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FICTION/Hall, Loiusa
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New York, NY : Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers [2015]
Main Author
Louisa Hall, 1982- (author)
First edition
Physical Description
316 pages ; 24 cm
Contents unavailable.
Review by New York Times Review

A LESS ARTFUL title for "Speak," Louisa Hall's sidereal novel on artificial (and thus human) intelligence, might be "What We Talk About When We Talk About Computers." This starfish of a book, five voices waving gracefully around a core of philosophical questions, wants to explore the nature of memory; the borders of personhood; how words can illumine and obscure and hoodwink and rescue. Characters connect to each other across space and time. There's Stephen Chinn, a tech Wunderkind imprisoned after building "illegally lifelike" robots, and Gaby White, a young girl who is devastated when her robot is recalled. Alan Turing, the mathematician and code breaker, writes heartfelt letters to the mother of his best friend and dreams of machines that think. A Puritan teenager named Mary Bradford, having smuggled her dog aboard a ship to Massachusetts, wonders about the difference between human and animal souls and fills a diary with her apprehensions about marriage. In the 1960s, a Jewish refugee, Ruth Dettman, finds the diary and is enchanted. Her own relationship with the computer scientist Karl Dettman has gone cold; nevertheless, she persuades Karl to name the chat program he's invented - and that he later disowns - MARY. Fast forward nearly a century, and MARY has become the operating system used to animate Chinn's dangerous talking dolls, as well as Gaby's last remaining confidante. Through chains of causality too twisted to unwind here, the software has recorded much of the characters' speech and writing. (And so proves an unnervingly good proxy for us.) Even a genius algorithm would need days to track the echoes across the five narratives. But post-"Cloud Atlas," "Speak" feels less remarkable for its structure than for its thoughtfulness and emotional force. Hall is a poet - she studied with Seamus Heaney - and that training comes through not just in her musical phrasing or intimacy of expression. ("Without you," Karl Dettman thinks when his wife stops speaking to him, "everything is draped in sheets of darkness, as if we were moving away.") Swathing literary preoccupations in sci-fi motifs, Hall takes a cue from Emily St. John Mandel, the "Station Eleven" author, whose appreciative blurb may help this novel find readers. She brines her book in apocalyptic elements - mysterious regulations placed on travel, drought, ocean levels high and rising - and yet "Speak," a cascade of "found" documents and transcripts, is less "Black Mirror" dystopia than meditation on how life, spirit, improbably gets into language. MARY "will remember your words," Karl Dettman warns Ruth, "but it won't ever feel them. It won't understand them. It will only throw them back in your face." One of the illegal dolls, programmed to retrieve and recite whatever stored spools of human speech are appropriate to the situation, feels differently: "In memory, though not in experience, I have lived across centuries," she tells us. "I lay in one child's arms. She said my name and I answered." Hall pulls here at the Wordsworthian idea of the recollected moment, the living voice tucked inside the mechanical tinkle of rhyme and meter. Her robotic minds are poems - vessels in which to keep shards of humanity. And so this book about artificial intelligence is also a book about form, physical and literary. It fits that Turing shows his doomed best friend a nautilus shell, a house made of spiraling chambers through which a creature moves, each pearled compartment a time capsule. Other characters consider the consolations and betrayals of having a body, of touch and physical motion. Wheelchair-bound, Gaby muses on the pleasure of a bus ride: "I've never felt anything like it .... It was like I was vibrating at the right frequency." Of course, our fascination with form is almost always a displaced hunger for what escapes it. It's no surprise that Turing should keep returning to the 1937 "Snow White" movie: "Speak" - a novel about structure and algorithms - is also a novel about souls, and fairy tales from "The Little Mermaid" to "Pinocchio" were bestowing souls on unlikely recipients long before A.I. arrived on the scene. In Turing's favorite quotation, the evil queen commands her mirror: "Through wind and darkness I summon thee. Speak! Let me see thy face!" It is an old type of magic, this revelation of life where you thought to find none, and one that lonely people may hold especially dear. Again and again in "Speak," estranged and alienated characters gaze at their monitors; a voice curls out unexpectedly, like smoke from cold cinders. "It's a misguided speech, isn't it?" Turing says of the queen's order. "Demanding a voice, but wanting a face?" But that is the implicit promise and threat of the entire book: Where there's a voice, can a face be far behind? WHAT DO WE talk about when we talk about computers? "Speak" wants to claim that the gap between humans and machines is slimmer than we think - not because people are simplistic, but because the universe itself answers to discoverable, if mesmerizingly complicated, rules. As MARY asks Gaby, "Who are you, other than the person you've selected this morning to be? Isn't that what humans do when they try to be liked? Select the right kind of voice, learned after years of listening in? The only difference between you and me is that I have more voices to select from." Characters behave like coded programs: Gaby shuts down when her doll is confiscated. Chinn - who eventually devises a "seduction equation" designed to make him irresistible to women - is taunted in school for being more robot than boy. And programs behave like characters. Gaby's sentient doll wrestles with her existence like any quizzical adolescent. In her warehouse mausoleum, she thinks of Gaby, her mother: "Words she taught me,...the name she gave me alone. Eva. That's you. You are her. The illusion of coming to life in her arms." You'd be right to hear an accusation in that word, "illusion." In "Speak" (and in general), people make for terrible gods; they can barely hack it as people. The inventors - Dettman, Turing, Chinn - express a familiar wish to unmake their wax wings. ("There is a constant longing in me for return to a more original state, before the apple was tasted," Turing confesses.) "Speak" may not be the first science fiction novel to counterpoise hubris, ingenuity, loss and progress. But the delicacy with which it juggles those concerns, allowing each its crystalline, utterly persuasive and transfixing moment in the air, speaks to Hall's uncommonly deep and complex intellectual engagement with her