Stephen R. Chinn, writing a memoir from prison in 2040, has lost his freedom, having been convicted of creating artificial life. Gaby White has lost the ability to move and can only speak by conversing with a chatbot through a computer. Her story lives in the conversations with Mary3, presented as testimony in Chinn’s trial, show her attempt to understand her state (and perhaps Mary3’s attempts to understand herself as well). Back in the 1960s, Karl and Ruth Dettman exchange letters about their growing distance from each other, as Karl becomes immersed in and then abandons a computerized mind. In a series of letters, computer scientist Alan Turing reaches out to the parents of his friend Christopher Morcom as he worries and later grieves over his friend. Mary Bradford keeps a journal of her crossing the ocean to America in the 1660s, a journal later edited by Ruth Dettman. And an unnamed speaker, transported across the desert, contains them all:
These are my voices. Which of them has the right words for this movement into the desert? I sift through their sentences. They are my people, the family that raised me. I opened on them, then closed. Open, shut. I swallowed them whole. They are in me now, in every word that I speak, as long as I am still living.
I am inclined to love epistolary novels and books that include fragments of found documents and the like, and Speak by Louisa Hall is a good example of the form and how it can work well. The characters, mostly writing for themselves or audiences who know them or their situation, don’t spell out everything that has happened to them but focus instead on their feelings about their situation. The reader has to do the work of figuring it all out. (Chinn’s memoir is the closest thing we get to a straight narrative of events.) I enjoy the puzzle aspect of this kind of book, but Hall is offering more than a puzzle to solve. The letters and journal entries and so forth combine to form a sort of meditation on what it means to be alive and in relationship with another living person.
Each of the book’s main characters longs for relationship, and they grope for connection. Stephen Chinn invents and algorithm to help him talk to women. Mary Bradford chooses her dog over all human companions, even if it isn’t so good for the dog. The Dettmans want to love each other, but they can’t figure out how. And Gaby White became so dependent on her toy Babybot that, when it was taken away, she, like many of her peers, froze up entirely.
At times, as in the story of Gaby, the book seems to dwell on the way technology hampers human connection and how we have allowed computers to determine too much of who we are. Chinn writes that
Since well before I set loose my robots, we’ve been a binary race. We mimic the patterns of our computers, training our brains toward yeses and nos, endless series of zeros and ones. We’ve lost confidence in our own minds.
But the struggle to connect goes back further than that, as we see in the story of Mary and her dog and her profound sense of aloneness. And although the Dettmans are touched by technology, their alienation is really about not knowing each other and making up their own versions of the truth. Ruth writes to Karl (in an unsent letter):
Do not, I thought to myself, make me a character in your little story. Don’t you dare transform me into a protagonist you like the idea of. Innocent, mournful, loyal to my dead little sister. Who is this woman? I thought to myself. She isn’t me. Me, who got on that boat without looking back. Who thought to fight for her sister only when there was an ocean between us.
At times, the characters’ musings about life and love and the futility (or not) of it all got tedious. I found Turing’s meandering letters particularly hard to get excited about, although they fit in well with the themes Hall is exploring here. It’s just that his philosophizing got repetitive after a while and there wasn’t much happening within all that philosophizing. His letters improved slightly toward the end, when things did start happening, but those things were so sad that I’d almost rather they have stayed boring. But it’s a rare multi-voice novel that doesn’t have a weak link at all, so this isn’t much of a complaint.
When Other Jenny reviewed this a while back, she specifically indicated that she thought I would like it and that the things that bothered her about it would probably not bother me. Although I didn’t love, love, love this, I liked it quite a lot, and, unlike Jenny, I was not much bothered by the fact that the book raises more questions than it answers. As Jenny notes, all these many voices don’t have anything audacious to say, but I think the book is more about looking at the questions of communication and connection from lots of angles than it is about saying anything definitive beyond the fact that it’s hard and always has been. Technology just changes what the difficulties look like.
The book’s final note feels hopeful, that voices live on, even if artificially, which gives their lives meaning. But when you stop and really picture what Hall is offering, it looks bleak. It’s an ending that is pretty on paper, but would feel deeply unsettling in a movie. I don’t know what Hall’s actual intention was, but I appreciate that duality. And that may be where the book’s audacity lies, in leaving us with hope, but a false one.