A few weeks ago, a publishing sales representative visited the bookstore where I work. He lives on the West Coast, but he was in Houston for personal reasons: a family member was receiving treatment at the Texas Medical Center. Yet despite the tough spot in his life, he became animated about books, telling me about one in particular: “Have you read Speak yet? It’s amazing—and it’s not even my book!” What he meant was, he didn’t work for Speak’s publisher, so his recommendation cut through the usual business of publishing: he simply loved a book and wanted to tell someone about it.
Speak—Louisa Hall’s second novel, after The Carriage House—seems poised to inspire some fanatical followers, the way that David Mitchell’s books and Station Eleven have: it’s a work of what gets labeled “literary sci-fi,” meaning it features robots and takes place in the future, but contains better-than-average prose, or the writer at least has a literary pedigree (such genre distinctions often feel like lines drawn in beach sand, barely perceptible from a distance and easily washed away). “I didn’t even intend to write science fiction,” Hall tells me, “and a lot of the futuristic aspects are minor elaborations on the present. It doesn’t feel that radically futuristic to me.”
Each of Speak’s five storylines involves, in some way, the gap between humanity and technology—and the difficulty of communicating across that gap. Some storylines interact with history (computer genius Alan Turing’s love for his best friend—sanitized in The Imitation Game—gets explored here), while other storylines strike out into the unknown (one character gets imprisoned for creating artificial intelligence; another character—an isolated young girl—finds a version of companionship speaking with a similar piece of artificial intelligence).
The gulf (or lack thereof) between humanity and artificial intelligence has long been a central theme of science fiction—perhaps now more central than ever. “This is an important time to think about artificial intelligence,” Hall says. “There are drastic amounts of progress being made in the field. Artificial intelligence will change the world, and the sentience of these machines will impact what it means to be human.” And how does Hall handle writing about “non-human” characters? “It’s an exciting and scary thing to write into another human being—a strange leap of faith—but when you create a character who’s [not human], it’s an even larger leap of faith.”
Hall’s first novel, The Carriage House, was more conventionally “literary,” which is to say, one family anchored it, and Hall used Jane Austen’s Persuasion as her primary model. Nevertheless, The Carriage House, written in multiple voices, was the first time Hall tried to “[build] a story in a spiral,” and that notion of spiral is important to Speak, a novel that always feels intricate and purposeful, even if the connections between the five stories take a little while to develop.
These connections weren’t initially clear to Hall either, and she describes that part of writing this book—the emergence of connectivity—as “miraculous”: “All those connections emerged as I was writing.” From the beginning of building The Carriage House, Hall had a clear sense of the project, but Speak was her “attempt to try something radically different, with five voices and no clear sense of where to go. I had a nerve-racking lack of awareness about how the five time periods would converge.” Yet they did converge as she wrote, which “speaks to the technology of writing,” she tells me. “[As a writer], you’re asked to enter a larger community and connect to everyone who has ever written anything down, so it makes sense that you can eventually connect five other minds in one book.”
Hall had literary models for this ambitious work—she cites Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, and also some of the Faulkner novels told from multiple points of view across long time periods—but Speak is a particularly tricky book, the connections between characters and storylines often abstract, the novel tied together by the theoretical, by a few key conceptual questions: What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to “speak?” “Early drafts wallowed in too much abstraction,” Hall says, “in part because I was figuring out the abstract core: what it means to be alive, for a machine to have feelings, etc. There were lots of abstract things happening [in my brain], and in early drafts, while figuring out where I stood, I was mired quite deep in them.”
When I ask Hall just how long the book took to write, she begins to tell me (“three years, first draft came quickly,” etc.) when, on her end of the phone call, a familiar noise cuts her off: her dog, Charles (“a little mutt,” she describes his breed), barking at a lawnmower outside the house. Hall apologizes for the dog in that endearing way pet-owners do—but think of what that lawnmower, any lawnmower, must look like to a dog! A piece of machinery, whirring, inscrutable—and what recourse does a dog have? To bark, speaking across a void, yet hearing in return nothing but racket.
Benjamin Rybeck is the marketing director at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. His fiction has received honorable mention in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and his writing has also appeared in Electric Literature, Natural Bridge, Ninth Letter, PANK, The Rumpus, The Seattle Review, and elsewhere.