Sacks notes that many "autistic" people are attracted to science fiction (the android Data, formerly Dr Spock from Star Trek, is a particular favourite of "the anthropologist from Mars", for example) and the stories in The Anthropologist from Mars often read like science fiction rather than science. The title might suggest that the author sees himself as the Martian anthropologist, a more developed cousin of Craig Raine's postcard-writer perhaps, but in fact Sacks is eager to prove himself a winningly human ambassador to and from people whose perceptual worlds might otherwise seem as "alien" as a Martian's to us. It's not he himself who comes from the un-inhabitable planet, it's his subjects, who, for reasons which are sometimes clearly neurological but perhaps also often psychological, find it difficult to inhabit our social world. Sacks's stories report on what he calls "house-calls at the far borders of human experience". They recount in often moving and convincingly baffled detail close encounterswith lives on the limits of scientific and social intelligibility.
The book offers us a series of searching essays on perceptual anomalies and disfunctions by way of extended case-histories, but it does more than that. It evokes what it was like to meet, talk and travel with people with spectacularly different modes of being, one hospitalised but the other six living successfully in the ordinary world from an extraordinary angle. It is a fascinating series of encounters, and each subject has a life-story that is as uniquely "impossible" as an Escher print.
There is an abstract painter who adapts to becoming totally colour-blind after an accident; an emigre Italian cook in San Francisco who after a serious breakdown became an obsessive and magically accurate painter utterly dedicated to recording the detailof his Tuscan home-town, Pontito, which he hadn't seen for years; a blind physiotherapist from Oklahoma who tragically fails to adapt to seeing after an apparently successful operation on his eyes encouraged by his fiancee; a blind hippie whose memory, apparently as a result of a brain tumour, became locked in the '60s and, despite getting high on a Grateful Dead concert with Sacks in 1991, remains totally amnesiac as regards everything after that great and gaudy decade; a La Tourette's patient with impressively bizarre Tourettic symptoms (such as hooting on his way to the operating theatre) who became a successful surgeon and lecturer; the child prodigy Stephen Wiltshire who, though apparently "autistic", could from an early age reproduce buildings as complex as St Pancras Station from memory with uncanny accuracy and has now published several books of illustrations; and, perhaps most remarkably, the autistic scientist Temple Grandin who, despite her apparent handicap, became a world expert on the humane slaughter of cattle and on autism itself.
Like his immensely successful The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the new book provides a set of popular studies of people with severe perceptual and behavioural problems, but it also gives us convincing close-up portraits of seven highly individual people in their own milieu, each one of whom is a kind of Sphinx to the enquiring scientist. Sacks's challenge is to find a way of coming to terms himself with people whose vision of the world is more and less than "realistic" and often hauntingly "surreal".
Keats claimed that "a Man's life of any worth is a continual allegory" and Sacks makes these inescapably allegorical lives an upbeat variant on the Sophoclean story of the Wound and the Bow. As Sophocles's Philoctetes shows his hero's disease being converted into a source of cultural benefit for Athens, Sacks's book celebrates people who have converted "handicap" into a gift, wounds into bows; it is an extended essay on what he calls "the creative potential" of "disease". In Beckett's Endgame there's a sick joke that goes "I can't sit", "True, and I can't stand", "Everyone his speciality". This is Sacks's point. After his initial shock at losing colour-vision, the colour-blind painter "Mr I" settles for black and white. It becomes his speciality; rather than lamenting lost colour, he becomes a Beckettian artist of a monochrome world. Likewise Franco, whose inner world appears to be trapped like Peter Pan's in "frozen segments" of the place he lived in as a child, makes his art a naive museum devoted to the Pontito of his childhood. "Bennett" revels in his identity as "the world's own flying Touretter surgeon", and while like a genial Jekyll and Hyde he chemically controls his symptoms during the working week, he cheerfully lets rip at week-ends, giving unbuttoned expression to his idiosyncratic Tourettic personality. "I don't think of it as a disease," he tells Sacks, "but as just me." The autistic scientist Temple announces: "If I could snap my fingers and be non-autistic, I wouldn't - it would notbe me. Autism is part of who I am."
It is part of the book's charm to convince us that its subjects are geniuses of a kind. Sacks no longer works in a psychiatric hospital but travels round the world lecturing and meeting people with interesting symptoms, and he now reads less like a doctor than a journalist in search of copy, a tourist of Tourette's, an artist of autism. If so, we are the gainers. For it is Sacks's touching desire to be a neurological artist which enables him to recognise the strange artistic creativity of his subjects; it is his narrative flair and puzzlement which puts us in touch with their lives. I wish we heard more of their words rather than his, and at times I thought that the fundamentally celebratory plot of the book emphasised the heroic adaptability of its lucky subjects at the expense of the horrors of maladaption faced by so many less lucky others. Nevertheless, in making them the subject of narrative, Sacks allows them to be, for us if not always for them, Keatsian "lives of allegory". When we have finished reading, they, us and the world seem stranger as a result.