Book Review: Speak

Speak by Louisa Hall

She cannot run. She cannot walk. She cannot even blink. As her batteries run down for the final time, all she can do is speak. Will you listen?

From a pilgrim girl's diary, to a traumatised child talking to a software program; from Alan Turing's conviction in the 1950s, to a genius imprisoned in 2040 for creating illegally lifelike dolls: all these lives have shaped and changed a single artificial intelligence - MARY3. In Speak she tells you their story, and her own. It is the last story she will ever tell, spoken both in celebration and in warning.

When machines learn to speak, who decides what it means to be human?

Artificial Intelligence. How close are we? Orbit has been publishing ground breaking Science Fiction for a long time. For me most notable were the books of Claire North: Harry August and Touch. This year Orbit once again releases a stunning title. Speak by Louisa Hall, when I first read the synopsis I was directly caught and actually got a bit of a sense of Love Minus Eighty. One aspect that makes good and catching Science Fiction is when subjects are talked that might just happen, a second aspect is when the time frame is linked to ours, Louisa Hall takes both these aspects into account and delivers a mighty fine first appearance. 

Louisa Hall kicks off her story with not one narration but five narrations all set in different timelines. The first is Stephen R. Chinn, the inventor and programmer behind the so called "babybots" who has been imprisoned and is writing his personal notes in a dairy from. The second is from Alan Turing perspective, yes the Turing who proposed the Turing test, Alan writes letter to his best friend's mother. The third is by a professor and his wife who were involved with the MARY programme. The fourth by a young women who is making the voyage across the ocean to look for pastures new and the fifth by MARY3 and a young girl who have a set of online chats. 

If you look at the timelines in chronological order, it begins with the young woman Mary who travels from England to America for pastures new. Traveling by boat in the 1900s was a most dangerous journey and so does it reflect in her personal journal. She clings to what she has on board. Next up is Alan Turing's story, some might know him better then me, but he is the Alan Turing who we knew, he made the Turing test. In this story he loses the boy he loved to a disease, yes he was homosexual. In order to cope with it he writes to the boy's mother as well as pursues a scientific career and you all know where that led him. After Alan's story comes that of the professor and his wife. To be more precise, Karl and Ruth Dettman, who like Mary traveled to America for a new life, Karl and Ruth came from Nazi Germany. Karl is also a scientist and actually comes up with the first MARY1 prototype, you might already know where the name originates drom, its from a certain personal journal... Though Ruth finds connection with MARY1 there is still something missing. Ruth wants more real AI and this pushes the relation of Karl and Ruth to a breakingpoint. But it doens't work out the way that Karl planned it. Next there is Stephen who took the Mary concept even further and created the "babybots" that got him imprisoned. The brilliant mind of Stephen ruined things before he created MARY3 ("babybot"), and does even more so with the release of MARY3 as now everyone wants one to interact and let every normal personal fall to the side. Last but definitely not least there is the young girl Gaby who grew up with the pleasure of having a "babybot". Though due to the banishment of the "babybot" she finds herself in a state of disrepair, not know what to do and how to continue with life. In her story you find her interacting with a MARY3 bot with a lot of emotional feelings. A beautiful story. 

If you would have to say what Speak is about in a flash it would be: dealing with consequences of addiction. Opinions of others might differ when I say this but I am of the opinion that at the heart of the story this is the essence. Of course Louisa Hall builds up her story in perfect proportions by highlighting the different narrators and telling their personal and often very emotional stories. 

I have read several books that follow the same buildup as Speak and everytime when you have those multiple narrations that are also spaced in time, it takes a while to get used to them. Speak was in this way no exception, it doesn't directly make this a bad book, it is something that as a reader you have to embrace, once you manage this it's over in a heartbeat. 

Once thing that I would like to emphasize is the fact that what Louisa Hall in my opinion writes about a form of addiction and once it is banned it turns into a disease of some kind, is perhaps a real thing already happening. Look at the videogame addictions. But perhaps most importantly. Look at yourself and at for example your smartphone. Have you ever forgotten to take it with you and did you feel naked? Do you have that feeling that when you hear a bleep or see the blinking light on your phone you want to know who messaged you? Read Speak with this message in the back of your mind and you will know precisely what time it is. 

Speak will be one of the most talked about scifi bending book this year. Don't you dear to miss it. 


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