Shaunta Grimes’s Viral Nation is the only traditionally published YA sci-fi/dystopian novel with an autistic protagonist that we know of at Disability in Kidlit, and we were excited to review it in our first discussion-style review.
The book’s flap copy is as follows:
After a virus claimed nearly the entire global population, the world changed. The United States splintered into fifty walled cities where the surviving citizens clustered to start over. The Company, which ended the plague by bringing a life-saving vaccine back from the future, controls everything. They ration the scant food and supplies through a lottery system, mandate daily doses of virus suppressant, and even monitor future timelines to stop crimes before they can be committed.
Brilliant but autistic, sixteen-year-old Clover Donovan has always dreamed of studying at the Waverly-Stead Academy. Her brother and caretaker, West, has done everything in his power to make her dream a reality. But Clover’s refusal to part with her beloved service dog denies her entry into the school. Instead, she is drafted into the Time Mariners, a team of Company operatives who travel through time to gather news about the future.
When one of Clover’s missions reveals that West’s life is in danger, the Donovans are shattered. To change West’s fate, they’ll have to take on the mysterious Company. But as its secrets are revealed, they realize that the Company’s rule may not be as benevolent as it seems. In saving her brother, Clover will face a more powerful force than she ever imagined and will team up with a band of fellow misfits and outsiders to incite a revolution that will change their destinies forever.
Warning: this discussion contains significant spoilers. Go here to skip directly to our spoiler-light conclusions.
s.e. smith: I have so many tangled feelings about Viral Nation, starting with the cover copy—”brilliant but autistic”—which I know is not the author’s fault. I think it highlights a big issue in publishing, which is that marketing/etc. don’t think out copy and it turns off readers. As a disabled reader who really cares about depictions, I was very put off by that line. And it puts authors in a bad position, too, because of course they can’t be seen to be cross with their publishers, and thus have to kind of accept bad cover copy even if it irritates them too.
Corinne Duyvis: The cover copy almost made me not read the book at all! Seeing these things, I always wonder in the back of my mind whether the author fought the cover copy at all, despite knowing that’s completely unfair. However, then I read a blog post by the author that was very sensible, about how the autism is just something the character deals with, and saw a good review or two, so picked up the book anyway.
s.e.: It raises the kind of question of how much/when can authors advocate for changes to cover copy if they feel it will actively harm their books and their audience?
Corinne: It’s going to depend hugely on the publisher, too. But like … not offending your audience before they even crack the cover is pretty important.
s.e.: And clearly there’s a difference between say J.K. Rowling and Jane Doe. As far as the book itself goes, one of my problems is that Clover often seems to be a burden that other people need to “handle” as opposed to a human being. Which very much plays into the whole “brilliant but” line on the cover—to perceive her not as a whole person but instead as a person with autism. I mean, I will be honest, I did not find myself very much in this book—which doesn’t mean it wasn’t accurate, because autism is hugely variable. But it’s a MAJOR plot point. It’s constantly hammered in at every moment. And there are some things about it that are very strange and inconsistent. How is it that despite having overload when Clover’s schedule is constantly disrupted—which makes total sense—she’s still able to make complex plans?
Corinne: What kept striking me as so weird was how the love interest, Jude, knew “how to touch Clover without her freaking out” because he had an autistic brother. There’s not exactly a manual about how to touch autistic people, AFAIK.
s.e.: UGH I KNOW. There’s a user guide they pass out to families of autistic people, don’t you know, because we’re all the same.
Corinne: I do like that Clover was shown as sometimes needing touch and comfort—which NTs often think autistic people don’t need—and that her brother let her initiate it. But then Jude just completely overrode that.
s.e.: Her relationship with her brother felt more true to life with me in terms of what they had negotiated between each other in years of experience together. But the love interest thing just weirded me out. Also, something that bugged me about this and bugs me in general about autism books: we’re seeing a very specific representation of autism. Which is the “high-functioning” form. Like, communicates fairly easy with NT people, has “quirks” but doesn’t deal as much with compulsive behaviours or related tics, can act a lot like an NT and effectively pass. Why is this the only form of autism we ever get to see? The “brilliant but autistic” kind?
Corinne: Yeah. It’s a hard thing to criticize individual books for, but it’s absolutely a trend. It’s one I’m guilty of, as well, but … yeah.
s.e.: Yes. I can’t blame an individual author for writing the story she needed to write, but it does need to be addressed. There’s a similar point to be made with other diversity issues, though. Like, we could avoid the issue of lack of POC by saying “well we can’t blame individual authors” but then how do we talk about it? There’s a balanced way to say “this book fits within a larger framework that is troubling.”
