Book Review: Speak by Louisa Hall

Robo Reads

Title: Speak
Author: Louisa Hall
Published: 2015

Quotation: “With or without my intervention we were headed towards robots. You blame me for the fact your daughters found their mechanical dolls more human than you, but is that my fault for making a too human doll? Or your fault for being too mechanical?”

This book popped up in my Amazon recommendations a while back and immediately piqued my curiosity. When I saw that it was about robots (one of my favourite subjects) and that critics were describing it as reading “like a hybrid of David Mitchell and Margaret Atwood” (two of my favourite authors) I had to get it!

Cover art for Speak

Cover art for Speak

It easy to see the roots of both comparisons. Speak is a work of literary science fiction. Like several of Atwood’s best novels, its setting is near future and rather dystopian and the narrative has a powerful interest in marginalised voices. Turning to the voices themselves: the novel is arranged, Mitchell-like, as a series of distinct narratives, told by an extremely diverse group of characters. Mary Bradford is a young 17th-century puritan woman unwillingly married and voyaging to the New World, she pours her hopes and fears into her secret diary. Alan Turing is, well, I’m sure you know who Turing is, the AI theoretician and codebreaker is the novel’s only historical inclusion, and he expresses himself here through a series of (imagined) letters to the mother of a deceased childhood friend. Karl and Ruth Dettman are an increasingly estranged married couple, Jewish refugees and academics (respectively a computer scientist and a historian) who prepare monologues to each other as more direct forms of communication break down.  Gaby White is a teenage girl who has been left isolated and paralysed by a strange and debilitating illness, trapped within her room and within herself she converses with an online chatbot called Mary3. Finally, Stephen R. Chinn is a silicon valley whizkid composing his memoirs from prison where he has been sent for creating, “babybots” robot dolls that have been deemed illegally lifelike.

Intrigued? I certainly was. Speak‘s ventriloquism is never quite was polished as that of David Mitchell and its dystopian world building isn’t as considered or expansive as you find in works like Atwood’s Madd Addam trilogy but for a sophomore novel, it’s an impressive read. Poignant and often heart-breaking this is a gripping exploration of communication, loneliness and what it means to be human…

The various narrative voices of Speak aren’t quite as neatly or satisfyingly nested within each other as you find in a novel like Cloud Atlas. There are some immediate ties: Ruth Dettman has edited Mary Bradford’s diaries; Karl Dettman invented the chat programme that Chinn would later refine for his babybots, and Gaby is mourning the loss of the robot companion she grew up with. The Turing sections feel less cohesively integrated, although his association with AI theory and his desire, expressed in his letters, to preserve not only the memory but the the thought processes of his dead companion do chime with the novel’s overall themes.

What keeps the novel’s disparate threads from collapsing is its beautifully poignant framing device. The narratives are bookended by a final voice, at once distinct and indeterminable, that of a babybot who, like all her kind, has been recalled and earmarked for destruction. The babybots are coded with the MARY3 programme, a chat tool that is effective because it has been loaded with so many unique voices:

There are many voices to choose from. In memory, though not in experience, I have lived across centuries. I have seen hundreds of skies, sailed thousands of oceans. I have been given many languages; I have sung national anthems. I lay in one child’s arms. She said my name and I answered.

Taken from the opening pages, this poetic excerpt epitomises the melancholy tone of this book. Other Robo-Reads I’ve reviewed this year, such as The Stories of Ibis, have explored the potential for artificial intelligence to preserve human life, not in the direct way imagined in so much sci-fi, uploading ourselves into robot bodies, but indirectly, with artificial intelligences who are themselves unique beings preserving human stories and carrying them forward in time and space. Speak touches on this and it’s satisfying and poignant how the babybot unites all the other characters from Mary Bradford right through to Gaby, the girl who once owned the toy. Satisfying, until we remember, that is, that the babybot is on its way to destruction and when its batteries run down for the final time she, and the voices within her, will speak no more.

