Speak is a science-fiction novel featuring artificial intelligence, totalitarian responses to uncannily lifelike AI, and computer prodigies, but its focus (like all sci-fi that I can think of, frankly) is on humans and humanity. Hall explores humanity by weaving several different storylines together. I admit I’m a sucker for novels in which seemingly separate stories come together, and much of the force driving this novel forward comes from piecing together where the connections are. Refreshingly, I found all of the stories compelling and never felt the urge to skip through any of the sections.
We follow the history of the human search for meaning through time, beginning with Mary, a young Puritan dreading the life she will have with a new husband in the New World. Mary’s narration is possibly my favorite as it’s full of energy, intelligence, and overconfidence in her understanding of the world.
A close second is the fictionalized letters of Alan Turing, which reveal his brilliance and isolation. Hall perfectly balances the tragic elements of his life with his energy and wit.
Hall smoothly transitions us into the sci-fi elements of the story, beginning with a scientist hoping to reconnect with his wife. His wife, on the other hand, is much more interested in speaking with the AI he helped develop than saving their marriage.
We jump farther forward in time to hear from a scientist and inventor imprisoned for life for his role in creating extremely lifelike AI that served as companions for children, which have since been banned. However, after this type of AI is banned, an entire generation is left with physical and emotional illnesses, unable to form meaningful connections with humans.
Like virtually every other work tackling AI, Speak considers what it means to be human if we can create machines that can replace the appearance, interaction, and emotional work that humans perform. Does AI make us more or less human? And can we consider AI itself human?
There is a certain amount of sadness to the stories told here, but this novel is more of an exploration than a tragedy. All of the consequences the characters suffer, no matter how terrible, ultimately arise from curiosity and the need for understanding. If anything the tragedy lies in the number of characters who inevitably make themselves unknowable and unknowing in their search for a connection.
I’d call this sci-fi with an emphasis on language and a haunting/hopeful tone. For fans of Margaret Atwood and weirdly Colum McCann? Beautiful prose, you guys.
5/5 Pink Panther Heads