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Violet Wells Reviews Louisa Hall’s Speak

Speak Speak, by Louisa Hall. (Ecco, 2015)

“We’re linked to histories we can’t ever know, forgotten stories that form our most intimate substance.”

Speak is a novel about an AI, a “BabyBot” (Hall’s futuristic terminology is not her strong point) called Mary 3, a kind of cyborg similar to what Spielberg created in his film AI. Except Hall’s cyborg is not intended for childless parents but as a companion for children. Mary 3’s memory consists of various historical documents including the memoir of the daughter of one of America’s founding fathers, the letters of Alan Turing to the mother of his dead childhood friend and the autobiographies of two of Mary’s engineers. Comparisons have been made with Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – the employment of written documents as a floorplan to unify characters over a long stretch of history – but here the voices are more straightforwardly and simplistically connected: you could say Mary 3 is the child of the four (or five as one voice is divided between husband and wife) narrators.

There’s a lot of bewitchment in the way Hall sets up her novel. And for the first hundred or so pages I loved this book, helped by the fact that Hall writes fabulously well. On the whole she did a good job of creating a distinctive and engaging voice for each of her characters. The problem arrived when I realised I knew exactly what was in store. The bewitchment of the first part turned into predictability. This is a novel that, once it gets going, doesn’t really have any surprises in store.

The characters are unified not solely by their respective relations to the AI but by shared themes of early broken attachments and imprisonment. As the novel progresses we move further away from any kind of futuristic vision into a rather closeted domesticity on all fronts. It becomes a novel about the inability to become a healthy adult. All of the characters in Hall’s novel refuse to break an early attachment and so never perhaps quite become adults. They are all imprisoned by the past – an ironic impasse for individuals who are creating the future. Hall seems to be saying that technological innovation has become a means for not putting away childish things. One can’t help thinking of the narcissism, the childish demand for attention the internet and smart phone seems to have bred.

Another problem is that Hall seems to deliberately eschew dramatic tension. Where she might have injected some she doesn’t. She has lots of scope with her characters but for me she wasn’t courageous enough with them. Probably the best voice of the novel is Mary Bradford, the pilgrim daughter. Here she has lots of scope for some real dramatic tension, some compelling storytelling but she forgoes this in favour of what becomes a long winded vignette about Mary and her relation with her beloved dog. Hall makes her point and then goes on making it. Essentially a novel about the inability to grow beyond limitations, whether these limitations are hardwired or emotional, is always going to struggle to breathe freely as storytelling, especially when these limitations are shared by every character in the book. Mary 3, the AI is very disappointing as a voice, especially compared to the complex playful wizardry of Mitchell’s Sonmi-451 or even Spielberg’s soul searching android in AI.

So you could say, on one level, Speak is about adults who are unable to overcome childhood dependencies. At the same time it’s quite idealistic about children. Children, we’re told, form such a loving loyal dependency on their babybots that like any addiction it becomes self-harming. Spielberg was perhaps more perceptive about children. Children are just as likely to be fickle and cruel as loving and devoted. Certainly there’s more than a hint in this novel that wondrous modern technological innovation is subliminally creating a world that is becoming ever more childish. But I was never quite convinced Hall was fully in command of this theme. Going back to the quote I used at the beginning – “We’re linked to histories we can’t ever know, forgotten stories that form our most intimate substance.” – it’s a good idea but I’m not sure the novel really bears it out.

If Speak asks the question whether our minds can exist and exert influence outside our bodies you only have to read the work of any great mind to realise the answer to this question is yes. Alan Turing, in the novel, wants to build a machine that will preserve something of his childhood friend’s consciousness. But you could argue that books have been preserving consciousness for a long time and that Hall’s AI is just a new more sophisticated form of book. Ultimately the disappointing thing about this novel is that Hall’s AI is little more than an elaborate recording device and as such it doesn’t in any way dramatise the big questions Hall asks. It’s withdrawn from circulation in the novel, not because it begins to develop any kind of mind of its own, but simply because it leaks toxins, which seemed a bit of an easy way out to me. In many ways Mary 3 is little more than the internet in the form of a doll which, though witty, isn’t sufficiently dramatic to charge a novel with fizzing current.