Mini-Review: SPEAK by Louisa Hall (Ecco/Orbit)

HallL-SpeakUSAn interesting, multi-narrative look at AI and what it means to be human

In a narrative that spans geography and time, from the Atlantic Ocean in the seventeenth century, to a correctional institute in Texas in the near future, and told from the perspectives of five very different characters, Speak considers what it means to be human, and what it means to be less than fully alive.

A young Puritan woman travels to the New World with her unwanted new husband. Alan Turing, the renowned mathematician and code breaker, writes letters to his best friend’s mother. A Jewish refugee and professor of computer science struggles to reconnect with his increasingly detached wife. An isolated and traumatized young girl exchanges messages with an intelligent software program. A former Silicon Valley Wunderkind is imprisoned for creating illegal lifelike dolls.

Each of these characters is attempting to communicate across gaps — to estranged spouses, lost friends, future readers, or a computer program that may or may not understand them. In dazzling and electrifying prose, Louisa Hall explores how the chasm between computer and human — shrinking rapidly with today’s technological advances — echoes the gaps that exist between ordinary people. Though each speaks from a distinct place and moment in time, all five characters share the need to express themselves while simultaneously wondering if they will ever be heard, or understood.

This is an interesting novel. I had pretty high hopes, when I first learned of it, and I’m happy to say I wasn’t disappointed. Through four loosely-connected narrative strands, Hall has created a beautifully-written novel about humanity, artificial intelligence, and relationships. With just one caveat, this is an excellent novel.

HallL-SpeakUKOne thing that jumped out at me from the start was the quality of Hall’s prose: it’s fantastic, and easily among the best I’ve read in a long while. It flows brilliantly, is beautifully composed and can frequently pack quite the emotional punch. This is combined with a fluid narrative style and seamless switching between the four main strands of the novel — a journal, a memoir, a transcript, etc. Each reads in a different voice, but nevertheless forms a coherent whole. Each thread also looks at different aspects of human interaction and emotions, offering nuanced looks at marriages, technology, coping mechanisms, and society’s acceptance of and aversion to certain innovations.

The novel does an excellent job of avoiding being too explicit about the themes Hall wants to discuss. There is a lot about relationships, the way we interact with each other (in the short- and long-term), and how technology can enhance, hinder, or even destroy our ability to connect properly with others. In particular, the use of the “BabyBots” as an example of extreme (anti-)social media/technology: their owners’ addiction to their use is an interesting lens through which to look at our real-world relationships with social media, cell phones, etc.

I think the only thing that didn’t fully work for me was the rather sudden ending — there could have been a bit more of a conclusion. The story just kind of stops. The ‘future’ timeline is rather underdeveloped which, I know, is fine. But, I think I would have liked a bit more on this side of the story.

Nevertheless, this is a fantastic read. Beautifully written, intelligent and nuanced. Highly recommended.

*

Speak is published in North America by Ecco, and in the UK by Orbit.

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3 thoughts on “Mini-Review: SPEAK by Louisa Hall (Ecco/Orbit)

  1. Found your link on Goodreads. I’m currently reading this now. Crazy how I have to find similar books via an outside site (is there a better search function here on WordPress?). Anyhow, great review. Love the AI cover.

    Like

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