Review of There’s No Basketball on Mars by Craig Leener.
Lawrence Tuckerman is a fan of probabilities – well, any numbers and math, really. It’s an interest that goes hand-in-hand with his autism. It’s also how he met his best friend Zeke, who is off fulfilling his dream of playing basketball at the University of Kansas. Now Lawrence expects his life in Los Angeles to become even less social and more routine – just the way he likes it. He plans to finish high school as he pursues his own far-off dream of manning Earth’s first mission to Mars … Then the improbable happens: Lawrence is recruited for a top-secret mission of cosmic proportions! The whole operation relies on him realizing the full potential of his 1-in-6-billion mind – without freaking out. The rocket-science math is a no-brainer, but is he made of the right stuff to manage the communication and cooperation of a team effort … without his best friend?
Source: Google Books.
NOTE: I was contacted by the author’s agent in order to review this copy. I was sent a free pdf copy, but I insisted I should not be paid for this review. I have not been and will not be. This in order to retain control of the product I produce.
Content Warning: I will discuss some of the terms used in the book, which many in the community rightly see as ableist slurs. Since the book uses them, I shall use them for the purposes of this review.
I was concerned about this book from the start. When I saw the “Praise for” from a Special Education teacher (who works within an ABA system) and an advocate for Autism Speaks, I knew that there would be some poisonous views in there. I have written before about ABA and other forms of conversion therapy and how they do nothing but punish us for being who we are, you’ll know how to look for them. When the Autism Speaks rep talks about following your “head and heart,” I bite my tongue. His entire business model is based on destroying autistic heads and hearts, but sure.
I was initially impressed by how Lawrence matter-of-factly narrates his immediate actions. He’s good in the present tense, it’s where he comes alive. For instance, Lawrence says: “The truck chassis is sitting in the other corner. The chassis looks neglected and lonely all by itself. I’m not a car, but I recognize the feeling.” (p. 4) This is wonderful, as it shows the permeability autistic people have and how empathetic we can be to others, including to inanimate objects.
But when he starts describing himself within the context of “high-functioning autism” or “Asperger’s Syndrome,” that’s where I started losing trust in Lawrence as a character. Why? Because the idea of autism with so-called ‘functioning labels’ is a false one. The only reason they exist is to deny people services. If you’re “high-functioning”, you don’t really need any support, you’ve just got to toughen up. If you’re “low-functioning”, you might as well not be alive, since you’ll be essentially abandoned. Asperger’s syndrome is a term increasingly (thankfully) seen as a slur within the autistic community, due to Hans Asperger’s wartime record as a national socialist collaborator in Vienna and contributor to the eugenicist T4 programme that murdered disabled people in his care.
Lawrence’s mind is mechanical in how it functions, combining Jimmy Neutron and his robotic dog. Old tropes of autistic coding come back again and again, such as ‘strange’ ritualistic behaviour and a cold affect exemplifying a cold mechanical sense of self. Nothing to be seen about the reason why autistic people need to mask, or can have a cold affect: the constant need neurotypicals have for us to behave a certain way – a need which, due to the double empathy problem, we will never be able to fulfil, whatever we do or do not suffer through for the benefit of those around us.
Beyond representation, there are other significant problems. It took me weeks to get through. In all my years of reading, I have rarely read a book more difficult to finish – and I read Samuel Richardson’s Pamela: or, Virtue Rewarded when doing my English degree! The first 100 pages are drawn out and uninspiring. In my novel Teeming, the tempo is quite low, in order to represent the mind style of the autistic point-of-view characters. That’s not because Frank and Sara are slow, it’s because their minds are over-full of associations, images, sound, smells and memories. In this book, the reader spends over 80 pages in a single conversation, going through a protracted exposition dump before the inciting incident, broken up in mini-chapters like ad breaks in an over-monetised youtube video. As an autistic person, I want to be the one in control of my train of thought. Some autistic people may prefer shorter chapters, but me? I felt like I was pushed into constant high-low tension manipulation that the book hadn’t earned. The pay-off was never worth the hassle.
Here’s some examples of the writing style itself, with notes describing issues I had with it.
