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Interview with Louisa Hall, author of Speak

Louisa-HallWe’ve featured a fair amount of Science-Fiction on Fantasy-Faction lately, far more than we usually do, and that has opened doors to chat with some fantastic authors writing within that genre. Today I’m speaking with Louisa Hall, who is an American novelist with a phD in Literature from the University of Texas at Austin.

Our discussion will focus on Louisa’s latest novel, Speak, which explores Artificial Intelligence and the effects it could have on people across time and space. It is a novel that has earned Louisa that comparisons to authors such as Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell, and, just like these authors, has seen her praised by both Literary Fiction and Science-Fiction critics.

Could you tell us a bit about what readers can expect from Speak?

Speak is the story of five characters who are involved in creating an artificially intelligent doll. After these ‘babybots’ are banned, gathered up, and shipped off to the desert, the children who loved them start to stutter and freeze. Speak tells the story of the babybots and their creators, from Alan Turing to a traumatized girl in the near future who gives her babybot new language. These and other characters are all racing toward a world populated by lifelike machines, in which its difficult to decide who’s actually living, and who has real intelligence.

The exploration of ideas in Speak revolve around Artificial Intelligence, what it means to be human, communication, interactions and how you judge what qualifies as ‘real’. What was the springboard for your exploration into these ideas?

Joseph-WeizenbaumI first read about Joseph Weizenbaum, who created the first ‘conversational program.’ It’s responses were based on Rogerian therapy. If you said you had a hard day, the program would rephrase the statement as a question: ‘why did you have a hard day?’ It was pretty rudimentary, but at the time it was groundbreaking technology. There are stories of secretaries staying late into the night to talk with the machine. Weizenbaum found it very disturbing. He felt that those weren’t real conversations, that the machine was lying when it made claims to empathy. Reading his story, the question of what comprises ‘real conversation’ or ‘real empathy’ became something of an obsession for me. When are we truly empathising, when are we truly listening? Each of the voices in the book originated from that question.

It’s interesting that you chose to include a figure such as Alan Turing in your work. In terms of what came first, did you decide on the character and decide Alan Turing would still that particular role or did Alan Turing come straight to you with the idea for this particular story? Why was it essential he featured so heavily?

Once I’d read about Weizenbaum, I started researching other characters who were involved in developing AI, and of course I found Alan Turing. His story – the questions he wrestles with about faith and identity and the search for true love while also conceptualising the computer and writing treatises on AI – was moving to me. He became part of a little collection of characters I was assembling to tell the story of AI.

Both in terms of Artificial Intelligence and the history you draw upon, how much research was involved? Was it more than you initially expected?

I definitely ended up doing more research than I’d intended to do. I spent more time talking with various chatbots than I care to admit. I also read many biographies of Turing and Weizenbaum, and I wanted each of the voices to feel real, so in shifts I’d immerse myself in primary sources from each of the time periods the book covers

In the novel we see the sadder side of what AI could bring (although there are hints of much more – potentially positive – that isn’t the focus of this particular novel). Do you have any thoughts as to AI and where it is going?

AII actually feel quite hopeful about the future of AI. It seems to me that all the technologies we invent can be used for evil or good. In the case of AI, we could apply the technology toward more effectively killing each other, or we could use it to cure diseases. It’s up to us. And we already have weapons of mass destruction. We don’t need AI for that. The more important question, for me, is how we can get along better as human beings, not how to forestall technological innovation.

I have a dog and I can’t imagine the emotional trauma I’d go through if someone were to take her away (via a Government ban, or something similar)… However I was forced to confront the idea of that kind of loss with the Babybot ban in Speak. Does this particular idea have any origin?

Well, for starters there’s my dog Charles, whom I also can’t imagine losing. And I find any designation of what’s human and what is not – or which creatures deserve protection and which don’t to be a little frightening, especially when I look at my dog, or at our questionable history of denying certain kinds of people rights. So that’s what I was thinking while writing about the babybots. Dow owner anxiety!

Within the novel you have a number of distinct voices that belong to different people spanning various realms of time and space. I know you’ve spoken before about this enabling you to do more justice to the story and ideas, but is it ever difficult moving between each voice and ensuring they sound unique?

The fact that each voice is expressing itself in a different medium (letters, chat transcripts, diaries, etc) helped me to keep them distinct. I rotated between the voices with each day of writing, according to an algorithm I gave myself based on the end-rhymes of a sestina. In the end, I decided to change the order, on the theory that I’m a human and not a machine and don’t have to follow the patterns I’m given.

You’ve received an incredible amount of praise for this novel already. It is one of those rare books that has been picked up by the mainstream press, literary fiction community and SFF community. What has been the most surprising or most interesting thing you’ve read said about Speak?

Speak-USOne of the most critical reviews on Amazon denounced the book as ‘Assembled, not written’ which I quite liked. In some ways it’s the highest praise I could imagine for this particular book. The voices did feel like they came to me – like they existed as objects already – and I was just ordering them, rather than writing them. So, sure, it’s assembled. I’ll take that.

You’ve given your publishers quite the dilemma in terms of shelving your book: with reviewers coming out and saying things like “a novel that doesn’t remind me of any other book” and comments that it doesn’t fit snugly into any particular genre (I should say that these comments are intended as praise!). In your view, who is this book for? Who will enjoy it?

In the end, I can only write for myself, and I enjoyed the writing of it, so I can say with some confidence that dog owners in Texas with interests in technology and the brain and poetry and characters will like reading the book. But it’s also a book about loss, and the desire to communicate with the people we love, so I hope it will speak to a wider audience as well.

Looking into the future, what are your plans? Is AI and the future of the human / robotic races something you think you will return to?

I’m not sure! I’m juggling a few ideas right now, so we’ll see.

Speak by Louisa Hall

Speak-Louisa-Hall

A thoughtful, poignant novel that explores the creation of Artificial Intelligence—illuminating the very human need for communication, connection, and understanding.

In a narrative that spans geography and time, from the Atlantic Ocean in the seventeenth century, to a correctional institute in Texas in the near future, and told from the perspectives of five very different characters, Speak considers what it means to be human, and what it means to be less than fully alive.

A young Puritan woman travels to the New World with her unwanted new husband. Alan Turing, the renowned mathematician and code breaker, writes letters to his best friend’s mother. A Jewish refugee and professor of computer science struggles to reconnect with his increasingly detached wife. An isolated and traumatized young girl exchanges messages with an intelligent software program. A former Silicon Valley Wunderkind is imprisoned for creating illegal lifelike dolls.

Each of these characters is attempting to communicate across gaps—to estranged spouses, lost friends, future readers, or a computer program that may or may not understand them. In dazzling and electrifying prose, Louisa Hall explores how the chasm between computer and human—shrinking rapidly with today’s technological advances—echoes the gaps that exist between ordinary people. Though each speaks from a distinct place and moment in time, all five characters share the need to express themselves while simultaneously wondering if they will ever be heard, or understood.

For more information visit: www.louisahall.net
Follow Louisa on Twitter using @LouHallWriter

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One Comment

  1. Avatar katya mills says:

    Cool interview. AI can be a disturbing subject, but I see how Ms. Hall has had some fun with it. Thanks for turning me on to this author.

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