Corinne: Yes, definitely. This “flavor” of autism probably feels more accessible to NTs to write about, as well as probably being the narrative people read about most often. It’s self-perpetuating.
s.e.: It’s a confluence of factors going on there. Also, society very much hides people who communicate differently, who have more complex and unfamiliar behaviours, etc.
Corinne: Many autistic people are not given as much of a voice to express themselves in whichever way is most comfortable or possible for them, so it seems like they don’t have a voice. And it becomes this big, alien, too-weird thing to write about for a lot of people.
s.e.: It’s one of the things I like about Loud Hands, the autistic anthology? There are lots of different kinds of voices and modes of communication featured. The mistake I think some authors make is “well ‘those people’ don’t communicate verbally so how can they be in books” and, well. And of course there’s so much loaded social stuff about an NT telling our stories. The parent/child relationship is so complicated in the real world, where parents often speak over their children. And if you’re a parent of an autistic child writing YA about autistic people … you’re playing into that. It’s … frustrating to see the trope that autistic people are unrelateable repeated here. But I think the author is on to something important where she talks about being a caretaker for her siblings. Like, siblings take care of each other REGARDLESS of disability status. We see that with the twins in the book. I just hate that in Clover’s relationship it’s often staged as Because Autism rather than Because Family.
Corinne: Yes. One thing I did like is that, while Clover is the younger sibling—which is a common trope—I was glad to see that in Jude’s case, it was his older brother who had autism.
s.e.: And I like that the author avoided the “sibling forced to grow up too soon” trope with Jude and his brother, which often comes up in narratives about siblings of disabled people.
Corinne: You know, given all the issues we’ve discussed so far, I was actually surprised at how much I did end up liking Clover and the book.
s.e.: Yeah, I mean, after harshing on it for half an hour straight, there was a lot to like.
Corinne: One thing that I strongly recognized was when Clover is told she can’t attend the Academy. The way she basically got stuck is something I TOTALLY RELATE TO. She had this one thing in her head, she’s told it can’t happen, and she can’t really process the rest, she just—she gets stuck, and starts shouting and repeating things.
s.e.: Yeah, I call this “this wasn’t how it was supposed to be syndrome.” I also liked the scene with being forced into the Travelers. Where she was upset that her whole schedule and system was being disrupted but she was so traumatised that she couldn’t self-advocate. It’s after she’s rejected from the Academy and then she’s told to go report to the Company …. So she does and then she’s kind of set off on this whirlwind where she can’t go home and they promise to contact her brother (and of course don’t). And she’s obviously unhappy and thrashing with discomfort but she’s sort of frozen and can’t do anything.
Corinne: Since the author said the book doesn’t tackle autism and it’s just something Clover copes with, I didn’t expect it to be as big of a plot point as it was. And a kind of ridiculous one, also, with the reveal at the end. I’m actually quite bothered by that reveal—as I was reading it, I kind of groaned and went, “seriously?”
s.e.: That only autistics had the TIME TRAVEL MAGIC? Yeah, that was a huge eyeroll for me.
Corinne: I went into the book thinking it’d be a regular dystopian with an autistic character, you know? I liked how it seemed to be woven in, affecting the plot but not dominating it: how it was her autism/service dog that kickstarted the plot by making her leave the Academy, and how it seemed that the Time Mariners and such were far more disability-friendly (like the casual inclusion of the dude with Tourette’s). But then it became a thing. I think it may be intended to be empowering, but it rubs me the wrong way.
s.e.: Yeah, it left me feeling kind of icky. I hate magical disability storylines.
Corinne: It would have been easy enough to avoid. Clover already has the photographic memory (which doesn’t generally work the way it’s portrayed in fiction, but oh well) so … there was already a reason that she was useful to them, needed to be manipulated, etc. I feel like the memory would’ve been a much more logical way to have only some people able to time travel and not others.
s.e.: Yes. Because again there’s this implication that all autistics are the same.
Corinne: And that there is a very clear distinction between Autistic and Not Autistic. I’m not sure that’s true. Like, Waverly could travel because he was “on the spectrum”—but that’s just it, it is a spectrum. And I don’t want to say go “everyone is a little autistic” or “we all have some traits,” or whatever, because that gets into some icky erasure and simplification …
s.e.: But it’s not black and white, either. I talk about this a lot in terms of gender, which is also a spectrum. Like, no one is totally female … but there are some people with a lot of female traits.
