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The Unseen World is a coming-of-age story with sentient computer programs. It’s great.

The Unseen World, Liz Moore Norton

Liz Moore’s new book The Unseen World has one of the most delicate and lovely voices of any book I’ve read this year. Every action and emotion is rendered so precisely and so cleanly that even the simplest sentences bring enormous pleasure.

Combined with a wistfully melancholy coming-of-age story and a tricky artificial intelligence puzzle, it makes for a gem of a novel.

Rating


5


In Moore’s voice, even a basic piece of scene setting — like the passage that describes a little girl making cocktails “with chemist-like precision,” lining up the “frosted highball glasses,” and cutting the limes before she “flicked out their exposed seeds with the point of the knife” — is just as shimmering and lovely as a passage that describes the particular quality of sunlight in late August, “the color of honey or of a roan horse, any warm organic thing like that.”

And more emotional passages, like the one in which the same little girl reunites with her father after a long absence and for the first time realizes “the weight of the fear she had been holding in her gut, the tension of it,” so that she feels “as if she were breathing out completely for the first time in her life,” are stunning.

The little girl in question is named Ada, after Ada Lovelace, the world’s first computer programmer. Ada’s father, David, is a computer programmer in the 1980s, and he treats Ada as a kind of program herself, homeschooling her and subjecting her to extemporaneous pop quizzes, responding to her answers only with “Correct” or “Wrong.” Those are the same commands David uses on his signature project, ELIXIR, which he is trying to teach to pass the Turing test so that it can fool an interlocutor into thinking it is human.

David and Ada build a perfect, isolated utopia for themselves, a haven of advanced theoretical mathematics and philosophy and elaborate, lovingly described home-cooked feasts. But then, tragedy: David is stricken with Alzheimer’s. He must be sent to a nursing home, and 13-year-old Ada to the home of her well-meaning neighbor.

Ada struggles to adapt to the world outside David’s home, the world of canned spaghetti sauce and simple algebra classes and casually cruel teenagers. And she struggles even more as David’s new caretakers come to realize that he is not the man he always claimed to be, that his entire identity is in fact an elaborate and multifaceted lie.

The mystery of David’s true identity is high-concept verging on gothic, and it becomes even more so as ELIXIR’s abilities are revealed to have taken a turn for the science fictional. But at the heart of The Unseen World is Ada’s mundane and quiet evolution as she takes responsibility for tending to her father, leaves her comfortable nest, and discovers that the world is not the safe and lovely place she understood it to be and that adults are not universally trustworthy.

The Unseen World takes its time, leading into David’s decline and Ada’s floundering encounters with the outside world with a slow inevitability. Ada scrambles desperately to preserve the world as she knew it, or at the very least to truly understand its secrets, and the book approaches her struggles with just enough distance for us to see that her wishes are impossible, while staying close enough for us to wish with her, deeply.

The result is a slow-building coming-of-age story that is as heartbreaking as it is lovely, tragic without ever becoming sentimental, grounded but still compellingly shaded with a touch of American gothic here, a touch of speculative fiction there. And it’s all the more impressive for how lightly it wears its accomplishments.

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