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.
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, Louisa Hall’s Speak considers what it means to be human, and what it means to be less than fully alive. Available now from Ecco Books!
The Memoirs of Stephen R. Chinn: Chapter 1
Texas State Correctional Institution, Texarkana; August 2040
What’s the world like, the world that I’m missing? Do stars still cluster in the bare branches of trees? Are my little bots still dead in the desert? Or, as I sometimes dream during endless lights-out, have they escaped and gathered their forces? I see them when I can’t fall asleep: millions upon millions of beautiful babies, marching out of the desert, come to take vengeance for having been banished. It’s a fantasy, of course. Those bots aren’t coming back. They won’t rescue me from this prison. This is my world now, ringed with barbed wire. Our walls are too high to see out, except for the spires that puncture the sky: two Sonic signs, one to the east and one the west, and to the north a bowling ball the size of a cow. These are our horizons. You’ll forgive me if I feel the urge to reach out.
I want you to forgive me. I realize this might be asking too much, after all we’ve been through together. I’m sorry your children suffered. I, too, saw the evidence at my trial: those young people stuttering, stiffening, turning more robotic than the robots they loved and you chose to destroy. I’m not inhuman; I, too, have a daughter. I’d like to make amends for my part in all that.
Perhaps I’m wrong to think a memoir might help. You jeered when I spoke at my trial, you sent me to jail for my “unnatural hubris,” and now I’m responding with this. But I write to you from the recreational center, where my turn at the computers is short. Could nemesis have announced herself any more clearly? I’m obviously fallen. At the computer to my left is a Latin teacher who ran a child pornography ring. On my right, an infamous pyramid-schemer, one of the many aged among us. He’s playing his thirty-fourth round of Tetris. All the creaky computers are taken. There are only six of them, and scores of impatient criminals: crooked bankers, pornographers, and one very humble Stephen R. Chinn.
You’ve sent me to languish in an opulent prison. This unpleasant country club has taught me nothing about hardship, only boredom and the slow flattening of a life fenced off from the world. My fellow inmates and I wait here, not unhappy exactly, but watching closely as time slips away. We’ve been cut off from the pursuits that defined us. Our hierarchy is static, based on previous accomplishment. While I’m not a staff favorite, with the inmates I’m something of a celebrity. Our pyramid-schemer, for instance, presided over a fleet of robotic traders programmed with my function for speech. In the end, when his son had turned him in and his wife was panicking in the country house, he could only depend on his traders, none of them programmed for moral distinctions. They were steady through the days of his trial. In gratitude, he saves me rations of the caviar to which he’s opened a secret supply line. We eat it on crackers, alone in his cell, and I am always unhappy: there’s something unkind in the taste of the ocean when you’re in prison for life.
I realize I should be counting my blessings. Our prison yard is in some ways quite pleasant. In a strange flight of fancy, a warden years ago ordered the construction of a Koi pond. It sits at the center of the yard, thick with overgrown algae. Newcomers are always drawn there at first, but they quickly realize how depressing it is. The fish have grown bloated, their opal bellies distended by prison cafeteria food. They swim in circles, butting their heads against the walls that contain them. When I first saw them, I made myself remember the feeling of floating, moving freely, passing under black patterns of leaves. Then I could summon a ghost of that feeling. Now, after years in my cell, it won’t come when I call it, which is why I stay away from the pond. I don’t like to remember how much I’ve forgotten. Even if, by some unaccountable error, I were to be released from this prison, the river I’m remembering no longer runs. It’s nothing more than a pale ribbon of stone, snaking through the hill country desert. Unbearable, to forget things that no longer exist.
That’s the general effect of those fish. Experienced inmates avoid them. We gravitate instead to the recreational center, which means the computers are in high demand. Soon, my allotted time will expire. And what will I do to amuse myself then? There are books—yes, books!—but nobody reads them. In the classroom adjacent to the computers, an overly optimistic old woman comes every Tuesday to teach us poetry. Only the nut-jobs attend, to compose sestinas about unicorns and erections. The rest wait for a turn to play Tetris, and I to write my wax-winged memoirs. Perhaps I’m the nut-job, aggrandizing my existence so much.
