Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Review: 'Speak' by Louisa Hall

Robots are the kind of topic that can either start or end conversations. They are also the highlights of most sci-fi films. But there is something uncanny about them and as such they remain interesting. When I first read the blurb of Speak was immediately drawn to the idea of the novel and I'm very happy I gave it a try. Thanks to Netgalley and Little Brown for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Pub. Date: 25/02/2016
Publisher: Little, Brown

She cannot run. She cannot walk. She cannot even blink. As her batteries run down for the final time, all she can do is speak. Will you listen?
From Alan Turing's conviction in the 1950s to a Silicon Valley Wunderkind imprisoned in 2040 for creating illegally lifelike dolls, from a pilgrim girl writing her diary to a traumatised young girl exchanging messages with a software program: all these lives have shaped and changed a single artificial intelligence - MARY3. In Speak, she tells you their story, and her own. It is the last story she will ever tell, spoken both in celebration and in warning.
When machines learn to speak, who decides what it means to be human?
The question what it means to be human is, in my opinion, at the root of most literature. We're always looking as to what it is that makes us human, why we're different from animals, what our consciousness means. Asking questions, of ourselves, others and the world, is a key part of that. As such, with Speak, Louisa Hall picks up on a crucial part of what it is to be human and that is that ability to ask, to question, to talk at all. It requires a brain and above all a desire to speak and to question. And what if a robot has that ability, or at least seems to? Can we decide when consciousness is faked and when it's real? We all learn to speak by repeating what others say until we can give meaning to the words and phrases ourselves, after all, so why could a robot not?

Speak has to try and address all of these questions and issues somehow, which is a massive task. Hall has cleverly split up into seven different narratives. There's Eva, a robot that's considered too lifelike; Mary Bradford, a Puritan girl on her way to America; Alan Turing, the creator of the famous Turing test for consciousness; Ruth and Karl Dettmann, the "parents" of one of the first AI programmes, MARY; Stephen Chin, the creator of the robots like Eva; and Gaby, a girl who's lost without her robot. Each of these voices has somehow been saved by MARY 3, the programme creating artificial intelligence, and are used by Hall to show how concerned humanity is with its voice, its memories and its thoughts. Each of these voices goes through Eva's head and is a part of her consciousness which means that throughout the novel the questions keeps appearing how she is less human than the reader for having access to these people's thoughts and words. Although it's fascinating to read all these different accounts, they don't necessarily connect very well. Especially Turing feels strangely unconnected to the rest with its highly personal tone, but Hall does make all of the narratives into interesting stories.

Hall has a difficult task in Speak. Each of her different characters has a different tone, a different voice, and it's crucial these are different enough since the whole novel relies on these different voices. Hall manages by giving each character a different medium to speak through, whether it's letters, chats or diary entries. It means that each character is clearly differentiated from the others. What is missing, however, is a head narrator, a character that holds it all together. Eva is perhaps the most suited for this position but her part isn't strong enough to carry it off. It means that although the novel asks all the important and interesting questions, it doesn't necessarily provide an answer of even a clue. Partially it is therein that the charm of the book lies, in that it leaves it up to the reader. It's also, however, what prevents it, in my eyes, from being an book that progresses the genre. Although it contributes interesting ideas, there is still some work that needs to be done on them to make it something fascinating and ground-breaking.

I give this novel...

3 Universes!

I did really enjoy reading Speak and its different narrators kept me engaged throughout. However, there is a sense that they are all unconnected and that there is no master narrative. I'd recommend this to fans of AI-related stories and of unreliable narratives.

1 comment:

  1. It's a tough task to make the question of humanity different in a book because it's been done so much and well over the years. But I am curious about the different POVs in this, though it sucks the conenction wasn't there for you.