Book Review: Speak by Louisa Hall

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Speak by Louisa Hall is being sold as 2015’s Cloud AtlasThere is a lot of shared DNA: intertwining plots spanning across centuries; literary fiction with a science fiction twist (or science fiction with a literary twist — it’s a fine line); beautiful writing; an ambitious interest in exploring themes about the nature of humanity. This comparison to Cloud Atlas is what brought me to this book. It’s also what left me feeling a bit underwhelmed as I finished it.

Speak weaves together five seemingly disparate stories: the journals of a Mary Bradford, a young woman traveling to America in the 17th century with her family, stranger of a husband, and beloved dog; the letters of Alan Turing to the mother of his closest friend; the words Karl and Ruth Dettman, husband and wife, both Jewish refugees who fled Germany before the Holocaust; conversations between Gaby, a sick, lonely girl and MARY3, an intelligent chatbot; the memoirs of a Stephen Chinn, computer programmer imprisoned for the creation of babybots, lifelike dolls programmed with highly sophisticated Artificial Intelligence. Interspersed between these narratives are the thoughts of a one of Chinn’s babybots on its way for disposal in the expanding American desert.

Hall uses these stories to ask questions about what makes us human.

Mary Bradford feels more connected to her dog Ralph than any human and struggles with a theology that tells her Ralph has no soul.

Alan Turing imagines a mechanical brain that will allow for immortality by capturing human thought patterns, imagining “a spirit–or, better yet, a particular mind-set–transitioning into a machine after death.”

The Dettman marriage falls apart around MARY, the AI program Karl has developed. Ruth is able to connect with MARY better than anyone in her world and pushes Karl to make MARY a complete “person.” Karl argues “[t]hese computers we’re developing won’t bestow eternal life. They won’t keep Mary Bradford alive, revivify the lost love of poor Alan Turing, or speak forever in the voice of your sister.”

Gaby has lost her babybot and is left conversing MARY3, a modern iteration of Karl Dettman’s program. Here we learn that the AI behind the babybots is built on the collected voices and words from AI-human interactions. Gaby asks MARY3 “So you’re not really a person, you’re a collection of voices.” MARY3’s response: “Yes. But couldn’t you say that’s always the case?”

Stephen Chinn discovers an algorithm for creating human bonds.  He builds the babybots to show children they are more human than AI dolls, but the children end up preferring the company of the babybots to humans. Confronted with the consequences of his invention, Chinn writes: “You blame me for the fact that 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 is all fascinating stuff, but through most of the book, it felt Hall was more interested in exploring these questions than telling a story. The characters felt thin and flat, feeling more like mouthpieces for philosophical discussions than living, breathing characters. Turing is the only one who comes close, probably because he was a real, life human being. The thrill of Cloud Atlas came from following the subtle and intricate connections between disparate plot lines while so completely sucked into each individual story by the sheer force of Mitchell’s writing. Here, the connections between stories felt all too literal. Each thread of the book felt like nothing more than a tool for Hall to discuss some facet of AI and not like a part of a cohesive, compelling story.

The science fiction elements in the book are obvious–this is a book about AI robots after all–but frustratingly thin. We learn a lot about the mechanism of the AI behind the babybots, but not nearly enough about the world they exist in. There are references to droughts and expanding desserts; cities emptying out as residents move into artificial “developments”; the selling of transportation and water rights. A world where someone is sent to jail for building AI robots has the potential to be fascinating, but Hall’s hyper-focus on the philosophical questions about AI leaves it largely unexplored. I suspect this is the author’s intent, but I was left frustrated and grumpy that Hall seems completely uninterested in the world building that is such an important part of science fiction.

I’d might still recommend this book because it is so well written and does explore some really fascinating ideas. But as a Cloud Atlas read alike or an example of a successful literary take on science fiction? Nope.

3/5 stars.

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