Review of Speak by Louisa Hall


I scooped this off the library shelves, caught by the arresting cover and opened up the book. The riveting opening pages and high quality of the writing pulled me in and despite the fact that my own TBR is now in danger of engulfing a small grandchild, decided to take it home.

speakA 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.

And there you have the rather long blurb. However, given the nature of the book, I think it is justified. There are five distinct narrative voices that spool through the book, giving their own experiences, reaching from the past with Mary’s account of the long Atlantic crossing and Alan Turing’s moving letters, to the future inventor of the babybots, reflecting on his experiences. However this isn’t, is a foot-to-the-floor, adrenaline-fuelled adventure. What it does is reflect upon the issue of voice, who is heard and continues to be heard and what it means to communicate.

It’s no accident that the two historical voices are from marginalised groups – one a young Puritan woman and the other a homosexual in post-war Britain when people born with such sexual preferences were officially outlawed and disgraced. Both accounts are moving and I found Turing’s letters very poignant, given that I knew before I started the book what his fate would be.

It is a very neat plot twist – to bind up the voices and slices of people’s history inside a discarded AI, struggling to conserve her battery as she is stored in a warehouse with other bots for the crime of being too lifelike. I have a feeling this book is one that will stay with me for a long time – after all, what will be our legacy, those of us who have gone, now we no longer write down our feelings and emotions on paper, but instead, consign them to our computers? What will happen in the future when those computers can talk back to us? Will we get to rely far too much on them, until they are banned and outlawed? Considering these kinds of issues before we – inevitably – reach the stage where they are technically feasible, which isn’t that far away when you look at the likes of Cortana and Siri, is what science fiction does at its best.

4 responses »

  1. I’m definitely putting this one on my TBR list. It reminded me of Mitchell’s “Ghostwritten” and its intricacy when it comes to weaving a story, and of some other sci-fi books that tackle multiple POVs and timelines well.
    Thank you for this review!

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