I’m challenging myself to read only novels by women and femme people for a full year, from March 2019 through March 2020. Read this post to get the full story!
Though it’s shelved as literary fiction, The Unseen World really makes me want to claim Liz Moore as a science fiction writer. The last 5% of the book makes a solid case for the story being at least technically sci-fi (I’ll get to that), although the majority of this engaging, heartfelt novel is set against the recent historical background of early computing and artificial intelligence research taking place in the 1980’s.
Ada Sibelius (yes, she’s named after that Ada) is a thirteen-year-old prodigy being raised by her eccentric father, David, who runs the Boston Institute of Technology’s computing lab. When David begins succumbing to early-onset Alzheimer’s, Ada faces the prospect of losing not just the person who means the most to her in the world, but also the life they’ve built together. And when evidence starts coming to light that suggests David isn’t who he says he is, Ada must grapple with a legacy that threatens to cast her family history in an entirely new light.
I loved this book. I was caught off guard at first by Moore’s plain, straightforward prose–more straightforward than what I’ve been conditioned to expect from a literary novel. The rich complexity of the characters and the unfolding of the book’s central mystery snuck up on me until, without realizing how I’d gotten there, I was devouring chapters to see what happened next while simultaneously not wanting the book to end.
We discover the story of David’s life right alongside Ada, watching as she deals with each piece of the puzzle. What is revealed transforms not just her understanding of her father’s past, but also the direction of her own life.
Now, for that last 5% I mentioned: Both David and Ada research and develop software, including an early prototype chatbot, ELIXIR, based on the AI “therapist” ELIZA developed by Joseph Weizenbaum in 1966. Weizenbaum developed ELIZA to show the superficiality of communication between humans and machines. However, he became disturbed when many of his human volunteers attributed human feelings to ELIZA, despite knowing it was just a program. Some people even wanted to be alone to talk to it.
ELIXIR plays a similar role as emotional support, confessional, and diary for both David and Ada in The Unseen World. The last 5% of the book provides an intriguing glimpse of a possible future direction for chatbots such as ELIXIR and ELIZA. I can’t be more specific than that without getting into spoilers, and if any of the above interests you, you deserve to discover this deep, textured novel for yourself.