This is the book I picked for my last roll, tagged a mystery on GR. It's taken a while to get going, but finally the mystery is coming to the fore. I'm going to try my best to get it finished by tomorrow so I finish on the day the game officially ends-not so I can submit my final balance, by the way, because I'm not finishing anywhere close to the to the top!
When Ada Sibelius turns 13 in 1984, she has been living an orderly albeit unconventional life. Raised by a homeschooling single father, David Sibelius, she spends most of her days by his side at the Steiner Lab, which he runs at the Boston Institute of Technology, or Bit. David and the lab staff and graduate students treat her much like a colleague, and she is immersed in mathematics and computer programming as they progress in their work in artificial intelligence. Their ongoing project is a "chatbot" called ELIXIR. All members of the team work on the project of teaching it to converse by engaging in regular text-chat sessions with it.
Ada begins to notice signs that David's memory and cognition appear to be slipping. For a while, he denies that there is a problem--but before too long, it becomes apparent that he is losing his faculties to early-onset Alzheimer's. When David is admitted to a longterm care facility, his friend and colleague Diana Liston takes Ada in. During the process of establishing legal guardianship, certain irregularities about David's vital records and background come to light. Suddenly, there is a mystery about his past, and David himself is no longer capable of explaining. However, he has left behind clues and codes that Ada can use to discover the answers.
The book mostly moves between two timeframes: 1980s and 2009. Ada's quest to unlock the mysteries of David's past extend into her adulthood, though she does discover his true identity while still into her teens. The book's narrative also extends into the future, in a segment labeled as "soon."
Listening to the audiobook, I developed an affection for Ada and found the mystery intriguing. Most of the way through, I felt the book was on its way to a four-star rating from me. But the last couple of chapters shifted my impression somewhat, ending on what felt to me as sort of an anti-humanity/pro-AI note. This might not have been the author's intent, but that was the effect, and it felt a bit cold to me.
From the Tournament of Books longlist.
Some thoughts on this book are going to entail spoilers (which I'll mark), but I'll first say this was a unique story and point of view: a girl raised and schooled at home by her peculiar, computer scientist father in the '80s is forced from that bubble when he begins exhibiting signs of Alzheimer's. Some elements were a surprise, others predictable but mostly worthwhile anyway, as the father's identity comes into question and Ada, his daughter, seeks answers. The book is written in chunks, some taking place in the recent present, a bit in her father's past, a bit in the future, but mostly in the 1980s when Ada becomes a teenager.
Non-spoilery elements I enjoyed:
I liked Ada, named after Ada Lovelace, considered the first computer programmer, and Liston, her father's lab mate and later Ada's guardian. This novel acknowledges the role women play and have always played in computer science.
I liked how David's choices in raising Ada stem from the personal; in the beginning, before David's history is revealed, these choices could feel like poor ones, not abusive but perhaps selfish. Ada does not associate with peers; she has no friends and knows only adults that her father works with. She observes Liston's boys from afar and only learns of popular culture via Liston and other lab workers. Despite this, Ada still develops the insecurities that go with teenagehood, but on top of that she has insecurities about her insecurities, like she's letting her father down by wanting the things she wants because she should be above them.
My favorite moments in the story are when Ada first begins attending Catholic school after being unofficially homeschooled by David her whole life. Interacting with her father and adults at the lab, Ada is used to being treated as an adult herself, with worthwhile things to say and contribute to their research. On her first day of school, she's immediately assumed to be misbehaving or incapable. This says a lot about how we treat children in the education system, whether public or private. I wish we saw more of Ada at school and her transition to making friends. I also wonder how she did academically and what she thought of the work, given that she's likely operating at above grade level.
Non-spoilery elements I wasn't crazy about:
Liston's sons William and Matty felt somewhat generic as characters, fulfilling roles in Ada's growth, versus Gregory, who is fleshed out (though we don't see how exactly he becomes like his mother). Besides Liston, the other lab folk also feel indistinguishable until the end when a few are more strongly differentiated.
Though the mystery and reveal of David's identity is done well, at times it feels like there are too many pieces of the puzzle (the code, the locked filing cabinet, the computer program, the photos...).
Ada's one of those girls who is attractive, with multiple boys who are interested, but she's unaware of her appeal. It makes sense given her upbringing, but it's a familiar type that's come to drive me nuts. We need more Jane Eyres.