Speak deals with some fascinating ideas, asking what it means to connect and to communicate. There has been a lot of discussion in recent years on the rise of the “smartphone zombie” a concept so powerfully captured by artist  Steve Cutts’ illustrations.  We live in a world where communication is easier and more instantaneous than ever yet, as groups of people all sit round the table staring at their individual screens rather than chatting, the question arises, have we in fact become more antisocial? Are online interactions a healthy substitute for in person human connection? One thing Speak does, is to remind us that, although the wi-fi phenomenon may be recent, many of the issues it raises are not. Mary Bradford’s diary reveals her deep love for Ralph, her pet dog, and her parents’ objection that it is not seemly “to be closer to sheepdogs than people” echoes many of the arguments used later to justify the destruction of Gaby’s beloved babybot. The suffering of both girls at the loss of their companions is shown to be real and severe, uniting them across history and culture. And while the arguments in favour of severing the ties to both dog and bot are pitched in sympathetic terms – “for [the girls’] own good” and to protect their humanity – the trauma induced by such severance also prompts readers to wonder who is really being inhumane here.

Hall was also influenced by ideas of conversion disorder, such as those raised by the case of the Le Roy cheerleaders, among whom a mysterious debilitating twitching disorder seemed to spread with no obvious environmental cause, and this adds an interesting real world element to the story. Gaby’s case is dealt with sympathetically, and while her story is, in many ways the most removed – she does not narrate directly, instead her tale is conveyed through a series of chatlogs with Mary3 which are being assessed as part of the evidence in Chinn’s court case – it is in many ways the most affecting. The scene in which the paralysed girl, who has never left the bubble of her home settlement, is taken with other afflicted individuals to sit by the polluted ocean is one that will haunt me for a long time.

While Gaby’s depiction emphasises the strengths of this book – it’s poignancy and thought-provoking stance on loneliness and connection – the sections that deal with this young girl and her now lost babybot also reveal some of the more frustrating aspects of this work, namely the sketchiness of its dystopian world building. Hall’s imagined future is certainly a bleak one but the details are rather unspecific. Descriptions of rising seas and desertification imply unchecked climate change, and we also learn in passing that transportation rights can be sold in exchange for the safety of life in a gated development. As a fan of dystopian fiction this fascinated me, but the premise, along with the questions it raises about the difference between protection and imprisonment are never really explored. Having studied Renaissance culture at University I am familiar with the cultural and religious turmoil that gave rise to Mary Bradford’s journey, but, as an imagined future, Gaby’s world felt like it needed a little more fleshing out. This isn’t to say what details Hall provides don’t convince, just that in a novel that deliberately raises so many hazy and unanswered philosophical questions it would be nice contrast to understand the setting a little more firmly.

"Sackville Park Turing plaque" by User Lmno on wikipedia

“Sackville Park Turing plaque” by User Lmno on wikipedia

In any narrative patchwork like this, some voices and narratives are likely to be more engaging than others.  While I loved the whole kaleidoscopic effect of, say, Cloud Atlas, I did find that I simply felt more connection with some of Mitchell’s voices than with others, and the same is true of Speak. An impressive aspect of this book is how Hall has managed to make all her narrators quite sympathetic. We can see the flaws that have led the faultlines on both sides of the Dettmans’ disintegrating marriage and even Chinn, who could so easily have come across as a wealthy narcissist, emerges as deeply flawed but surprisingly relatable; a man haunted by loneliness whose bot programme was developed with good intentions. In fact, it was quite surprising that I felt that the least persuasive narrative voice here was that of Turing. The “father of AI” is an inspirational figure but also a tragic one: Hall’s novel, with its persistent interest in marginalised voices, does not shy away from the way Turing was persecuted for his homosexuality. His story is interesting and heart-breaking but – other than his contribution to AI development, and his subsequent (presumable) incorporation as one of MARY3’s voices – Turing’s voice just does not feel as neatly nested as those of the novel’s other narrators and I often found his sections felt like they interrupted rather than contributing to the main flow of the story. That Hall can do persuasive historical fiction is made clear not only by the highly authentic-sounding voice she bestows on Mary Bradford, but also in the Dettman’s memories of World War Two. But these are imagined historical figures, to include not only a real one but one as famous as Turing perhaps imposes a few more restrictions and preconditions than is desirable in such a highly poetic novel.

Science fiction that also works as high quality literary fiction is quite a rare and beautiful thing and despite its flaws this is an accomplished and highly affecting novel that grapples with some truly weighty questions. What does connectivity truly mean? By suppressing AI evolution are we truly protecting our species, or are we suppressing ourselves too? Hall does not provide the answers but her poetic cacophony of voices certainly project much on which ponder.


Robo Reads

Next time on Robo Reads:  R reviews Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

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