Review: Speak by Louisa Hall


Wow! Where do I start in describing my experience with reading Speak by Louisa Hall? I should first explain that I am a Communications major, with additional fascination in the advancement of Artificial Intelligence, so to find a book that touches on the possible negative implications that AI could have on the way we communicate with each other – and with our own selves – reading it was impossible to resist!

It’s a bit difficult to summarize this book any better than has already been done in other reviews, namely this one by Will Byrnes, but I’ll give it a try. What a ride! Switching back and forth in time and narrative voice, Speak takes the reader from the 1600s, a past that doesn’t seem so far behind us, to the future, in post-AI 2045. In a narrative similar to that of Cloud Atlas, we meet five different characters, each with their own story and their own voice, yet all inextricably linked across time.

Through diary entries from the 1600s, we meet Mary Bradford, a young, headstrong girl who wants nothing more than to wander the fields around her house with her dog, Ralph. When she discovers that her family is to set sail for the New World and that she must accept the proposal of pock-faced Whittier if her family is to survive with dignity, it’s almost too much to bear. It’s a good thing she has Ralph to comfort her. Denied the opportunity to take Ralph with her to the New World, Mary smuggles him aboard the ship anyway, determined to keep her one true friend. When something awful happens to Ralph, no matter how comforting Whittier attempts to be, Mary must decide if she can face the unknown without her furry friend. How can a girl ever make her way in the world when she is not allowed a voice outside the pages of her diary?

Between the late 1930s and the 1950s, the reader is privy to a series of letters written by the famous Nazi code cracker, Alan Turing. He begins writing to the mother of his best friend, who we learn is very ill. The two boys are clearly very close, not just due to the work they are doing together in school, but also personally and perhaps physically. The reader is left to infer the latter part. When his friend dies, Alan continues to write to the mother, describing his work on a computer that can be programmed to learn a human’s personality and eventually come to mimic them. It’s fascinating and rather sad to witness Alan’s spiral into depression, as he struggles to find a place in the world without his friend, and as a very odd boy indeed. What happens when we replace human connections with virtual ones?

During the 1960s through the 1980s, Ruth and Karl Dettman share a “voice.” Karl takes the lead first. Having barely escaped Nazi Europe as young adults, the couple, older now, is clearly at a crossroads. Ruth becomes obsessed with feeding stories and old diary entries into MARY, a computer program created by Karl at her urging. Ruth fears the loss of important stories, not just her story or the story of the family she lost and left behind in war-torn Europe, but also the stories of others in danger of being forgotten – like young Mary Bradford. Karl writes letters to his wife, begging her to return to him, for she has disappeared emotionally and mentally from their relationship. You can sense the despair as well as the growing frustration and resentment that builds throughout Karl’s letters. Eventually his letters are replaced by ones from Ruth to Karl, and they give the reader a deeper insight to the difficult intricacies that exist in every relationship, and how misunderstandings and poor communication can lead to the disintegration of what was once a beautiful thing.

In 2045, we’re given a peek into the jailhouse memoir of Stephen Chinn, a man who evolved from ordinary computer nerd to successful creator of the Baby Bot. In short, his memoir gives an eye-opening glimpse into how a man’s grandest creation can also be his most crushing undoing. True, his story is a bit of a stretch, but his memoir makes him both a sympathetic and hopeless character, and you can’t help wanting to know what led to his imprisonment.

Finally, through court transcripts and docket list items, we read Instant Message conversations between Gaby White, a girl inflicted with social disabilities after being forced to give up her BabyBot, and MARY3, the most recent iteration of Karl Dettman’s original program. It was fascinating and rather horrifying to read about how far AI had advanced in the world of Speak, and how it led to certain collapses in society, especially in regard to the socialization and mental and emotional health of children.

I realize that the connecting thread can be seen in my description of each “voice,” but sitting down yourself to get to know these characters, and to see how their individual journeys are, in fact, affected by the decisions and indecisions of others, leads to quite a raw, thought-provoking experience for the reader. Every time I had to put the book down to attend to work or other duties, I’d find myself thinking about it!

The synopsis of Speak says that the book “considers what it means to be human, and what it means to be less than fully alive.” Indeed, it makes the reader question just how beneficial technology really is to the masses, and who the real winners are when it comes to advancing technology and AI. My opinion? Very rarely are the masses – ordinary people like you and me – winners in this technology race. We give up quality time with our loved ones to binge-watch Netflix in the darkness of our living and bedrooms. We save our wittiest remarks, our most poignant thoughts, for likes on Facebook and re-tweets on Twitter. We stare at our phones instead of our dining partners. We allow technology to baby-sit our children, for goodness sake! Who “wins” in any of this? Not us, dear reader.

To be fully alive and fully human is to fully embrace the world around us. Step out into the sunshine. Smell the mountain air. Feel the ocean breeze. Listen to the sound of children laughing, or the streetside saxophonist, or the purr of a motorcycle. Don’t be afraid of disappointment. Allow yourself to feel lonely. Be comfortable with silence, with boredom, with the unknown. It is out of these very real life experiences that we learn and grow, and develop into better versions of ourselves.

Have you read Speak? I’d love to hear your thoughts, so please feel free to comment below. If you haven’t read Speak, but have opinions on technology and the gaps it both creates and closes, I’d love to discuss with you!

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