themes. As the Dettmans' marriage unravels, MARY serves as a projection screen for Karl's and Ruth's insecurities. "Be honest and say you want me to build a computer that's the opposite of your husband, a machine with endless memory," Karl explodes at his wife. Ruth later replies: "I thought of her as a woman whom you'd permitted to speak, but hadn't allowed to remember." So the computers advance, repositories of characters' desires and fears, reservoirs of their pasts. The vessels may not be human, but the substance unquestionably is - which makes Hall's framing of the A.I. question as one of form and content (rather than, say, us versus them) especially thrilling. Works of art have long cultivated a kind of artificial intelligence, from Keats's living hand (which demands a transfusion of the reader's lifeblood) to the beseeching gaze of the "Girl With a Pearl Earring." The freshness - the brilliance, even - of "Speak" lies in its positioning of robots not as terrifyingly new, but as the latest in a long line of "magic mirrors" from which we are powerless to look away. The gap between people and machines may be slimmer than we think. KATY WALDMAN is a writer for Slate.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [August 23, 2015]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* In the near future, children, mostly girls, become so attached to their babybots lifelike, speaking dolls that the bots are banned. After the babybots are gathered up and shipped to the desert, the children start to stutter and then to freeze. One, Gaby, is only able to communicate with MARY3, a cloud-based intelligence thirsty for her story. Through excerpts from a variety of sources, the development of artificial intelligence is revealed, from the diary of a teenage Puritan on a ship to America with her family and new husband to the letters from Alan Turing to his best friend's mother to the memoirs of a Holocaust survivor who refuses to give his computer program the ability to remember, thus estranging him from his wife. Meanwhile, Stephen Chinn, creator of the babybots, works on his memoir from prison. Much like Daniel H. Wilson's Robopocalypse (2011), Speak relies on primary-source documents to tell its story. An even better comparison is to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (2004) for the way Hall subtly weaves a thread through a temporally diverse cast of narrators. Like all good robot novels, Speak raises questions about what it means to be human as well as the meaning of giving voice to memory.--Maguire, Susan Copyright 2010 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Spanning nearly 400 years, the uneven latest from Hall (The Carriage House) merges truth with fiction to relate the history of MARY3, an artificial intelligence software found in a doll banned for causing mysterious ailments in children, and the imprisonment of its developer, Stephen Chinn, in the year 2040. The novel unfolds through epistolary means: Chinn communicates to the reader via memoir; Alan Turing, the novel's lone nonfictional character, is responsible for much of the original concepts behind artificial intelligence and is depicted through his correspondence from the 20th century; Karl Dettman, the developer of the original (but fictional) MARY talking computer in the 1960s, and his wife, Ruth, who aims to turn MARY into MARY2, a thinking machine, also converse with each other through letters, in the 1960s; Mary Bradford, an early pilgrim from England to Massachusetts, subject of Ruth Dettman's academic work, and namesake of the MARY computer, is represented by journal entries from 1663; and MARY3 finds voice in court transcripts presented at Chinn's trial in the year 2035. Throughout, Hall aims to write about both technology and the preservation of memory. Characters claim that, in order to understand one another, they must "[hold] several time periods in mind at once." But while some story lines prosper, others-the Turing and the Dettman sections, in particular-strain under stilted structures. Characters rarely speak to each other (except in letters, many of which never get replies), resulting in some flat passages. (July) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

Hall's ambitious second novel reads like a cross between the BBC show Black Mirror and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. It's told in different voices from various time periods, but the main narrative takes place in the near future. Artificial intelligence (AI) has been advanced to create realistic "baby bots," which serve as the companions of human children living in mysterious "developments" until they become too attached. The creator of the bots is in prison, telling his side of the story. His precursor, a programmer from the 1960s who created an earlier version of the AI, is writing letters to his wife, who is translating the journal of a pilgrim to the New World. Mary, the name of her pilgrim, is also the name of the AI. We also hear from Alan Turing, through letters to the mother of his deceased best friend. Even if this sounds confusing, it isn't. Hall capably weaves the stories to form a beautiful rumination on the nature of memory and the frailty of human relationships. -VERDICT There's something for everyone in this novel, which moves at a fast pace but goes in depth with each character's moving struggle to be heard Recommended for readers of literary fiction, sf, or historical dramas. [See Prepub Alert, 1/5/15.]- Kate Gray, Worcester P.L., MA © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A novel with past and future settings and an artificial intelligence theme that isn't really science fiction. A Silicon Valley innovator in a Texas prison in 2040 musing about his crime: building an artificial intelligence. Evidence from his trial: transcripts of conversations between a little girl and a computer program. A computer scientist in 1968 who escaped Nazi Germany as a child musing on his conflict with his historian wife, also a Holocaust refugee, over whether to create a computer program with human memory. Alan Turing, the father of 20th-century computer science, writing letters to the mother of a beloved boarding school friend. A 17th-century Puritan adolescent whining to her diary as she crosses the Atlantic with her family. And an artificially intelligent doll, her battery running down, on a truck heading for a dumping ground in the desert. It's possible to imagine these elements adding up to an interesting exploration of memory, love, and what it means to be alive. This novel, though, is strangely static. The action happens offstage, to be mulled over later with reproachful melancholy, and none of the voices is compelling or convincing, particularly the historical ones. An extended complaint about how kids today pay too much attention to their electronic devices. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.