So apparently this book is kind of like Cloud Atlas because it takes place over different time periods with different characters, and those time periods and characters are all connected somehow by recurring images and themes. But honestly, I wish I would have read Cloud Atlas instead because that’s supposed to be amazing, and while this was interesting, and I think my book club is going to get a good discussion out of it, I wouldn’t say that it works as a story. I feel like Speak is a thought experiment that forgot how to be a novel. And also halfway failed at being a thought experiment.
So there’s basically five time periods to focus on here, and five narrators: Stephen R. Chinn, an inventor and programmer writing his memoirs from prison; chat transcripts between a sick girl named Gaby and a chatbot named Mary3, who is running the program that Chinn wrote for her to become more human; a professor and his estranged wife who were involved in creating Mary1, one of the first artificial intelligences; Alan Turing, writing letters to his dead best friend’s mother throughout the course of his life; and the diary of a Puritan girl before and during her sea voyage to America from England, miserable over her unwanted new marriage. We also get several chapters from the perspective of Gaby’s deactivated robot baby (“babybot”) as she’s taken out into the desert to “die.”
Chinn is in prison for creating the babybots, which somehow harmed an entire generation of children enough for him to be in prison for life, and to ban all artificial life that is too human; Gaby is the proof of that damage, supposedly, even as she talks to a bot that helps her learn to re-experience the world; and then on both sides of the fight, the husband who created Mary1 and then abandoned it as dangerous, and the wife who became increasingly obsessed with it. Which all relates to Turing because he and his best friend had theorized for years about the creation of an artificially intelligent brain. And all of the characters are connected to the Puritan girl’s diary, which is now stored in Mary’s memory.
The book is obsessed with language and memory and the connections between people. But it all falls flat because each individual section is so stuck in its own groove. Chinn and Gaby and all of them only exist in the narrow spaces that Hall gives them. Turing only ever talks about Christopher and his artificial brain, and his weird obsession with postscripts. Mary the Puritan is obsessed with her dog Ralph, and with the ocean and the stars. Gaby won’t shut up about her goddamn babybot. I wanted to punch the professor and his wife. And Chinn, well, he’s the most fleshed out, but his story is also the most frustrating because there were several parts that were just completely unbelievable. And those parts were central to the story. They only worked on a metaphorical level, and not a practical one. It drove me bonkers.
SPOILERS I didn’t buy for a second that the stupid effing babybots would cripple humanity so badly by first making the children (who are for some reason all girls) obsessed with them to the point of ignoring real life, and then when they are taken away whatever the fuck happens to them to make them freeze. It’s obviously an annoyingly head-on metaphor for over-relying on technology, but it just seems stupid to me. And it’s never explained in any way, which makes it worse. I also thought Chinn’s dating conversation formula was completely absurd–not that it couldn’t exist, but that humanity would let it rule their dating life, to the exclusion of actually getting to know people. I didn’t buy any of it, and Hall clearly didn’t care to find a way to make it believable. She only cared about making it all thematically relevant. END SPOILERS
In the end, it seemed like Hall wanted this to be a book about big ideas–communication, memory, technology, humanity, family, love– but in the process she lost for me what would have made those big ideas land. If this sounds interesting to you, you could do worse than picking it up and giving it a try. It’s pretty short and reads fast. But I wouldn’t recommend it as a way to have a good time. I was leaning towards two stars, but the writing is beautiful in parts, so let’s call it 2.5, and round up.
ETA: I forgot to mention in the first version of this review why I thought this also failed as a thought experiment, and that’s because I was bothered by there being so many confused voices on the subject of technology. At points the book seemed to come down unnecessarily hard on it, and on others, it seemed in favor. I couldn’t ultimately decide what it was trying to tell me.