“The Unseen World” by Liz Moore

the-unseen-world

“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

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