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In 'Speak,' distinct voices from distinct eras ponder human connection

In 'Speak,' distinct voices from distinct eras ponder human connection
The cover of "Speak" and authorLouisa Hall (From left: Ecco; Bonnie Berry / Ecco)

In the middle of her second novel, "Speak," Louisa Hall quotes T.S. Eliot from "Four Quartets": "Time present and time past are both present in time future, and time future contained in time past." It's a telling choice, for time — present, past and future — is a key element of this fiction, which unfolds across many eras at once.

Call it the influence of David Mitchell or Hari Kunzru, but "Speak" is a kaleidoscope of a book, rotating among five narrators, or voices, from 1663 to 2040, when the combination of climate change and artificial intelligence has fundamentally altered how we interact. Its characters include a young woman named Mary Bradford, en route from 17th century England to the New World; the British cryptologist Alan Turing; and an AI pioneer named Karl Dettman, based on computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum, who in the 1960s created a program called Eliza that mimicked the art of conversation, although he later became a critic of technology's role in our lives.

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Such an interplay drives "Speak" also; it is a novel that wants to raise big questions about how we know one another and ourselves. "Something you once said to me began to tug at my brain," Dettman's estranged wife, Ruth, writes him in a letter: "something about the importance of holding several time periods in mind at once, if we're to understand each other."

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The challenge of understanding resides at the center of "Speak," which asks us to consider where, and how, intelligence and empathy begin. "All this picking and choosing who gets a soul seems to me the root of some of our greatest evils," Turing writes to the mother of his late friend Christopher Morcom, with whom he corresponds.

Turing is addressing here the soul of a machine, which is, of course, a matter of intention; can a computer be said to be fully living if it has no real experience? Hall remains nuanced on the issue, using her characters to approach it from a variety of sides.

For Turing, the point is preservation: "I've begun thinking," he confides, "that I might one day soon encounter a method for preserving a human mind-set in a man-made machine." For Stephen R. Chinn, incarcerated after having invented the "babybot" — a remarkably lifelike doll with highly interactive capabilities — there's a more practical motivation; he wants to create a companion for his daughter Ramona, isolated on their Texas ranch. For Dettman, who watches his wife grow increasingly consumed with "talking" to a program known here as Mary, there is only threat.

"[O]ne day," he admonishes her, "that machine will remember your words but it won't ever feel them. It won't understand them. It will only throw them back in your face. Gifts returned, you'll realize they've become empty. They're nothing more than a string of black shapes, incomprehensible footprints on snow banks."

How to weave it all together? Most essential for Hall, perhaps, is the notion of writing: Her chapters unfold as a series of letters, journal entries, bits of testimony, all expressing states of exile, loneliness.

"In the manner of Lot's wife," Mary writes in her diary, "do turn incessantly back to what we have left behind us. Am perhaps becoming a pillar of salt." Four centuries later, another disconnected girl, body frozen by an inexplicable illness, finds solace in a similar act of communication, typing back and forth with "a cloud-based intelligence" that is "91% human … [a]ccording to the Turing Test."

What is the difference between the diary and the computer? For Hall, both are ways of storing and expressing memory. Both use technology, in other words, to create or replicate place, identity; both enlarge us by integrating a broader world.

"I saw the cycle that links us to the terms that came before we were born," Chinn explains, describing his own moment of epiphany: "our parents, our grandparents, the first settlers who came to our shores. We're linked to histories we can't ever know, forgotten stories that form our most intimate substance."

This makes sense on levels psychological and cellular; we store our history not just in our memories but also in our genes. To illustrate the point, Hall invokes the nautilus, the sea creature whose shell marks a Fibonacci sequence, in which "[e]ach term in the sequence is the sum of the two terms before it … [l]ooping, orbiting, but never the same: progressing always upward and out."

That it is a metaphor goes without saying, a symbol for the ever-expanding networks of information "Speak" seeks to illustrate. But it is also key to the book's structure: echoing from narrative to narrative, century to century.

And yet, for all the subtlety of such a pattern, it remains, in the end, somewhat unfulfilled. A Fibonacci sequence is by its nature open-ended, while a book, any book, must come to a close. In that sense, the overlap of time and character in Hall's novel ultimately comes off as a bit of a contrivance, an attempt to make connections that are too elusive to pin down.

"This is all we get, I thought," the frozen girl, Gaby, reflects. "Just quick moments of brightness that get taken away before you understand what you've been given." Well, yes … but it was ever thus. More to the point is what we do with it, our need to reach out from our isolation, to find, no matter how temporary or intangible, some shared experience or common ground.

"We're all staring at our screens," Hall writes, "stuck here, hoping somehow to break free. … My cursor blinks, blinks, blinks. … What will come next? It wants to know. It prods me forward, blinking and blinking. Do not stop talking, it reminds me. Do not stop speaking. You can never come to an end."

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Speak
A Novel

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Louisa Hall
Ecco: 336 pp., $27.99

david.ulin@latimes.com

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