In terms of writing style, my one complaint is that sometimes the author tells you what she just showed you or repeats observations (e.g. David is Ada's whole world). She should trust her readers more.
Returning to an item from above, the revelation of David's queerness and work history in government put his choices in raising Ada in much-needed context. His mistrust of authority, his emphasis on education and thinking for oneself, his near sequestering of Ada, all come to feel less like strictness and eccentricity and more like sane choices.
My biggest gripe is the last chapter and epilogue. The former reminds me of Harry Potter's epilogue where we're given a predictable Happily Ever After of the sort some readers like or require; I would have preferred the story end with the section in 2009. The latter is an unnecessary "twist" that suddenly puts the novel in SF territory; it reminded me of the end of the film A.I. Artificial Intelligence. I can guess the intent--another "child" brought up uniquely, an objective observer to give the story context (e.g. people make mistakes, hurt each other, etc.), but suddenly learning the story's been told by an A.I. is too much of a rug-puller. Still, it wasn't awful enough to sour my enjoyment of the rest.
"The Unseen World" was one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I've had this year. I connected with it on many levels. It wasn't just a storyline I was following or a character that I could vicariously live through. It was much more immersive that."The Unseen World" took up residence in my head and my heart. It's been weeks since I finished reading it and I'm still thinking about the ideas it sparked, still re-experiencing some of the emotions.
Liz Moore has a talent for taking the small things that make up our day to day lives, our habits of speech, our family rituals, the jokes we share, the social awkwardness we cause, the kindnesses we show and the cruelties we are capable of and using them to build up a structure so steeped in empathy and so fundamentally honest and human that, at times, it is almost too much to cope with.
There are no heroes or villains in this book, just people, struggling to do the best they can and sometimes making a mess of it.
The predominant emotion that "The Unseen World" evoked in me was compassion. Compassion for Ada the young, preciously bright, daughter of an intellectually brilliant but socially inept man who she always refers to as "David". I could see she was loved and that she loved the adults around her and that working with them in her father's lab fed her intellect in important ways.but I mourned the loss of her childhood, worried about her isolation and her vulnerability and felt angry at what seemed like a negligence with respect to her happiness and her hunger for contact. Compassion for David, who has given his life to researching machine learning and natural language programming and yet who is barely able to communicate with those he loves the most about the things that are most important to him.Compassion for all of the characters in the book who are unable to bridge the distance between themselves and people that they love.
Yet this is not a sentimental book. It takes, if anything, a very scientific and logical view of the world.David's lab is researching machine learning and natural language programming. Looked at through this lens, communication is a puzzle to be solved, meaning is something that is acquired and altered through experience, and memories are the fundamental building blocks of identity.
Liz Moore makes the relationship between identity, language and memory the focus of much of the book. Her characters are often more comfortable talking to the machine in the lab than to each other. When David starts to lose his memories, his identity starts to slide away with it. Ada recalibrates her language to try and change her identity at school but cannot let go of the scientific framework she has been raised to think within.
The only point where I stumbled in the book was when the timelines of the young Ada and the older Ada started to interweave. It felt clumsy and disruptive. It disturbed my image of who Ada was. It took me a while to realise that this disruption was there to make me see that, to some extent, Ada's identity changes over time as she adapts to her experiences and modifies her memories. By the end of the book, I felt the dual timelines had enriched my experience of the book by giving me a less static and less linear view of identity.
At the start of the book, I thought that the unseen world of the title was the one being laid out in David's lab; the links between language and meaning and knowledge. It seemed as though what was unseen were the ontologies that allow the machine to classify information and structure relationships in a way that creates knowledge.
By the end of the book, I felt that the primacy of determining meaning by using ontology and epistemology was being challenged.and that the unseen world was fundamentally phenomenological, consisting of the emotional connections between people and how their emotions shape their actions.
Over time, Ada seems to come to believe that we are not defined by what we know but by who we love, who we hate, who we betray and what we do when we fail ourselves and others. She sees ontology as the way in which a machine might learn about the world but sees phenomenology as the way humans learn about the world. Towards the end of the books, Ada reflect on the fact that
“Only humans can hurt one another, Ada thought; only humans falter and betray one another with a stunning, fearsome frequency. As David's family had done to him; as David had done to her. And Ada would do it too. She would fail other people throughout her life, inevitably, even those she loved best.”
"The Unseen World" is skillfully narrated by Lisa Flanagan. Click on the SourdCloud link below to here a sample of her work