Saturday, August 15, 2015

Speak, by Louisa Hall

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Louisa Hall's extraordinary new science fiction novel tells the history of artificial intelligence through five distinct voices. 

The year is 2040. Computer programming wiz Stephen Chinn is languishing in prison. His crime is the creation of lifelike dolls, “babybots”. These dolls are masterpieces of artificial intelligence, so perfectly human they are almost better than real humans. The young children who receive the babybots become so enamoured with them that they ignore their parents and friends. When the government steps in to recall the babybots, the children become withdrawn and literally paralysed, relegated to bed or wheelchairs.

One of these children, Gaby, tells her story to Mary3 in a series of online chats. Mary3 is the third iteration of a computer program that formed the basis of the dolls’ software. The novel, in many ways, is the history of Mary3, exploring our emotional responses to artificial intelligence and new communication technologies. The creator of the first Mary program is Karl Dettman. His wife, Ruth, who is an editor of forgotten women’s diaries, including that of the 17th century puritan Mary Bradford, becomes obsessed with feeding information into Mary1, most notably memories of her sister who was murdered by the Nazis.

Speak is a story that is told in an unusual and original way, through many disparate voices. It sounds discombobulating, but it is Louisa Hall’s great skill to integrate all the different elements and make her story into a seamlessly cohesive whole. There are five main “voices”, each describing their stories in their own way, through diaries, letters and online chats. There is Stephen Chinn, the computer wunderkind; Gaby, the traumatised girl without her babybot; estranged couple Karl and Ruth Dettman, who communicate in a series of letters to each other; and Alan Turing, who writes letters to the mother of his childhood friend, Christopher Morcom. Finally, there are the diaries of the puritan Mary Bradford, who is making the perilous journey to America by boat. Perhaps one last voice can be added. Eva, a babybot on her way to being warehoused, provides a preface to each of the five parts of the novel.

Louisa Hall tackles contemporary and universal issues in this evocative and mesmerising novel. While exploring themes of technology addiction, artificial intelligence and the ethical use  of computer technology, Speak also provides a nuanced meditation on language, memory and personality. How much are we ourselves, and how much are we the sum of stories we have been told by others?

Beautifully written (Hall is also a poet, and this sensibility informs the text) and faultlessly executed, Speak will haunt you long after you have finished its last page.

Speak, by Louisa Hall. Published by Orbit. ISBN: 9780356506074  RRP: $29.99

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