Louisa Hall’s debut novel The Carriage House, published in 2013, served as an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Persuasion. Hall offers her second novel, Speak, as a witness to, and document of, the power of meaningful communication. Crossing through several eras and lifespans, Speak proves that connectivity transcends the digital age.
At the intersection between historical and speculative fiction, Hall’s new novel scratches the surface of the variety of complicated relationship between humans and artificial intelligence. Ultimately, these computer-based connections begin to reveal the intricacies of the many human-to-human relationships in the book.
Told in a series of five “voices,” Speak is complex, haunting, and a little too real. This might just be the book that makes you finally put down your iPhone.
The Rumpus: I’m interested in how you set out to research the writing of this book. In my mind I can envision nothing less than a detective’s cork board covered in photographs and strings connecting one crime scene to the next. What went into the making of Speak?
Louisa Hall: I wish I’d had a detective’s cork board! At one point I had a lot of multi-colored sticky notes stuck to my wall and they kept fluttering away when I opened the windows. But that was mostly a question of remembering all the various dates in the various strands of the story, once it had already been written. When I was starting the book, I didn’t plan to make any intricate connections. I wasn’t sure the voices would ever link up. I don’t think an author should manipulate her characters into strange coincidences. I tried to build each character’s story one day at a time without insisting on intersections between them. I did alternate between voices with each new day of writing, so in the end, the experience of writing the book was like sitting five different people from five different time periods down at a table to talk about robots. Sometimes it seemed like they were talking over each other, like they had no connection and couldn’t understand one another’s concerns. Other times it seemed like they were listening closely.
Rumpus: What drove you to write a book about the origins and development of artificial intelligence?
Hall: I was intrigued by the actual characters involved in the history of artificial intelligence—Lady Ada Lovelace, the earliest computer programmers, all of them women, Alan Turing, Joseph Weizenbaum. All of them had been told at some point that their intelligence or their humanity was somehow inferior. I was moved by the commitment with which they championed artificial intelligence, as if more than the rest of us they could understand what it meant to be considered slightly other than human.
Hall: Before I start writing a novel, I imagine its structure, something I first practiced in writing poems. Everything I pour into the novel is affected by that original shape, by its outlines and restrictions. I’m always happiest when I’m writing in collaboration with a form.
Rumpus: The Fibonacci sequence rears its head in almost all of the five strands of narrative. It is, of course, hyper relevant to the content, but also in the form of the novel—in the way it spirals and creates specific interlocked chambers. Was this an intentional move on your part?
Hall: Yes, the Fibonacci sequence was much on my mind. It’s a series that’s used in programming, and also a series that shows up so often in the natural world: in pinecones, pineapples, shells, waves, leaves, everything. Its natural recurrence begs the question of how much of our development follows preordained patterns, something I don’t want to believe. On the other hand, it’s a series I can relate to. It doesn’t only move forward; it depends on the last term to construct the next. As you say, it spirals. It never makes clean breaks. That’s how I’ve moved through the world. If there’s any pattern I follow, it’s something like that.
Rumpus: One of the unique and beautiful, and I’m sure challenging, parts of this novel is that it is told in five “voices.” What you refer to as “The Voices” at the start of the book, I’ve begun to call “The Strands,” in thinking of it as a very complicated braid. Why five? How did you determine who got a voice in the book?
Hall: I wanted to write the book according to an algorithm, because I was thinking about how a computer might write a novel differently from a human, and also because I’m interested in the way a chosen form affects the content within it. The algorithm I came up with was sort of a combination of the Fibonacci sequence and the pattern of end-words in a sestina. In the end, after writing each voice in its proper algorithmic order, I realized that to make the story come alive, I’d have to exercise my human power to break the pattern I’d started out with. I slightly rearranged the sequence in which the characters come up; I introduced the babybot’s voice and I added Ruth Dettman, speaking back to her husband. In a poem, my favorite moment is usually the moment when the poet comes up against the form that she’s chosen, breaking the meter or slanting a rhyme. It seems to reaffirm that we have the power to push against the patterns we’ve chosen.
Rumpus: Amongst all of the strands we see snippets of narrative from Gaby White’s babybot—now shoved away in a holding chamber in the desert. Seemingly, she has begun to think independently and reflectively. As a reader, I found Gaby White to be pretty unlikable as a character. I’m wondering if you designed her to be this way? Perhaps she is meant to be unlikable because it is both easy and terrifying for us to see a future in which a dependence on artificial intelligence is a real threat?
Hall: I find Gaby to be unlikeable in the same way I was unlikeable when I was thirteen—simultaneously intensely alienated and obsessed with fitting in. Maybe for that reason I also feel for her. I can only imagine that the isolation I felt as a teenager—when nobody was all that dependent on computers—would be exacerbated by growing up in a time when everyone is simultaneously more cut off from human interaction and more constantly in touch with each other. When I was thirteen, there were moments of such pleasant loneliness. I wonder whether that exists when there’s always a way to check in on the whereabouts of your friends.
Rumpus: The demand of the title is echoed in one of Alan Turing’s letters to Mrs. Morcom, when he writes dialogue from the evil queen in Snow White. Turing remarks that it is “misguided speech” for the queen to demand a voice but want a face. Do you think the characters in the novel are misguided in their search for something more?
Hall: I wouldn’t be a writer if I thought there wasn’t real magic in voice. I guess I’m in league with those characters, demanding voices, wanting a kind of communication that can deliver everything in the wide world without losing anything in translation.
Rumpus: Terms like “collective identity” (seen most clearly in Speak in the many iterations of MARY), and the concept of digital natives versus digital immigrants (seen in the way Gaby has grown up with this particular technology versus the way her mother must adapt to it), are used frequently in scholarship about artificial intelligence. Were you thinking actively about incorporating many of these important theories or did it occur naturally in the writing of these narratives?
Hall: This is actually the first I’ve heard about digital natives and immigrants—that’s so interesting. But I was thinking a lot about collective identity as I wrote the book. I’ve always been a little uneasy about identifying with a collective. I went to a private school that emphasized “community” in a way that struck me as slightly oppressive and narrow. On the other hand, I know that much of the most important political progress in the last century has come from the activation of collective identity.
In the hardest moments of my life, I’ve wanted to take strength from knowing myself to be part of a group: the fact that I’m a woman, that I’m part of my family, etc. But still, despite the refuge I’ve taken in the concept, I resist it. I want my identity to be uniquely my own. I want my characters to be uniquely their own. I hate the idea of them standing for something else, or being mere parts of a larger whole. A novel about artificial intelligence, and individual characters who are absorbed in the collective mind of a machine, seemed like a good way for me to explore the topic more fully.
Rumpus: You’ve also played squash professionally and I know athletics plays a role in the plot of your first novel, The Carriage House. Do you think being an athlete has influenced your writing life in any way?
Hall: It encouraged a love of technique in me that I’ve transferred to my writing life. As an athlete, I loved the opportunity to perfect the precise angle of my wrist in order to hit a good shot, so that the ball pinged off the strings at just the right pitch. I feel the same way about writing a good sentence.
Rumpus: Why is Speak important to you? Why should it be important to readers?
Hall: It’s a book that explores our relationships to computers, the ethics of artificial intelligence, and the ways in which algorithms link us together and keep us apart. For all those reasons I think it’s a relevant book. But the part of the book that means most to me is the attempts its characters make to communicate more meaningfully with their loved ones. They struggle with how to make their words known. That’s a struggle that’s always been important to me, and it may sound strange to say this, but I admire these characters’ efforts to speak with more meaning.