“And I slam the door, which is my way of telling my dad I’m unhappy, or I’m angry, or sometimes both at the same time, which is the case right now.”p. 16
I like that, because it shows the complexity of autistic emotions. Why does that even need showing? Well, much of culture around our community has been to imply that we are voids where a human is supposed to be. Incomprehensible objects that look like people but are acting in ways that are inhuman. We are wild beasts that have to be tamed, with wild base emotions that need to be limited. Complexity is a privilege that we are not given.
“His flattop is so flat that if I write him a note that says his haircut makes my brain twitch, and I rest the note on the top of his head instead of handing it to my dad to read, the note would sit precisely level, parallel with the surface of the living room carpet.”p. 27
This is an example of where Lawrence’s idiosyncrasies are implied to be negatively affected by other things in the world, rather than arise idiosyncratically, for no other reason than us being us.
Lawrence’s scientific capabilities – he seems to have an almost synaesthetic capacity for mathematics, calculating angles and placement to within a single degree – is indicative of an old trope of autistic people. We are, supposedly, savants. Bored, superior, savants. “Again, none of this is news to me. I stifle a yawn.” (p. 42) Lawrence is a stick figure, a straw man, for many of the most toxic personality flaws that neurotypicals impose onto us.
Autistic people are, also, not “neurodiverse” – a term that in fact applies to everyone, whatever their neurotype, be it neurodivergent or neurotypical. if the word ‘ethnic’ were applied to a person of colour, the editor would have cut it out. “especially those with intellectual superpowers, like your son.” (p. 45) We don’t have superpowers, however much neurotypicals may use this super-crip analogy, that our existence is only valid for as long as those who have power over us can utilise our interests. We use maths, science, sociology, music, nature, literature or games design – whatever it may be – to escape. Because these fields allow us to succeed because we care, rather than fail because we were born different to the norm.
“And since I’m planning to get my driver’s license in ninety-one days, when I turn sixteen, I need to get started soon.”p. 7
Lawrence is played as far younger than he actually is. Autistic people, despite the general idea that we have developmental delay and/or are sexless, are just as likely to be sexually active as our neurotypical peers throughout our lifetime. We are also far more likely to be LGBTQIA+, which is often met with a lack of understanding and subsequent enrollment in ABA programmes. ABA is a tradename for conversion therapy, this is where the organisation Autism Speaks makes its money. In the US, the only “support” available for autistic people is ABA. That’s extra useful, since any divergence in gender and/or sexuality can also be helpfully repressed.
That last sentence was sarcasm, by the way, which autistic people are more than capable of. Lawrence’s direct thought is in a different mode to his direct ‘speech’ in note form. That is far more idiomatic and seems like it’s a different character altogether. It may have been useful for Lawrence to point out that he codeswitches but, since he is supposed to be ‘into maths,’ that’s not something the book is interested in.
By Chapter 18, we are still at the inciting incident of the novel. It’s moving at a glacial pace – not due to the internal workings of Lawrence’s mind, Flint Garrison is just so incredibly slow. When chapter 17 started “Here we go again” I felt that just as hard. Thinking of a child with a low tolerance for boredom or a focus of a few pages a night, it’ll take them half of a month to get to the point where the book might start to become interesting.
“And now my dad is bouncing his right leg a lot, just like he does whenever we’re sitting in Dr. Tidewater’s waiting room, especially those times when he makes an appointment after I lose my temper and lock myself in my bedroom for a long time, and by a long time, I mean when the total number of days I’m in there is divisible by seven.”p. 76
I like the autistic coding of Lawrence’s father. He is actually presented as more authentically autistic than his son. Autistic people sometimes lock themselves in their room. That is because it is safer there than it is outside. It is a reasonable and justifiable response to an outside world that is highly dangerous to us.
“I feel an immediate call to duty. And then I feel myself rocking from side to side. I tell my brain to make it stop, but it doesn’t work.”p. 86
Why should he stop? The only reason an autistic person should not want to stim Iperform self-stimulatory behaviour, in order to soothe an overloaded nervous system) is due to conversion therapy telling them stimming is wrong.
