Speak by Louisa Hall

Rating: ★★★★☆

I’ve been wanting to read Speak for some time, as it was promoted as being ideal for fans of David Mitchell and Margaret Atwood.  As these are two of my favourite authors, to say that I had high expectations of this novel would be something of an understatement.  I’m pleased to say that I wasn’t disappointed.

In the near-future, a truck moves through Texas, transporting hundreds of confiscated “babybots” – toy dolls that have been banned for being excessively lifelike.

We are piled on top of each other.  An arm rests over my shoulder; something soft is pressed to my ankle.

Their destination is a warehouse, where they will be left for their power to run out, their voices silent forevermore.

Eva – the original babybot – shares five narratives which explain how AI and the babybots came into being, exploring the lives of some of those who, knowingly or otherwise, were influential in their development:

  • Mary Bradford – a young 17th century woman whose family is leaving England for the New World
  • Alan Turing – widely regarded as the father of theoretical computer science and AI
  • The Dettmans – a Jewish couple; Karl is a professor of computer science whilst Ruth is editing Mary Bradford’s journal
  • Gaby White – a young girl traumatised by the confiscation of her babybot
  • Stephen Chinn – the creator of the babybots, now in prison for having created these excessively lifelike beings

In memory, though not in experience, I have lived across centuries.  I have seen hundreds of skies, sailed thousands of oceans.  I have been given many languages; I have sung national anthems.  I lay in one child’s arms.  She said my name and I answered.

This may seem like a disparate cast of characters, and yet the stories are all linked – some in more obvious ways than others.  I won’t spoil it for you – discovering how each thread intertwines is one of the intriguing things about the novel.

Speak spans centuries (from 1663 to the near future of 2040) and makes use of different narrative styles: journals, letters, interview transcript etc. and so it’s easy to see where the comparisons to David Mitchell come from – there is something reminiscent of the highly stylistic Cloud Atlas within the novel.  Speak explores very different themes, however, and if you weren’t a fan of Cloud Atlas (which seems to be one of those novels that polarises opinions, although it’s one of my personal favourites) then you may still enjoy this.

Whilst Speak is ostensibly about the development of AI and the impact this might have on society, it also highlights the very human need for communication and understanding.  Each narrator has something to say, although getting that message to its intended recipient is not always straightforward.  How we articulate our thoughts and feelings, the manner in which they are communicated – it all has an impact, and misunderstandings are unfortunately common.  And while modern technology enables contact and communication with an ever widening group of people, the examples here also show the risk of isolation that may come as a result of an over-dependence on technology.

I went into this novel expecting something dystopian, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that there is no movement to utilise this technology by a political faction seeking power or control.  Whilst this might be seen as a little naïve (on the flip side, I may be overly cynical), I enjoyed the fact that the focus was on ordinary lives.  Some of the negative consequences are explored, particularly through Gaby White’s story, in which we discover how those whose babybots were confiscated have been afflicted, but the seemingly inevitable abuse of technology to the benefit of a few is absent here.

I couldn’t escape the thought of how the technology might be used, however, and I did find the term “babybot” to be somewhat discomforting.  Whilst there are benefits to this technology, there is also something vaguely sinister about the concept of AI.  Admittedly, this a view that had been at least partly fed through an abundance of films and novels in which it all goes horribly wrong, but to me, the use of the word “baby” implies an innocence that is at odds with the potential of AI.  For me, this is where the likeness to Margaret Atwood comes from – there is a subtle warning present in Hall’s novel.  Atwood has famously said that she writes speculative, rather than science, fiction, and I wonder if Hall feels the same about Speak.

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