Corinne: And Waverly seemed to be more of a “crazy scientist!!” than recognizably autistic. I would probably appreciate that more—because some people’s autism isn’t outwardly obvious—if I wasn’t so dubious about other parts of the book.
s.e.: He also fell into a kind of familiar crazy scientist autistic stereotype, though.
Corinne: There was an attempt at explanation in saying that he’d been alone for so long. But it didn’t entirely work for me. It didn’t seem to be treated with very much nuance, but it feels like it should be, particularly f you’re going to make it a big plot point.
s.e.: It’s interesting to me to read the conflict between the author’s stated intent and how the book reads. Because to me it’s very much An Autism Book. Which is fine, there’s nothing bad about that. But it makes me wonder a lot about how she perceives autism if she thinks this is an unintrusive, living with it depiction.
Corinne: Yes, it’s not as incidental as the author implies. The autism kicks off the book, is the reason Clover gets dragged into everything, and the connection with her love interest hinges on it. I don’t mind it being so inextricable, because Clover did feel like a real character to me, rather than a plot device, but it definitely took me by surprise because I was expecting something so different.
s.e.: At the beginning it made sense, too. It was just having it repeatedly reinforced that got to be annoying. It was like, okay, I get it, she’s autistic. Show, don’t tell. There’s the mentions of the love interest “knowing how to touch her” multiple times. Obviously the whole thing with the magical autistic people traveling through the time portal. The fact that she’s positioned as a burden for her brother at least some of the time.
Corinne: When you said “show, don’t tell,” at first I thought you meant in terms of the minor interactions or problems she runs into, as I didn’t have a problem with those.
s.e.: Yeah, the minor interactions were good. And true to the advertised intent.
Corinne: I reviewed another book for DiKL with an autistic character where my main criticism was that nearly every aspect of the character was defined by her autism, and nearly every single time we see the character on screen, her autism came up. Which bugged me! And when Viral Nation started out with Clover being so touch-averse even as a newborn—which as far as I can tell is unusual/uncharacteristic—that’s what I was worried about.
s.e.: Yes, that was odd too. I mean I know they just released a study about autistic babies and eye tracking, but, still.
Corinne: But—maybe because the book is from Clover’s perspective?—I was overall pretty glad with how it was handled. She very much read as a Main Character, rather than an Autistic Main Character, Who Is Autistic, at least in terms of the regular scene-to-scene stuff. (In terms of the plot she’s closer to Autistic Main Character, Who Is Autistic.)
s.e.: It was really excellent to have it from her perspective. And I liked seeing a service dog because they’re not often in text, although I wasn’t always totally pleased with how he was handled. Like, why would she deliberately leave her service dog behind when she’s in new situations? That would be exactly when she wants him—and it reinforces the idea that service dogs are pets/convenience items instead of being critically needed.
Corinne: Yes, the author handled Mango great in some ways, but that’s a big oversight. While it was a bit on the nose, I did like the explicit, “Don’t pet my service dog, he’s working” bit. Because that is a huge issue with service dogs, and having it be explicit on occasion can’t hurt!
s.e.: Yeah. I actually liked the more subtle scene in the Dinosaur, where he’s out of harness and not working. In terms of differentiating on/off task in a really elegant way. I also enjoyed that she showed him performing specific tasks.
Corinne: I liked Mango leaning into Clover when she got stressed. The book mentioned that the pressure helped, which is something I can absolutely see. Were there other tasks you were referring to?
s.e.: There’s a scene where he paws at her to get her to refocus and not engage in repetitive behaviour. And I think he stops her from pacing at least once, too. Those raise some interesting questions, though.
Corinne: I was about to say. Getting her to refocus is one thing …
s.e.: When he’s helping her with stress management, that benefits her. When he stops her from stimming … It’s interesting that all three tasks are presented as helpful and positive when in fact some autistics might not agree that extinguishing stimming is helpful.
Corinne: Yes. That’s iffy. Mango doesn’t stop her most of the time, though, so that may be implicit? That he only does it when she “needs” it?
s.e.: Yes, IIRC she’s stressed out in those scenes, so it might be an extension of helping her manage stress.
Corinne: Right, because if it were purely about the stimming, it’d be inconsistent. She stims quite a bit, if I recall.
s.e.: It’s kind of another example of how an NT writing an autistic’s story can flounder. Is she stimming in those scenes where Mango moves to stop her? Is she stressed? Isn’t there also a scene where Jude tries to get her to stop pacing, too?
Corinne: Let me look up this Mango scene, first.