“After hearing those words from my dad, my body stands a bit taller, and it might also be a bit stronger too. And I instinctively raise my chin, and then I thrust out my chest and pull back my shoulders. This must be what pride feels like.”p. 89
No, no, no. It’s how neurotypicals define pride – again, with the aim of changing autistic people’s posture – part of ABA. When I’m proud, I start giggling and jump up and down – my fiancé does the same. He makes zoomy noises and flaps his hands a little. I can start singing. Singing is something I started doing because I wasn’t allowed to express my particular kind of excitement in ways that came more naturally to me.
“I don’t know whether my dad is asking a question, or he’s expressing disappointment, but the look on his face says it’s both.”p. 92
This is good. We do learn to read emotions cognitively, but we have to work for it. I would assume that any proofreaders from an ABA background would have flagged up this statement as impossible for Lawrence to make.
“Sherman, to the best of my knowledge, you and I have two methods of communicating with each other, not three. We either speak, or we write. We don’t exchange ideas by throwing things at each other. Isn’t that correct?”p. 93.
There should never be just two ways of communicating. No-one should be monopolising that power in a household, least of all the parent, especially if their child struggles speaking words. AAC or makaton are also valid. But Lawrence’s father chose to override his child’s independence, which is never acceptable, especially not for those of us with PDA.
“If I die while pursuing my calling, then at least I will have lived in the math. I will have lived the truth. My truth. If I don’t at least try, I might as well be dead.”P. 97
This. Exactly this. This is what we should all have access to. We should live our own truth, as autistic people, as LGBTQIA+ people, as the vast majority of us that straddle both of those identities.. However, Autism Speaks and behaviour modification treatment believes that if we remain as we are, they would much rather we were dead. The more it’s hammered into us, the more we start believing them.
“Dr. Tidewater also diagnosed me with a rare condition known as savant syndrome, which means I have massive memory skills and perfect recall. I also face challenges with social skills and nonverbal communication, and I’m prone to lapse into conspicuous repetitive behavior. I am aware of all these things.”p. 9
Savant syndrome is very rare. I’m not a savant at all, neither are basically all autistic people. Yet many autistic people, because of our “spiky profiles,” would be considered savants by a misinformed general public. For instance, I speak 8 languages relatively well. That’s savant-level for some medical professionals, though I mainly regret being so tired all the time when I was a teenager that I put off learning Japanese for 20 years. It was a global pandemic that finally gave me the time and space to do it. If I hadn’t been humongously exhausted 24/7 I would have spoken 20 fluently by now.
As a child, I had perfect pitch and a photographic memory. That memory took a hit from being overmedicated for years, but it’s back to where it’s supposed to be. I would have definitely been diagnosed with savant syndrome in the US. I would also be dead, because the only autism “support” covered by Medicare is conversion therapy, or, under its brand name; ABA.
We don’t “fall into conspicuous repetitive behavior” (sic). We stim. We do that because it’s vital for us to function, especially in a world where our sensory and socioemotional needs are not met, for the benefit of those who are not like us. If, like Lawrence, you grew up in 2000s America (fictional or not) you also had to deal with behaviour modification “therapists” who used punishment and conditioning to try and machete their way to the fabled neurotypical child underneath you, you would have been driven to the point of suicidal depression. That’s the take-home here.
“And I don’t like loud noises.
And I don’t like to be touched.
And I don’t like it when people ask me questions.
And I don’t like it when someone feels sorry for me.
And sometimes I wonder why other people can’t analyze numbers and interpret them the way I can.
And sometimes I get upset about it, like the time I smacked Nathan.”p. 10
That doesn’t sound like an autistic person at all. When an autistic person has an outwardly violent meltdown, they might say that they slapped their friend because they don’t understand maths. But the reason is always exhaustion. It’s never because we’re intellectual snobs or computers that go haywire if the wrong data is input. We are neurodivergent. Our neurological system gets overwhelmed, so we have meltdowns if we’re pushed even further. This characterisation is frankly cruel and teaches that autistic people are vindictive if others don’t rise to their fabled heights of intellectual achievement. The last thing an autistic child needs to learn is humility about their chosen interests: they know exactly what they do and don’t know. We just want to share with others the joy we find in these interests. If Nathan got smacked, then Lawrence will have had an absolutely horrific day before that. The point of a meltdown is that a neurological system is overloaded and cannot cope – hence trauma responses (fight/flight/fawn/freeze) kick in.
