Hall – Speak


Six characters write diaries and letters, along with the transcript of a conversation, all presented in rotation. There are no dramatic scenes in real time, and no plot. Everything is remembered and told from afar through a haze of maudlin emotion. Each character whines self-serving excuses and descriptions of having been put-upon. In the absence of genuine dialog, there is no pushback to this self-indulgence and the stink quickly becomes overpowering.

In one thread, a thirteen-year-old English girl writes into her diary as she crosses the Atlantic in the 1600’s. She has reluctantly agreed to an arranged marriage and her dog has died. So she writes witlessly at great length  about that, without insight or keen observation. Randomly chosen example:

14th. At dinner, spoke to father again. Asked for funeral for Ralph. Rejected, on theological grounds. Soulless animal: no other world in which Ralph is still living. Much loved, good life, etc. But soulless animal, and body washed away by sea.

The girl’s diary is found in a modern library archive by scholar Ruth Dettman. She supposedly edits the diary for publication but provides no opinion, interest, facts, or context. Why or how she edits the diary is left a mystery.

Her husband Karl allegedly incorporates some of the ideas from the diary (Which ideas? There are no ideas!) into his developing AI program, an algorithmic conversationalist called MARY. They disagree about how much linguistic autonomy the software should have (not defined), because there are laws against “illegal levels of AI” (unexplained).

Karl Dettman’s letters are addressed to his wife, all in italics for no reason that can be discerned, but making them difficult to read, and written in an appalling second-person voice in which narrative exposition is thinly disguised as memoir, a style so clunky that I wondered if it was supposed to be humorous. There is no insight into the creation of an AI program with “too much” AI. What a tragic lost opportunity.

Random example:

“For a year, from my weather station, I wrote you letters. You never wrote back. After a year, the war eneded. You learned that your family, your mother, your father, your grandfather, and your little sister, had all been killed. Several months later a package came for you in the mail…”

Why is he telling his wife in a letter that her family was killed? Was she unaware? Astonishing.

Ruth’s letters are addressed to him, in the same tone, and whine on and on about how he became obsessed with his work, distant, and uncommunicative, so naturally, she had to leave him. Gripping stuff.

Then there’s the thread of letters from Alan Turing to the mother of a recently deceased friend. These letters allude vaguely and very lightly to the major incidents of Turing’s life as known in popular culture, such as the cracking of the Enigma code and his arrest and punishment for homosexuality, but virtually nothing – remarkably nothing at all – on his greatest invention, the Turing Machine. Instead, he rambles on about complete trivia in an utterly unconvincing voice. Random example:

“You’ll remember that I was never much good at sports, but to run it seems all one needs is an interest in counting one’s footsteps. I go outwards from town, through the countryside, and when the blood begins to beat in my ears, I sometimes hear Chris’s voice. When I grow tired, I lie down in the pastures amongst befuddled sheep, and I summon Chris to help me sort through the strand of numbers crossing the sky. …”

Then there’s Stephen Chinn, an entrepreneur who designed a talking doll using Dettman’s AI conversationalist, but since it had “too much AI,” Chinn is in prison in 2040, and copies of evidence against him are the “transcripts” of conversations between one of his talking dolls and a girl, Gaby. These transcript are mind-numbing and reveal nothing whatsoever about the character of the AI, the little girl, the crime committed, or the nature of AI language processing.

Random example:

Gaby: My best friend is seeing a therapist. My mom just otld me today. Apparently it’s “helping.”

MARY3: I see.

Gaby: She’s been unfreezing. According to her mom she’s definitely getting better. She’ll be back in school in a month.

MARY3: How do you feel about that?

Gaby: I don’t believe it. If it’s true, it makes me want to throw up.

MARY3: Aren’t a lot of girls getting better, after talking to therapists?

Once again I am naively astonished at how the power of marketing can turn nothing into something.

Hall, Louisa. (2015), Speak. New York: Harper Collins (306 pp).

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