Murder? The absurdity of it made [Clover] wonder again if this was some kind of prank. She stood and paced the small room in her underwear and T-shirt, her socked feet padding on the carpet. Mango hadn’t settled since they got back to the room, and now he did what he was trained to do, moving in front of her to stop her repetitive motion. She nearly tripped over him. “Mango!” He pressed against her and she sank to the floor, wrapping her arms around him.
Clover doesn’t seem to be so stressed out at the time that her pacing bothers her, and the text does explicitly say “to stop her repetitive motion” rather than, say, to help her refocus, or something. If it were about the stress, the author could have been more explicit.
s.e.: So clearly the goal here is to prevent repetitive motion. I mean, in this scene, Clover could be very understandably stressed and upset. And Mango could be reacting to that … but that’s not how it’s written.
Corinne: Here’s more:
One of Clover’s hands was caught up in Mango’s leash and the other flapped like it had a mind of its own and wanted to detach itself from her body. She was the weak link. She was going to get them all killed, because she couldn’t do this.
Jude slipped his hand around her flapping one and squeezed it. “Breathe,” he said. “We got this.”
There’s no mention of that squeeze being uncomfortable.
s.e.: Right, when in other places she’s flipping out about being touched. Which, again, doesn’t necessarily equate to inaccuracy, but is weird. She’s obviously stressed out, and probably doesn’t want contact.
Corinne: Yes. I don’t care how you approach an autistic person, grabbing and squeezing their stimming hand is pretty intrusive. And then he leads her, so it’s not brief contact, either.
s.e.: Hell, grabbing anyone’s hand without warning is weird unless you have a very established relationship, which they don’t at that point. And there’s more of this “she’s the weak point weighing everyone down” stuff.
Corinne: I can imagine that’s internalized, so it doesn’t bother me as much.
s.e.: Coming from her it’s a little different. It is one problem with telling stories from one person’s POV. You don’t get examination of how she’s internalised it, it’s just repeated without context.
Corinne: Though this did have multiple POVs? There was her brother, and also Waverly at one point. I guess it doesn’t bother me too much either way—in this situation, if she can’t cope, it makes sense for her to be concerned about getting the others caught.
s.e.: Yes. I think it’s her overall treatment as a weak point that troubles me.
Corinne: This makes me kind of want to re-read the book since that didn’t stand out to me as much. I think I was more focused on how her autism presents than her role in the book overall. There was one point where her brother was all “ugh let someone else deal with her” that bugged me, though. That was pretty explicit and hard to miss.
s.e.: It might be a sore spot for me, so I could be more attuned to it, as well. I think again there’s a hard balance to strike there. Because people are frustrating sometimes and you do want to throw your hands up in the air. Not because they’re autistic, just because they’re … people.
Corinne: Yeah, and West does have his own stuff to deal with. Here’s that scene I mentioned:
“But what if you do get caught?” Clover’s voice rose an octave, and West saw the signs of an impending meltdown. “Then what? Then what if I get into the city and you’re not there?”
“Okay,” West said. “Breathe, Clover. Let’s wait until tomorrow, when we can talk to Frank and Melissa before you get yourself all worked up.”
“I’m not worked up!” She stalked out of the big house.
West sighed. He was so tired. More tired than he could ever remember being. Finding a rhythm for the farm wasn’t difficult. This was one of the busiest times, with the harvest starting to come in. It was all the rest that threatened to overwhelm him. What were they supposed to do out here, besides run the farm? Would others come? Were the people who wrote the letters expecting something of them?
“I’ll go after her,” Jude said. West let him. It was a sign of his exhaustion that he was grateful not to have to deal with Clover’s meltdown on his own.
It’s not as bad as I recall. But it’s immediately followed by this:
Jude calmed Clover down, and the evening proceeded without any more drama.
Which … does read badly. Clover had a good damn reason for getting upset. She has legitimate concerns. But it’s dismissed as a meltdown and drama, rather than, “Maybe we should have a plan B.” Or, “I’m concerned about my brother getting caught.”
s.e.: Right, it’s “drama.” I remember that bugging me. And I’ve always hated the way “meltdown” is used to mean “pointless freakout.”
Corinne: Instead of just an autistic person getting upset and expressing it in their way. It seems very dismissive.
s.e.: Even a non-autistic person might decide to step outside and cool off! I think that’s something that bugs me most, when behaviour is attributed to autism instead of being a human being.
Corinne: Because you can easily separate the two, obvs. I’ve been told it’s only because of my autism that X upsets me, or that I don’t understand Y, and it feels so incredibly dismissive. Like, does that make it any less valid? And what do they want me to do—turn it off?
s.e.: Right?! Yes, that. You’re being unreasonable Because Autism, etc etc. Story of my life. “Why are you upset about this thing that’s totally reasonable to be upset about?” “Why won’t you communicate in the way I prefer?!” “You’re just being stubborn!”
