Although I was looking forward to reading Speak, I did assume I could predict the story as soon as I saw the words “artificial intelligence” in the blurb. AI fiction varies in quality, but it almost always contains the universal warning that machines will take over. Louisa Hall, however, makes a welcome adjustment in warning that, worse than machines taking over, is the fact that we want them to.
The novel is brilliantly structured in a way that keeps you engaged and intrigued from beginning to end. The chapters alternate in character perspective as well as time periods, giving a well-rounded view of the story – or at least the before and after stages. Speak only shows us glimpses of the build up to the baby-bot invention and the aftermath and repercussions in the future. What happens in between is for us to imagine and in this way fully draws the reader in and creates a haunting story. While the different perspectives spanning decades are well sustained, I was always most interested in the transcripts between Mary and Gaby that explore whether these machines had “intent to endanger the morals of children.” The morality of human-robot relationships is a running theme in the novel.
Hall’s critique is less about how rapidly technology is advancing or its potential to become sentient, but rather our human error in mistaking its memory, dialogue and “emotions” as being indicative of a human quality, and forgetting that it’s all just binary code and perfect programming. This is the very problem Karl has with his wife and her growing fixation with AI, which she feels more connected to than him. But as baby-bot builder Stephen R Chinn says in another chapter, “You blame me for the fact that your daughters found their mechanical dolls more human than you, but is that my fault, for making a too human doll? Or your fault, for being too mechanical?” Poignant moments such as this are what really drew me into the story, and are definitely something we can apply to our modern society and our obsession with technology and needing to be “connected” 24/7.
Our growing (and willing) slavery to our phones and computers has its pros and cons, but as Speak explores, it’s ultimately a symptom of a wider and deeply rooted problem: our desperation for communication. Each character in the novel shows this one way or another, such as Alan Turing compulsively writing letters to his deceased lover’s mother, Karl’s letters to his distant wife who is more devoted to Mary than him and Gaby’s relationship with her babybot. What they all crave is connection, and seem to turn to robots because the connection they make with other humans is simply too hard to attain or has too many variables to be consistently fulfilling. AI on the other hand, can be programmed to provide whatever you need it to be and can fulfill our pathological desire to feel connected to someone (or something) else.
Although it may seem like a sci-fi story you’ve heard before, Speak is an insightful and entertaining read that knows how to make the classic “robot story” surprising and fresh again. Hall’s beautiful prose and descriptions have also convinced me to explore more of her work – which is really the best sign that a book has made an impression on you!