On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis tells the story of a girl trying to survive an apocalypse. A comet is about to hit the earth, and while some people have found places in permanent shelters or on generation ships leaving the planet, there isn’t room for everyone. Those who failed to find a place through skills or through a lottery have only temporary shelters for the impact itself, and will subsequently need to fend for themselves in a disaster-stricken world.
Denise, a teenage autistic girl in the Netherlands, can’t get to her temporary shelter in time due to her mother’s waffling. A chance encounter leads the two of them to find shelter, instead, on a generation ship that hasn’t left yet. The ship’s crew warn them that they will have to leave again after the impact is over – but Denise sees the generation ship as her best hope of survival, and is determined to find a permanent place on board.
The book touches on some very common apocalypse and post-apocalypse tropes, which many of us have seen in stories before. Everything is terrible; resources and safe space are extremely limited; therefore, to be allowed in the safe space, one must “pull one’s weight” and be judged worthy. The consequences of this system for disabled people are usually not spelled out, but the implications are ominous. One might be forgiven, given the premise, for anticipating a story all about an autistic person struggling to prove her worth to murderously ableist masters who think that no autistic people should be allowed to survive.
Fortunately—while Denise does, realistically, struggle to prove herself—Duyvis’s book is actually much more complex than this.
It’s not really a question of anyone being overtly prejudiced against autism. A few people, realistically, are, but by and large the people on the generation ship are good people trying to protect each other in a bad situation. There are other disabled people on the ship, including a wheelchair user (though this is only briefly mentioned) and an older autistic woman who serves as the ship’s doctor. It’s just that space really is limited, and there is already an enormous waiting list largely composed of the families of people who are already aboard. Many people on the ship see that Denise is helpful and resourceful, but anyone with a family on the waiting list understandably is looking for the survival of their family first. It’s not a question of ableism, or at least not solely of ableism, but of a complex and very difficult situation without easy answers.
If the story can be said to have a villain, it is not the other people on the ship, but Denise’s mother, who is awful. She is a drug addict who is neglectful to her children. Her irrational stalling is what prevents Denise from getting to the temporary shelter in the first place. She plays up the “my daughter has autism, isn’t it cute/sad” card to other adults, in front of Denise, who is humiliated; she tells other adults not to take Denise’s word for what Denise needs; she violates Denise’s physical boundaries. She explains her drug abuse condescendingly as if it’s something Denise would understand if only she had more social skills. Even when she apologizes, it’s defensive and immediately followed up with phrases like “don’t treat me like a villain”. Addiction—as many characters point out—is an illness, but Denise’s mother is toxic even when sober, and more than once it’s her actions while sober that put her own and her children’s lives in danger.
(I should note that the Evil Addict with no redeeming qualities can be a trope, and a potentially ableist one, but I don’t feel qualified to speak on how it’s handled here. I found Denise’s mother, apart from her addiction, a painfully apt portrayal of the kind of self-centred parental experience that many autistic people report.)
Denise is aware that much of what her mother does is not okay, but to her credit, she still does not believe that her mother deserves to die. What she wants is the same as what all the neurotypical characters want— survival for her whole family.
As Denise tries hard to earn a place for herself and her mother—and to find her missing sister, who may or may not be alive—she gets to explore many facets of a complex and difficult world, not only aboard the generation ship, but in shelters and other pockets of survival. She has a great deal of agency, perhaps more than many of the neurotypical characters. She is allowed several crowning moments of success—as well as making several big, costly mistakes.
Denise’s autism is well-written. Without ever veering into Autism Voice, Duyvis describes Denise’s experience of the world with great clarity and detail. She never loses touch with Denise’s humanity, but she also, to her credit, allows Denise to struggle. A comet striking the earth is traumatic for literally everyone, and Denise responds to this trauma in ways that are realistic for an autistic teenager without much support. She shuts down, melts down, hides in her room in exhaustion, blames herself for not being able to function with the outward success of her NT friends, and calls herself names. These scenes are not sugar-coated. But Denise is also able to take actions that show her as brave, resourceful, intelligent, and hard-working—not “despite” these difficulties, but alongside them.
I will not spoil what happens at the ending, but readers may be pleased to know that it doesn’t come from the angles one might expect. It doesn’t come from Denise successfully proving that she is somehow more useful and more worthy than all the other people on the ship’s waiting list. Instead, it comes from an intelligent questioning of the assumptions that underlie resource dilemma stories like this one in the first place.
The question of what to do about Denise’s mother is handled in a way that I found satisfying, and compassionate both to Denise’s mother, who really doesn’t deserve to be left to die, and to Denise herself. There’s also a thread towards the end of Denise discovering other ways to value herself, alternatives to the standards of productivity and usefulness that she assumes normal people must have for her.
It’s an emotionally wrenching book, but a worthy one, and one that treats its autistic protagonist with every bit of the realism and respect that she deserves.
[Editor’s Note: Kayla Whaley and Natasha Razi were the sole editors on this review. Corinne Duyvis, our fellow Disability in Kidlit editor, was not involved in any part of the editing process.]