This disregards Lawrence’s earlier statement that Nathan: “screamed at me, and then I slapped him hard across the face” (p. 6) Of course – an autistic young person with a sensory sensitivity to sound, especially unprovoked, immediately gets overloaded and the body reacts instinctively. The way Lawrence has internalised that, as him getting upset, is toxic though.
“Math equals truth. That’s why I never lie. Ever.”p. 9
I very rarely lie nowadays. But that’s because I’ve spent my first three decades constantly lying about who I was, who I loved and what I actually needed. Many autistic people have learned to lie constantly and do so now out of habit. Since most autistic people are LGBTQIA+ and we live in a profoundly homophobic and transphobic world, we are forced to hide our true selves from others.
I feel an awful lot of déja vu reading this book. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon hangs over this book like a nasty stench. As I stated in my last blog, a lot of ableist views were and continue to be given oxygen by its cultural impact.
“Sherman, we’ve got a long drive ahead of us, and General Garrison would like Ryker to be able to concentrate on the task at hand. Can you take a deep breath for me and try to relax?” And even though Dr. Murakami asks a question again, it doesn’t bother me as much this time. I think about saying something to her, but since my pad is already out, I write her a note instead.p. 118.
I take a deep breath. I exhale. I have less anxiety, at least for now.”
Lawrence is in a car, here, even though he said before he only feels safe enough in a car with either his father or his friend Zeke driving. He is also having to deal with huge changes in his life, meeting new people and a million questions at once about pizza. Still, the onus to change is on him, rather than anyone else. Dr. Murakami needs him to change his emotions, for the benefit of everyone else, even though he’s already on a mission for her benefit. Newsflash, guys: if you overload an autistic person and still expect them not to be a burden to you, you’re forcing that person to internalise all that anxiety.
“I decide not to give the note to Flint Garrison. Instead, I do a test run of my two-finger wave, aiming the experimental gesture toward Ryker as I walk away from the vehicle.”p. 125
This experimenting in human behaviour is very common. You see, what neurotypicals expect from us is to speak your language of symbols and signs natively. We don’t – we speak our own. We need to learn how to understand the way you communicate in order for you not to harm us. That’s why we need to figure out ways to mask that we are, really, just like you. Of course, that expectation is not reciprocal, because of the way power relations are in society. Autistic people, between one another, can communicate brilliantly well. Yet we live in a world where our sense of self is constantly assaulted by people thinking we are the problem.
“And then my brain recalls that in physics, black and white are not colors because they don’t have specific wavelengths— white light contains all wavelengths of visible light, and black is the absence of visible light—which makes them outcasts that have been shunned and rejected by color-spectrum society, which is something I can relate to because of my autism.”p. 131
Wow. Ok. He went there. No. Lawrence will understand that being a social outcast has nothing to do, inherently, with the colour of one’s skin, but with history and the invention of race in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, to justify slavery. Before that time, skin colour wasn’t as obvious a source of demonisation. That’s, er. Well, it’s something. And why does Lawrence not relate this understanding of race to Dr. Murakami, who has a Japanese name? Is it the specific colour of her skin that would justify the internment camps of 1941-45? Wow. It’s especially toxic, since there is a long-standing view that autistic people are natural racists, since we enjoy categorising things, leading us to be supposedly more susceptible to radicalisation. This is quite wrong, but, like with much media about our community, reality has very little to do with how we are represented.
The character of Maya Jupiter is introduced about halfway through. She writes to Lawrence:
“I’m a rule-breaker. My instinct is you’re not. Yin and yang. We’re going to get along just fine, friend.”p. 139
A few things. First, autistic people do have instinct and intuition, ours are usually beaten out of us by ABA providers and other conversion therapists. Second, PDA (pathological demand avoidance) is real and a lot of autistic people really struggle with imposed rules and authority. Read Chris Bonnello’s Underdogs for actually good PDA representation, written by someone who, to my knowledge, is not PDA.
