!—they end up accidentally missing a meal two weeks in a row. 
"I hit my fist hard against the hard glass. 
"The pain giving me something namable, tangible, blamable to justify my anger. 
"The bitterness of my life up until two years ago broke over the surface of my consciousness and I scratched at the synthskin covering the unhealed scars." -Hoshi and the Red City Circuit, Ch. 12
That Operators themselves do not uniformly agree on Integration Law one way or the other is a testament to the sheer variety of neurodivergent people Raymaker describes. The hero, the hero’s extremely slimy sometimes-ally, sometimes-enemy drug lord acquaintance Luzzie Vai (who happens to be one of my favorite characters in the book), the hero’s anti-Integration yet emotionally beautiful murdered lover, the nearly incomprehensible and mysterious priest Gno, and the cowardly and irritating Martin Ho are all neurodivergent. Each of these characters is given three-dimensional characterization. The book’s characterization is one of the strongest elements of its writing. I wanted to spend as much time as possible with almost everyone in it.

Equal to the book’s characters is the book’s central unsolved murder. I won’t spoil a single thing about it, and that’s because it’s something the reader should enjoy for themselves! Hoshi must race against time to determine who killed the three Operators, how, and why before the serial killer claims their next victim. I found myself obsessively devouring chapters to try and follow Hoshi to the next clue, eager to learn more about how the book’s impossible crime was committed. Hoshi must travel all throughout Red City to solve the murder, from the centrally located Cleopatra Square to the Integration Office to the grim, vaguely brutalist Operator housing where her lover Claudia once lived. The mystery has the heft and complications of the best detective novels, and ultimately places the protagonist’s inner conflict at its center, as its beating heart.

The Negatives


While I did love the book, I do have a few sustained criticisms. The first is that the book is slow to explain itself. While a reader of fantasy or science fiction would be quite used to the full-immersion manner in which Raymaker introduces us to the slang and terminology of their world, a reader of detective novels may be quite confused for the first thirty or forty pages. The book can take longer than it should to make the meanings of these words clear to an uninitiated reader.

Additionally, the book can be a bit clumsy in its treatment of some issues. For instance, a real-world religion (or an interpretation of the form that religion would take in the future) plays a prominent role in the book. While I do not know enough myself to say whether Raymaker consulted spiritual leaders or adherents for the purposes of writing Hoshi (they do mention specific real world gods by name and the god’s known sphere), I feel the book could do more to make the depiction of the religion less vague and superficial.

Finally, I feel that the true main villain of the book, and the villain’s motivations, are too simple in comparison to the detailed and clear personalities of the other characters. Without giving too much away, real people similar to the villain are themselves extraordinarily complex in their desires and reasons for doing what they do. The oversimplification present in Hoshi’s depiction of one such person doesn’t quite serve the book’s story as well as it should. While there’s an argument to be made that dehumanizing the villain works well with the story’s themes, I feel that there is a difference between making someone irredeemable and making them two-dimensional. However, I recognize this is very much a your-mileage-may-vary issue.

Conclusion


Hoshi and the Red City Circuit is an excellent debut by a neurodivergent author about neurodivergent protagonists, set in an immediately engrossing future world. It has a lot to say about people, politics, and the complications of neurodiversity. It also acts as a great detective thriller that makes you want to keep reading. It has its problems and limitations, but the opinions of readers will vary. While the book very much has an autistic or I/DD audience in mind, I wholeheartedly recommend it to neurodivergent and neurotypical readers alike.