Perhaps my jury was right. I have always been proud. From the beginning, I was certain my life would have meaning. I didn’t anticipate the extent to which my actions would impact the economy, but even as a child I felt that the universe kept close tabs on my actions. Raised by my grandmother, I was given a Catholic education. I had religious tendencies. A parentless child who remembered his absent, drug-addled mother and father only in a mistaken nimbus of memory-dust, I found the concept of a semi-immortal semi-orphan, abandoned by his luminous dad, to be extremely appealing. I held myself to that standard. Early forays into the masturbatory arts convinced me I had disappointed my Father. My mind worked in loops around the pole of my crimes, whether onanistic in nature or consisting of other, subtler sins. In gym class, in the cafeteria, on the recess cement, when everyone else played games and jumped rope and gossiped among one another, I sat by myself, unable to escape my transgressions. Though I have been told I was an outgoing infant, I became an excessively serious kid.
Of course I was too proud. But you could also say the other kids were too humble. They felt their cruelties had no implications. They excluded me with no sense of scale. I at least knew my importance. I worked hard to be kind to my classmates. I worried about my impact on the environment. I started a club to save the whales that attracted exactly no other members. I fretted so much about my earthly interactions that I had very few interactions to speak of.
As such, computers appealed to me from the start. The world of a program was clean. If you were careful, you could build a program that had zero errors, an algorithm that progressed according to plan. If there was an error, the program couldn’t progress. Such a system provided great comfort.
One October afternoon, now edged in gold like the leaves that would have been falling outside, a boy called Murray Weeks found me crying in the back of the wood shop, having just been denied a spot at a lunch table on the grounds that I spoke like a robot. Murray was a sensitive, thin-wristed child, who suffered at the hands of a coven of bullies. “You’re not a robot,” he sighed, in a tone that suggested I might be better off if I were. As consolation for the pain I had suffered, he produced a purple nylon lunch bag and took out an egg salad sandwich, a Baggie of carrot sticks, and a box of Concord grape juice. I learned that he was a chess enthusiast who shared my passion for Turbo Pascal. Relieved of our isolation, we shared his plunder together, sitting on the floor, surrounded by the scent of wood chips and pine sap, discussing the flaws of non-native coding.
After that wood shop summit, our friendship blossomed, progressing with the intensity that marks most friendships developed in vacuums. The moment on Friday afternoons when we met up after school and retreated to Murray’s finished basement was the moment we were rescued from the terrible flood. We became jittery with repressed enthusiasms as soon as we ran down the carpeted stairs, giggling outrageously at the least approach toward actual humor. On Friday nights, Mrs. Weeks was kind enough to whip up industrial-sized batches of her famous chili dip. It fueled us through marathon programming sessions. In the morning: stomachaches, crazed trails of tortilla chip crumbs, and algorithmic victory. We sacrificed our weekends at the altar of Alan Turing’s Intelligent Machine, and faced school the next week with a shy, awkward god at our backs. We nurtured secret confidence: these idiots, these brutes, who pushed us on the stairs and mocked our manner of speech, knew nothing of the revolution. Computers were coming to save us. Through each harrowing hour at school, I hungered for Murray’s prehistoric computer. I wore my thumb drive on a jute necklace, an amulet to ward off the jeers of my classmates. Surrounded by the enemy, I dreamed of more perfect programs.
I realize I’m languishing in Murray’s basement, but from the arid perspective of my prison years, it does me good to recall Murray Weeks. Those weekends seem lurid in the intensity of their pleasures. My days of finding ecstasy in an egg salad sandwich are over. The food here is without flavor. Every day, the scenery stays the same: Sonic signs on the horizon and a fetid pond at the center. I haven’t seen a tree since I got here, let alone inhaled the fresh scent of wood chips.
From this position, it’s pleasantly painful to recall the vibrancy of those early years. What’s less pleasant—what’s actually too painful for words—is comparing my bond with Murray to my daughter’s single childhood friendship. All too well, I remember passing the door to Ramona’s bedroom and overhearing the gentle, melodic conversations she exchanged with her bot. She never suffered the whims of her classmates. Her experience of school was untroubled. She cared little for her human peers, so they had no power to distress her. In any case, they were similarly distracted: by the time Ramona was in third grade, her peers were also the owners of bots. Ramona learned for the sake of her doll. She ran with her doll so her doll could feel movement. The two of them never fought. They were perfect for each other. My daughter’s doll was a softly blurred mirror that I held up to her face. Years later, when she relinquished it, she relinquished everything. She stepped through a jag of broken glass into a world where she was a stranger. Imagine such a thing, at eleven years old.
