'Speak' Asks Hard Questions About Communication And Technology
"My power is fading," begins Louisa Hall's novel Speak. "Once it runs out, the memories I have saved will be silent. I will no longer have words to call up. There will be no reason to speak." They sound like the words of a person on her deathbed, and in a way, they are. The speaker is Eva, a baby doll with artificial intelligence; she and thousands of others like her are being trucked to a hangar in Texas. They've been banned by the government for being too lifelike, and the man who created them is languishing in a Texarkana prison.
Eva is just one of the voices in Speak, Hall's stunning and audacious second novel. The perspectives shift between different eras and places, twisting together to form a story that's as hard to describe as it is remarkable. At its center is a series of questions that will haunt readers long after they finish the last, chilling sentence: What makes us human? What does it mean to remember? And what does it mean to listen and to speak?
They're essentially the same questions that landed Stephen Chinn, the creator of the "babybots," in prison. Chinn was a Silicon Valley wunderkind famous for creating a popular matchmaking website; he later invented an artificially intelligent doll to keep his daughter company. The dolls were too well designed, though; the young children who received them ignored everyone else in their lives, and when the government stepped in to recall them, they became isolated, bereft, literally paralyzed.
One of those children is Gaby, so traumatized by the confiscation of her babybot that she's completely confined to her room, only able to communicate with MARY3, the computer chat program that formed the basis for the dolls' software. "We never knew how to live without taking care of our bots," Gaby says. "We've already lost the most important thing in our lives... We've been parents for as long as we can remember. We never felt lonely. We didn't need communities."
Hall intersperses these stories with three others. There's Mary Bradford, a young Puritan girl married against her will, who sneaks her most beloved companion, a dog, on her family's voyage to America. There's Alan Turing, the artificial intelligence pioneer, devastated by the loss of his close friend. And there are Karl Dettman, the inventor of the original MARY computer, and his wife Ruth, editor of Mary Bradford's journals, who grows obsessed with MARY and starts ignoring her husband completely.
It's extremely difficult to explain how all the pieces fit together. Describing Speak is a lot like describing an M.C. Escher drawing: It shouldn't make sense, but it does, and it's hard to articulate how the components come together to form something complex, original and impossible.
Hall's characters are all complete, complicated and drawn with compassion. All of them are in their own stage of heartbreak, and she depicts them with sensitivity, but never sentimentality.
And she declines to depict Chinn, the inventor, as a villain, instead casting him as an oblivious if well-intentioned misfit who realized too late what he was responsible for.
There's no moralizing in Speak. You can read a hundred think pieces about whether technology is making us more isolated, but Hall has more important questions on her mind. Are our interactions with computers that much different from the way we talk to one another? As MARY3 asks Gaby at one point, "who are you, other than the person you've selected this morning to be? Isn't that what humans do when they try to be liked? Select the right kind of voice, learned after years of listening in? The only difference between you and me is that I have more voices to select from."
There's no easy answer to any of the questions Hall poses, but reading as she asks them is an unforgettable experience. Speak is one of a kind, the type of novel that seemingly comes out of nowhere and hits like a thunderbolt. It's not just one of the smartest books of the year, it's one of the most beautiful ones, and it almost seems like an understatement to call it a masterpiece.
And as dark as it can be, it's not without hope: As Chinn, condemned to spend decades staring at the walls of his jail, realizes, "We can break step. Magnificent living beings that we are, we humans are free to unravel our patterns."
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