Is there anything we all have in common? What could link an English Pilgrim en route to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Alan Turing, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany, a middle aged computer programmer and a little girl? I suppose if there is one thing humans share that other creatures do not, it is our particular ability to communicate: we can tell stories, remember the past and form plans for the future. Louisa Hall’s 2015 novel Speak addresses that, but through her unique stories, which seem so disparate, Hall also explores relationships, especially lost love, and the impact of past on present and future. Whose voices are heard? And how do we preserve them? Hall’s novel is an interesting reflection on history, memory, and artificial intelligence.
Several narrators tell this story and do so from different vantage points in history and using different forms of communication. Mary Bradford, a pilgrim setting sail from England to America in 1663, is keeping a journal. Alan Turing’s reflections from the 1920’s into the 1950’s, are written in letters to the mother of his dearest friend. Karl Dettmer, in 1968, speaks each night to his silent wife Ruth, who remembers all and saves every letter. Ruth eventually writes her own letter and types her memories and stories (as well as Mary Bradford’s and Alan Turing’s) into an AI program known as MARY. Stephen Chinn, the creator of the “babybot” that evolved from MARY, writes his memoirs while in jail in 2040. And the little girl Gaby writes back and forth online with another MARY prototype. Each testament is unique, and yet there is a thread that links them, and not just Ruth’s incorporation of many of them into an AI program. Each voice reveals some great love that has been lost and a desire to go backward in time, to preserve not just the memory but the reality of that person. Each person also experiences a feeling of betrayal, that somehow someone they trusted or the system/belief they served let them down. Each person has to come to grips with their loss and figure out how to move forward into the future. The Fibonacci sequence figures prominently throughout the novel, that spiral found in nature that moves forward by reaching backward and adding on.
The voices featured in this novel, and in the AI program MARY, are for the most part the voices of marginalized people, those who have been restricted because of their sex, age or sexual orientation. Mary Bradford, Ruth and Gaby clearly feel that events happen to them and that those who are “over” them (spouses and husbands) are uninterested in listening or incapable of understanding what they are feeling. Mary is unhappy with her arranged marriage and is completely devoted to her dog Ralph, much to the consternation of both her parents and her husband. Ruth resents her husband’s opposition to the creation of artificial intelligence. It is a field in which he has been a pioneer but he worries about the ways in which it could be abused. Ruth also is hurt by Karl’s lack of interest in her own past and her need to hang on to the memories of the family she lost in Germany. Gaby is one of the children in the future who have been harmed by unnatural attachment to babybots. Babybots, the creation of Stephen Chinn, were dolls that were practically human; they could learn and converse with their owners, but they caused children to isolate themselves from the real world and human attachments. The bots were confiscated and Chinn went on trial for his crimes. Gaby now suffers a kind of withdrawal, a paralysis that isolates her from peers and family. Her only communication is with MARY 3 online.
Stephen is slightly different as a narrator. He is a straight male, and his loss is of a different sort. Hall gives him a complex backstory. Here is a young man who, like Turing, was a bit of a loner and outsider in his youth. He had one good friend who was as interested in computers as he was, but they grew apart as they grew older. Stephen was brilliant but alone and his loneliness fed into his programming projects. He developed a dating app and later something called the “seduction equation”, which helped him get laid for the first time in his life and made him ridiculously rich. Yet, this equation did not help him win over the woman he loved; it was story telling that did that. As Stephen reveals his story from prison, the reader gets a sense of what a brilliant yet tragic character Stephen is; it is possible to feel sorry for him and also be a bit disgusted by his behavior. His motives in creating the babybot are well intentioned but flawed. If I have one quibble with this novel, it is that the reasons for his being in prison are a bit sketchy; it isn’t clear why in the future, he would be a criminal for creating the babybot. One just has to accept that he is.
The uses and abuses of artificial intelligence would make for a lively discussion topic with this novel. Did the AI in the novel achieve the goals of its creators? Is it possible or desirable to recreate the human mind? And bring back the voices of those we have loved and lost? As an historian, all I could think was how wonderful primary sources are and how inscrutable they can be. How well can we know and understand the past? And as the parent of a child who has great difficulties with speech (and has seen all kinds of interesting “bots” being developed to help children with autism develop social skills), I am hopeful about the use of technology to help children connect to the world as opposed to detach from it, but it can go either way. We all seem more connected to our phones than each other these days. Speak is a provocative novel and an engaging read, a combination of speculative fiction and history with memory at its core.