Saturday, May 21, 2016

Book Review: "Speak" by Louisa Hall

If you walk into almost any public place, you'll see people on their phones, emailing, texting, surfing the web. And this behavior isn't just exclusive to solitary people—how often do you see groups of people in which some or all are on their phones simultaneously? And how often have you seen two people at a table at a restaurant, or sitting next to each other, yet they're immersed in their own electronic connections instead of taking advantage of the physical one right there in front of (or beside them)?

Technology's effect on person-to-person interaction is a main theme in Louisa Hall's Speak. However, she posits that it isn't just technology that takes us out of conversation—it's fear, anger, pride, jealousy, and despair as well, and this happened long before the smartphone came into being. Hall tells her story through the viewpoints of several characters at different points through history—a teenage girl in the 1600s, emigrating to America and dreaming of adventure, which is worlds away from what her parents have planned for her; Alan Turing, the mathematician whose code breaking skills assisted with defeating the Germans in World War II, who expresses his fears and hopes in letters to the mother of his best friend; a professor of computer science and his estranged wife, who begs him to give the computer he has created the ability to retain a person's memories; and an infamous inventor in the not-too-distant future, who is in prison for creating "babybots," dolls whose ability to communicate was a little too lifelike.

In each somewhat-related vignette, Hall explores the idea that even when a person is right in front of us, we don't say the things we long to or should. She also conveys the idea that while technology can help bridge communication gaps, it creates larger gaps at the same time.

"We have centuries of language to draw on, and centuries more to make up, and only when we accept that there's one right pattern of speech will we be overtaken by robots."

I found the idea behind this book to be an intriguing one, but it didn't, well, speak to me (sorry) as I hoped it would. I kept waiting for the narrative to grab me, but I felt as if I was kept at arm's length, I guess in a sort of parallel to the way technology can create barriers to real communication. There were too many characters to juggle at once, and I felt that in each there was far more backstory that remained unexplained, and which would have given more depth to the story.

Hall is a talented writer, and creates wonders with imagery. As someone who relies quite a bit on technology, I do agree somewhat with the message she was trying to convey, but it didn't compel me enough in the telling.

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