Book Review: Speak by Louisa Hall

Speak, Louisa Hall’s richly imagined and beautifully written sophomore novel, tells the story of the rise and fall of artificial intelligence through six intertwined narratives that span centuries.

  • In 1663, thirteen-year-old Mary Bradford writes a diary about her sea crossing from England to America with her Puritan family, her trusty dog, and her unwanted new husband.
  • Between 1928 and 1954, renowned mathematician Alan Turing writes letters to the mother of his deceased best friend.
  • Spanning from 1968 to 1988, correspondence between Karl and Ruth Dettman reveal the growing distance between the couple, as Karl, a Jewish refugee, pulls away from the talking computer he created and Ruth demands the computer be given memory.
  • In 2040, Stephen R. Chinn writes his memoir in prison while doing time for creating intelligent babybots that caused children to forsake relationships with other human children.
  • A 2035 Supreme Court document presents the online chat transcript of a conversation between Gaby, a young girl physically paralyzed by the loss of her babybot, and MARY3, a chatbot that uses a complex algorithm to participate in meaningful conversations.
  • And in the back of a vehicle full of confiscated robots classified as excessively lifelike and marked for disposal, one robot muses upon its destiny and the lives stored in its memory.

Each of these characters is searching for connection, and their stories call to mind themes of memory, voice, story-telling, and what it means to be human. Like David Mitchell’s Cloud AtlasSpeak weaves a universal story through characters whose lives are intricately connected despite living centuries and continents apart. Each character has a distinct voice, and I loved that Hall let each of her characters use different formats to tell their stories.

“It was then that I dreamed of the seduction equation. I dreamed of a pattern, reaching backward in time, producing a new term for the present. I saw the cycle that links us to the terms that came before we were born: 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… I saw that links aren’t actually chains, but rather widening spirals, delicate as the ripples that build into waves, the shoots that grow into branches on the most magnificent trees. I knew then that I was a branch, no less connected than anyone else. I encountered the dreamers I came from, and understood that I was the link between them and the world as it would become in my lifetime.”

I haven’t seen much buzz about this book, and that is a huge shame! Speak blew me away with its eloquent writing, connected narratives (each of which are compelling in their own right), and eloquent musings about whether technology makes us more or less human. This is definitely going to be a contender for my list of favorite books at the end of the year. I would high recommend it to fans of Cloud Atlass connected narratives, Station Eleven‘s portrayal of a post-apocalyptic world, and Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles‘s post-modern questions about the Singularity.

This post contains affiliate links you can use to purchase the book. If you buy the book using that link, I will receive a small commission from the sale.


15 thoughts on “Book Review: Speak by Louisa Hall

  1. I’ve got a request pending with my library to purchase this book, but you’re review has made me super impatient to read this book. It sounds exactly perfect for me.

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