Corinne: “You’re totally doing this on purpose! Just stop being autistic for a minute, god. It’s not hard, I do it all the time.” … So yes, I think we’ve established that we dislike the “drama” line. Ha. But here’s something else I found in the same category:
Clover backed up when West came closer to her. She had averted a full-on meltdown, but she still felt like she might fall apart if West touched her. Jude caught her from behind but let her go when she struggled.
s.e.: Jesus. She’s like a wild animal being tamed.
Corinne: Shortly before that, it’s:
A hard shiver passed over West, and he said, “I’ve been better, we both have, but we’ll be okay. She doesn’t have any sores. Maybe this isn’t the virus.”
A crush of emotions hit Clover with no warning. Her face crumbled, even though she tried to keep from showing West how upset she was. Tears streamed down her face, and despite her best efforts, she rocked from foot to foot with enough sudden vigor that Mango let loose a short, startled bark.
“Try to breathe,” West said. “Please, don’t do this now. Everything will be okay. I promise.”
For the first time in her life, West couldn’t make everything okay. But she could. This time she could. She had, already. West wouldn’t get sick. Bridget would get better. As quickly as she’d become overwhelmed, she drew a breath and was in control again.
There’s some stuff I missed, clearly. “Please, don’t do this now” again seems pretty callous.
s.e.: Yes, yes it does. I read with pretty extreme bias, I am not ashamed to confess.
Corinne: She’s worried her brother is getting sick and might die. Like … let the girl cry and rock for a bit. West is sick, I get that he has his own stuff going on, but “don’t do this now” doesn’t seem like something he’d say to an NT sister who was about to cry? Maybe it is. Given the context, I don’t know. It’s not great.
s.e.: Right? Something more reassuring, maybe? “We’re going to make it through this” or something. It makes her sound silly and emotional.
Corinne: He’s a teen; I don’t want to say that he can never be selfish or tired. But there’s a difference between “I am really tired/sick and can’t cope with other people’s feelings right now” and “I’m going to dismiss my sister’s legit emotions.” Because “this” in “don’t do this now” seems to refer to her having a meltdown, which is explicitly referenced a few lines later.
s.e.: Yes, and it reads as hostile rather than fatigued. I don’t know, it’s a hard scene to interpret because he’s obviously stressed and freaking out too. And again, you run into the problem of a scene that’s right for the book and the text … but bad socially and in the larger picture.
Corinne: Yeah. It’s just problematic when his emotions—regardless of how understandable, flawed, or human—are expressed in a way that reinforces certain treatment of autistic people. These atittudes are very common. And that scene could easily have been tweaked to both fit the book/character and be less iffy. I mean, it’s the same with any cliché. Frex, it might make perfect sense to kill off the one gay character in a book, but there are implications. Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. The same sort of applies to something entirely different—Clover fitting into the “genius autistic person” trope, with her being so smart and having a perfect memory. Yes, it may fit the book, and yes, it may be reality for a lot of people, but it plays into existing stereotypes.
↓ OUR SPOILER-FREE CONCLUSIONS ↓
Corinne: So, to sum up … We’re surprised by how big a deal the autism is given that the author claimed it was fairly incidental, and we roll our eyes at the way the autism is integrated into the plot, which borders on magical disability trope. We largely like the way Clover’s autism is treated—even if she does fall into the “genius autistic person” trope, and fits into the trend of only spotlighting characters with high-functioning autism—and we’re thrilled having an autistic protagonist, but the way her autism is perceived and “handled” by the characters around her is dubious. This includes some dismissive lines about people coping with her meltdowns/drama, and the bizarre way her love interest somehow magically knows to approach and touch her.
s.e.: Autism as H/C fic.
Corinne: There were also a couple of instances where Clover’s service dog or the people around her tried to stop her from stimming, and the text was ambiguous about whether it was to help her with stress or purely to stop her movements. The latter is explicit, the former unfortunately isn’t, but easily could have been to clear that up. We also very strongly dislike the cover copy. Overall, though, would you say you enjoyed the book? Would you recommend it and/or pick up the sequel? I think I would on both accounts (though with caveats) but … I do hope we can see more and better. The fact that the sequel’s cover copy says “quiet, autistic, and brilliant” is a step in the right direction, for certain.
s.e.: I would say that I mostly enjoyed it, and I would recommend it primarily because I’d be interested in talking with fellow autistics about it. It’s great for examples of doing things well … as well as poorly.