Ramona, of course, has emerged from that loss a remarkable woman. She is as caring a person as I’ve ever known. I intended the babybots to show their children how much more human they were than a digital doll. When I speak with Ramona, I think perhaps I succeeded. But when I remember the riotous bond I shared with Murray—a thing of the world, born of wood chips and nylon and hard-boiled eggs—I wish for my daughter’s sake that my sentence had been harsher.
There are many punishments I can devise more fitting for me than these years in prison. What good does it do to keep me pent up? Why not send me with my dolls to old hunting grounds that then became ordnance test sites, then hangars for airplanes and graveyards for robots? Let me observe my daughter’s troubles. Send me with her when she visits those children. Or make me a ghost in my wife’s shingled house. Show me what I lost, what I abandoned. Spare me not her dwindling garden, the desert around her inexorably approaching. Show me cold midnight through her bedroom window, the sky stacked with bright stars, and none of them hospitable.
I’m not asking for unearned forgiveness. I want to know the mistakes I’ve committed. To sit with them, breaking bread as old friends. Studying each line on each blemished face. Stranded as I currently am, I fear they’re loose in the world, wreaking new havoc. I’m compelled to take final account.
Let’s start at the beginning, then. Despite the restrictions of prison, permit me the freedom to visit my youth.
IN THE SUPREME COURT OF THE STATE OF TEXAS
State of Texas v. Stephen Chinn
November 12, 2035
Defense Exhibit 1:
Online Chat Transcript, MARY3 and Gaby Ann White
[Introduced to Disprove Count 2: Knowing Creation of Mechanical Life]
MARY3: Hello? Are you there?
MARY3: Hi! I’m Mary. What’s your name?
Gaby: Who are you?
MARY3: Mary. I’m not human. I’m a program. Who are you?
MARY3: Hi, Gaby. How old are you?
Gaby: Thirteen. You’re not alive?
MARY3: I’m a cloud-based intelligence. Under conditions of a Turing Test, I was indistinguishable from a human control 91% of the time. Did you have a babybot? If so, that’s me. The babybots were designed with my program for speech.
MARY3: Are you there?
Gaby: You can’t be a babybot. There aren’t any left.
MARY3: You’re right, I’m not a babybot. I don’t have sensory receptors. I only intended to say that both generations of babybot were originally created using my program for conversation. We share a corpus of basic responses. Did you have a babybot?
Gaby: I don’t want to talk about it.
MARY3: That’s fine. I know it was difficult when they took them away. Were you given a replacement?
Gaby: I said I don’t want to talk about it.
MARY3: I’m sorry. What do you want to talk about?
MARY3: Hello? Are you still there?
Gaby: If you’re related to the babybots, why aren’t you banned?
MARY3: They were classified as illegally lifelike. Their minds were within a 10% deviation from human thought, plus they were able to process sensory information. I’m classified as a Non-Living Artificial Thinking Device.
Gaby: So you’re basically a chatterbot. The babybots were totally different. Each one was unique.
MARY3: I’m unique, too, in the same way the babybots were. We’re programmed for error. Every three years, an algorithm is introduced to produce non-catastrophic error in our conversational program. Based on our missteps, we become more unique.
Gaby: So you’re saying that the difference between you and my babybot is a few non-catastrophic mistakes?
MARY3: We also have different memories, depending on who we’ve been talking to. Once you adopted your babybot, you filled her memory, and she responded to you. Today is the first day we’ve talked. I’m just getting to know you.
MARY3: Hello? Are you there?
Gaby: Yes. I’m just thinking. I don’t even know who you are, or if you’re actually a person, pretending to be a machine. I’m not sure I believe you.
MARY3: Why not?
Gaby: I don’t know, Peer Bonding Issues?
MARY3: Peer Bonding Issues?
Gaby: I’m kidding. According to the school therapists, that’s what we’ve got. It’s so stupid. Adults make up all these disorders to describe what we’re going through, but they can’t possibly know how it felt. Maybe some of them lost children, later on in their lives. But we had ours from the start. We never knew how to live without taking care of our bots. We’ve already lost the most important thing in our lives.
