The Incredible Challenge of Writing a Post-Apocalyptic Novel With an Autistic Hero

Illustration for article titled The Incredible Challenge of Writing a Post-Apocalyptic Novel With an Autistic Hero

Post-apocalyptic stories usually feature a certain type of character—someone who fits in with survivalist tropes. We never want to think about how people with various disabilities will do after the end of civilization. But in the new book On the Edge of Gone, Corinne Duyvis chose to put an autistic character in the middle of the apocalypse.

Talking to the blog Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism, Duyvis explains how this happened:

I had wanted to write a novel with an autistic protagonist for a while, but was never sure in what kind of story. I had also been itching to write a novel with a (post-)apocalyptic setting that explored the role of disabled people in these narratives. It seemed like an interesting topic to explore in fiction; it wasn’t purposefully political, although no doubt my work in disability politics played a part in that interest.

Eventually, I had a third, unrelated spark of an idea about the in-between stories of the apocalypse. After all, when we see destroyed worlds, we usually see only the aftermath. When we see future societies, they’re often centuries away and dystopian in nature. When we see generation ships, they’re typically set so long after the ship has left Earth that the planet has become almost mythical.

I wanted to ask: what about before all that? What about the destruction itself, about futures that aren’t dystopian, and aren’t utopian, but simply our world a couple of years onward? How did these generation ships ever reach lift-off, given the chaos on the planet? Who gets on the ships, and who makes those decisions? What kinds of preparations would you need to make? What kinds of problems could you run into?

And what might be happening on the rest of the planet while all this goes down?

Part of the challenge of writing an autistic character after the apocalypse? She doesn’t react to widespread destruction the same way that other people might:

I tried to balance Denise’s increasingly fragile emotional state with the external destruction and drama, which worked mostly because they’re so closely related. But when she reaches a certain point and can’t handle it anymore, she needs to withdraw. She curls up. She shuts down. At that point, she won’t be the most perceptive person around. The best thing I could do was make sure that I had thoroughly established her world and the situation, so that when the narrative shifted its focus, readers could fill in the blanks with only minor prompts on my behalf.


On the Edge of Gone has gotten starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal, and is out now.

Former io9 editor. Author of Victories Greater than Death, an epic space fantasy about LGBTQ+ teenagers who save all the worlds — now available for preorder. Also, please subscribe to her newsletter!

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This sounds incredible, and is going on my to-read list, but with that said, this article could really use some person-first language.

I work in the field of disabilities, and to define a person by their disability (she’s autistic, disabled, the disabled) is quite belittling and ignores the fact that they are a person before they are their disability. The general standard is to use person-first language when talking about individuals with disabilities (she has autism, and individuals with disabilities).

I hate to be so picky, but I feel like the biggest reason that this standard isn’t followed is simple awareness. By following these guidelines, you help contribute to a more inclusive community for individuals with disabilities.