“I’m in a conversation with the flight director again, and both my crewmates are listening in, and I’m hyperventilating for the second time, and my entire body is shaking, and I just want to go home. “Why can’t you understand? I NEED TO DO THE COUNTDOWN!”p. 174
Jesus. This is particularly vicious – the reader is supposed to detach and judge Lawrence here, negatively. I’m pretty sick of our community being represented as selfish and childlike, just wanting to get our way. What I’m criticising here is not the fact Lawrence wants to do the countdown, because it’ll make him feel safer and more in control. No, I’m criticising it being used as a crunch point. Every mini-chapter has one, and it’s usually because of Lawrence being difficult in some way. The idea that a 15 year old autistic young man would throw his toys out of the pram like that is quite toxic – he’d be overwhelmed and probably wouldn’t even register. It would have been far more interesting to go into the sensory experience of being in a rocket just about to lift off. But no, we have to pause yet again because Lawrence has special needs, apparently.
Despite copious exposition, I don’t think this book stands on its own. Zeke’s character isn’t sufficiently described, which is because the writer seems to expect us to have read the Zeke Archer trilogy beforehand. I haven’t, so I don’t see the point of the inclusion of characters from that series. I have done some reading around it, and though Zeke seems to be happy playing basketball in college, his friend Lawrence is still at home with his father. I’m concerned that, in the trilogy, Lawrence’s role was limited to providing value to Zeke’s narrative arc, without gaining independence himself. But that’s not relevant to this particular book. It’s an awkward fit, though, especially since Zeke doesn’t really begin to play a role in the narrative until around page 210. Zeke is a ghost before then, there but very much not there, like a missed item on a shopping list.
“I grip onto Stone Godfrey’s hand, and with friendly sincerity, I look him directly in the eye, and I smile.
I cringed at this. I know what it’s like to have handshakes imposed upon you. This feels like a way to justify ABA-based intervention. Make the autistic do the thing, otherwise they are not people. Lawrence has to shake Godfrey’s hand, then look him in the eye, all while Godfrey does not warrant the emotional labour Lawrence has to put in for him. Meanwhile, Lawrence gets the blame for a technical error not made by him, he then has to go out of his way to fix it and, wanting to do so, needs to shake hands with an unpleasant and slightly frightening alpha male. This will be more painful for Lawrence than calculating the ship’s passage around Mars and catching a single basketball-sized object.
I know that Autism Speaks likes to hide between “everyone is different” and appropriate talking points from the neurodiversity field. But the difference they defend is always framed within the worldview Autism Speaks already propagates. They speak about autism in a way that is reprehensible and false. I know dozens, even hundreds of autistic people. None of them are anything like the autistics that Autism Speaks likes to pretend are really who we are. This is why there’s so much pushback against Autism Speaks. Not because they show autism in a way that autistic activists don’t like (which they do) but because they only show autism in a way that benefits their bottom line. They create a fiction of who we are, as nearly-humans, who might need a little encouragement to become a full person. The victory is always of the neurotypical ‘real’ person against the autistic ‘impulse’, as it were.
Even if people were to defend Lawrence’s characterisation as genuine “for Lawrence,” that would be the same defence game developers used against criticism of Lara Croft’s oversexualised portrayal in Tomb Raider, back in the 1990s. Of course, Lara might want to dress like that, but Lara, isn’t real. You made her up, guys. You drew her and created a specific image of a woman for a specific purpose: titillation of the perceived cishet white male gamer. Likewise, claiming that Lawrence magically happens to fit with harmful stereotypes, just because he’s Lawrence is either a bad faith argument or shows significant misunderstandings of the cultural power of representation.
Having Lawrence shake Godfrey’s hand as an act of triumph over his perceived limitations is a pretty toxic victory lap for autistic children, who will be reading his character arc as aspirational.
