Speak: The Book that Bridges Science Fiction and Literary Fiction
Connection is one of our most profound needs as human beings. Failure of communication and the endless quest to be known come with the territory. Still, nothing shatters us more than when the person or thing that understood us is gone.
Much like the format in the book Cloud Atlas,
Speak by Louisa Hall spans many time periods and
characters, weaving a plot with the central theme of
human connection and how artificial intelligence (AI)
fits into our communication, connections, and
ultimately, our lives.
Some of Louisa Hall’s characters are recognizable, like Alan Turing, computer scientist and mathematician from the early to mid 1900’s. Others are creations of the author, like Mary Bradford, a young Puritan woman traveling by ship to America with her beloved dog, Ralph. Other characters like Stephen Chinn reside in the future, recounting their offerings to the development of AI.
Each protagonist lays bare his or her life in such a provocative way, the reader feels like a trusted confidant.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Speak was the bridge between literary fiction and science fiction. Literary fiction, or at least the literary fiction I read and love, is character centric. It focuses on a few characters and deeply investigates who they are, what they feel, and what they do. Science fiction centers around plot events and, secondarily, sympathetic characters. For the most part, characters in science fiction react to events - the event has the emphasis in the story. Characters in literary fiction (again, for the most part) either deal with events that have happened to them or set in motion the event or events. In other words, characters have the emphasis in most literary fiction books.
Louisa Hall’s writing style in Speak screams literary fiction. Each of our characters is educated, and while each has a certain unique voice, the common thread of all the characters is a college-educated vernacular. However, the subject matter is split between characters and science fiction topics and themes. Hall references the dawning of AI, and the hopes and fears of those who worked in the field in its infancy. Then, Hall imagines the human reaction to AI at its peak. It’s almost as if she wrote the call (science fiction) and response (literary fiction). As if she wondered, “What is the human response to AI we see in science fiction books, TV shows, and movies?”
Although a deeply sad book as a whole, science fiction fans would give Hall major points for her research of AI and her interesting vision of AI in the future. Literary fiction fans would give Hall props for her breadth of characters, how deeply she penetrates their hearts and minds, and also praise her for adding such interesting subject matter (AI) into a genre that so desperately needs renovation and imagination.
Louisa Hall may be the only author that can claim to have also been a professional squash player. She grew up in the Philadelphia area, graduated from Harvard, and is now getting her Ph.D. in literature in Texas. She also writes poetry.
As with all art, there’s a large degree of subjectivity in determining if something is “good,” or “not good.” The best I can do is give my thoughts and opinions, and rate this book on an arbitrary scale of teas, the best being a 1987 Vintage Cave-Aged Oolong and the worst being Lipton decaf black tea (no, I am not going to provide a link for that shit). I give Speak a beautiful Ali Shan oolong tea. Ali Shan is a relatively new kind of oolong, just as Louisa Hall is a newer author, but its quality is rare. The flavors continue to unfold as it is consumed: earthiness, warm sugar, cream, and floral notes. Louisa Hall’s writing is just as complex and rooted in a good foundation as a cup of Ali Shan oolong, and I can only expect will continue to develop and unfold into more beautiful flavors over time.
Points of Interest
Interesting fact: One protagonist stops writing mid-book, and a new protagonist continues.
Interesting quote: “I fretted so much about my earthly interactions that I had very few interactions to speak of.”