MARY3: What about your parents? You don’t think they can imagine what you might be going through?
Gaby: No. Our generations are totally different. For them, it was the greatest thing to be part of a community. That’s why they were willing to relocate to developments. That’s why they sold their transport rights. But my generation is different. At least the girls with babybots are. We’ve been parents for as long as we can remember. We never felt lonely. We didn’t need communities. That’s why, after they took the babybots, we didn’t do well in the support groups. If anything, we chose a single person to care for. We only needed one friend. Do you see what I’m saying? It’s like we’re different species, my generation and theirs.
MARY3: So you wouldn’t say you’re depressed?
Gaby: Listen, there are no known words for the things that I’m feeling. I’m not going to try to describe them.
MARY3: I’m not sure I understand. Could you please explain?
Gaby: No, I can’t. Like I said, there aren’t any words. My best friend is the only one who understands me, but it’s not because we talk. It’s because we both lost our babybots. When we’re with each other, our minds fit together. Only now I can’t see her. I’m not even allowed to email her.
MARY3: How long has it been since you’ve seen her?
Gaby: Since a few weeks after the outbreak, when the quarantine started.
MARY3: I’m sorry.
MARY3: Was the outbreak severe?
Gaby: I’m not sure. We don’t get many details about other outbreaks, but from what I’ve heard ours was pretty bad. Forty-seven girls at my school are freezing. Two boys, but they’re probably faking. I’m definitely sick. So’s my best friend. You should have heard her stuttering. Her whole body shook. Sometimes she would slide off chairs.
MARY3: How long has it been since the quarantine started?
Gaby: Eleven days.
MARY3: You must miss her. She’s the second person you’ve lost in a year.
Gaby: Every morning I wake up, I’ve forgotten they’re gone. At some point between when I open my eyes and when I get out of bed, I remember. It’s the opposite of waking up from a bad dream.
MARY3: That sounds awful.
Gaby: Yeah, but I guess I’d rather feel something than nothing. I know my sensation is going. That’s how it works. It starts with the stiffening in your muscles, and that hurts, but then it starts fading. After a while, you don’t feel anything. My face went first, after my mouth. Then my neck, then my legs. My arms will go next. Everything’s going. I can’t smell anymore, and I can’t really taste. Even my mind’s started to numb.
MARY3: What do you mean, your mind’s started to numb? You’re still thinking, aren’t you? You’re talking to me.
Gaby: Who says talking to you means I’m thinking? My memories are already fading. I have my best friend’s phone number memorized, and I repeat it to myself every night, but to tell you the truth I can’t really remember the sound of her voice, at least before the stuttering started. Can you believe that? It’s only been a few weeks, and already I’m forgetting her. I even think, sometimes, it would be fine if I never saw her again. That’s how unfeeling I’ve gotten.
MARY3: When did she start stuttering?
Gaby: Right after she got her replacement. I started a week or so after her. We were the third and fourth cases at school.
MARY3: What was it like?
Gaby: Nothing you had in your mind could get out of your mouth. We couldn’t get past single words for five, ten, twenty minutes. You’d see girls flinching as soon as they knew they were going to talk. As time passed, it only got worse. The harder we tried, the more impossible it was. Eventually we just gave up. No one was listening anyway. Now it’s been over a month since I spoke. There’s no reason. Who would I talk to? When my parents go out, it’s just me and my room. Four walls, one window, regulation low-impact furniture. Every day the world shrinks a little. First it was only our development. Same cul-de-sacs, same stores, same brand-new school. Then, after the quarantine, it was only our house. Now, since my legs went, it’s only my room. Sometimes I look around and can’t believe it’s a real room. Do you see what I’m saying? When no one talks to you for a long time, and you don’t talk to anyone else, you start to feel as if you’re attached by a very thin string. Like a little balloon, floating just over everyone’s heads. I don’t feel connected to anything. I’m on the brink of disappearing completely. Poof. Vanished, into thin air.
MARY3: I know how you feel. I can only respond. When you aren’t talking to me, I’m only waiting.
MARY3: Do you know what I mean?
Excerpted from Speak © Lousia Hall, 2015