“And then I make a rare attempt at humor, opting for a double entendre, which my brain recalls is a word or phrase open to two interpretations.”p. 283
I don’t think there are more naturally funny people than autistics. Just after writing the previous sentence, I spoke with an autistic mentee, who made me laugh so much that I cried. My autistic partner is the most hilarious person I’ve ever met. I used to be a stand-up comedian, with notable success. My best friend is a professional comedian in the UK. The idea that we don’t “get” humour, is a false and toxic one.
“Maya has made choices in her life I wouldn’t make in mine, but not everyone has to be like me. If they were, then that pale blue dot we’re streaking toward would be a pretty boring place.”p. 302
Another problematic bit of ideology around what autistic people are actually like. The idea behind this is that autistic people are normative in their thinking. As in: we expect the world to revolve around us and everyone to adapt to us. That couldn’t be further from the lived reality we inhabit. We are the ones who are constantly expected to change, for the benefit and ease of those around us. We are even given conversion therapy to change for the benefit of those around us and we’re the ones who have to accept difference? This, like the moment where Pax Booker’s race is discussed, is supposed to be an educational moment for a young reader. If that young reader is autistic, they are taught they should internalise their fear of other people’s propensity to do harm to them; if they don’t, they aren’t accepting enough of others. If that young person is neurotypical, they are expected to view autistic people with suspicion: are they judging me? This would lead them to be even less accepting of autistic people than they already are.
“And then all the lights go out.
And then it gets eerily quiet.
And then I wonder if this is what it’s like to be dead.
To be free of fear.
And bullies, and people who don’t understand me, and endless calculations coursing through my brain.”p. 308
Wow. Where do I even start? Is Lawrence supposed to be welcoming death here? As if it were better if he weren’t around at all? And that the reason for that is bullying, people not understanding him and endless calculations going through his brain? Wow! Obviously, the last one is nonsense. He adores the calculations. They give him oxygen. To imply that he would want to be free of them is to detach an autistic person from the things they love. The problems with bullying and misunderstanding are to be fixed by others. Not ever by Lawrence himself, despite implying that death would indeed be preferable, better than being him. As a consequence, this part is seriously dangerous to any reader, especially a young reader.
“My brain notes that the word catatonic is used to describe someone who is immobile or in an unresponsive stupor.”p. 309
Again, wrong. That’s called a shutdown. It’s a quiet meltdown. ABA willfully puts autistic people in states of shutdown, because they’re less trouble to others. No matter the consequences for the autistic person. If an autistic person is misdiagnosed with catatonic stupor, that means they can be prescribed antipsychotics, which can be lethal at certain dosages – we don’t know what dosages, since there have been no clinical trials on autistic people. It’s very dangerous to include this.
I’m afraid that the author’s beta-readership was lacking actually autistic voices. With the exception of a few moments of empathy that the author brings to his reading of an autistic mind, it is stuck in outdated, sometimes even nasty stereotypes. A few issues from towards the end of the novel really disturbed me. It is indicative of a very serious problem not just with this book, but across the United States. Autistic people, as a rule, are not taken seriously. I’ve seen autistic people from the US want more ABA, because it allows them to internalise sensory overload. That this causes greater distress is something they’ve been taught comes with the territory of being alive.
I find it difficult to imagine Lawrence as a real autistic person, for all the reasons that I have discussed above. As an autistic novelist, it’s a damn shame that our actual voices are being drowned out by well-meaning people who are wrong. Autistic people are widely divergent: we are of every race, gender, sexuality, class and disability. What we are not is the stereotype painted of us in this book. If anything, many of us are more like Maya, who we only see through Lawrence’s perspective. It feels like Lawrence is actually quite empty. That this must have been the point is not indicative of a failure on the author or a slight on his imagination. He was simply given false information and, as a consequence, has written propaganda for conversion therapy. I do not blame him. But there does need to be a sea-change in the way autism is spoken about in the United States, because there is stuff in here that’s profoundly dangerous, especially to young readers.
I’ve tried desperately to be kind to this book, but there were too many aspects to it that were dangerous to allow me to recommend it to anyone.
If you’ve read this book or any like it, let me know what you think. I’m happy to do this more often, perhaps on a Patreon if I ever get round to setting that up.
In the meantime, love you, I’ll see you next week.