Book Review: The Unseen World, Liz Moore (2016)

July 29th, 2016 7:00 am by mad mags

Brilliant, heartfelt, and full of surprises.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

The work of the Steiner Lab, in simple terms, was to create more and more sophisticated versions of this kind of language-acquisition software. […]

These applications of the software, however, were only a small part of what interested David, made him stay awake feverishly into the night, designing and testing programs. There was also the art of it, the philosophical questions that this software raised. The essential inquiry was thus: If a machine can convincingly imitate humanity—can persuade a human being of its kinship—then what makes it inhuman? What, after all, is human thought but a series of electrical impulses?

“What can I get you to eat, hon?” asked Liston, and rattled off a list of all the snacks of the 1980s that Ada was never permitted to have: canned pastas by Chef Boyardee, Fluffernutter sandwiches, fluorescent Kraft macaroni and cheese. In truth, Ada had never even heard of some of the food Liston offered her.

I was told to ask you something, said Ada finally.
I know, said ELIXIR. I’ve been waiting.

Ada Sibelius had something of an unconventional upbringing, beginning with her very conception. At the tender age of 45, Dr. David Sibelius – “director of a computer science laboratory at the Boston Institute of Technology, called the Bit, or the Byte if he was feeling funny” – decided that he wanted a child. Ada (named after one of David’s favorite entries in the Encyclopædia Britannica) was born to a surrogate one year later. This was no small thing back then: 1971, to be exact.

In keeping with his eccentric nature, David decided to homeschool his daughter; or rather lab-school her. Ada accompanied David – as she called him – to work every day, where she was immersed in his world, in the language of mathematics, neurology, physics, philosophy, and computer science. In the absence of any biological relatives, David’s colleagues – Charles-Robert, Hayato, Frank Halbert, and Diane Liston – became her extended family; his interests were hers. Ada learned to solve complex equations, decrypt puzzles, and present and defend theories. David filled composition books with the names of books, songs, pieces of artwork, and even wines that she should try one day; a cultured bucket list before its time. In many ways, their relationship was more like that of a teacher and his student than a father and his daughter.

At the Steiner Lab, David and his colleagues studied natural language processing and developed language-acquisition software. Their crowning achievement – David’s second child, if you will – was ELIXIR (mmmm, magic!). Everyone at the lab – including Ada – took turns chatting with ELIXIR, to teach it the words and rules and complexities of language. The program was meant to acquire language the way that humans do, and learn it did. Slowly but surely, ELIXIR grew alongside Ada, evolving from garbled, nonsense text to a semi-eloquent conversationalist (albeit one who reflected the habits and speech patterns of its teachers). For Ada, ELIXIR was a confidant, a non-recoverable diary; she poured her heart and soul into ELIXIR, especially when things got bad.

When Ada was ten, David was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease – though he waited two years to tell his daughter, until the symptoms were too obvious to ignore. As David’s condition continued to deteriorate, the authorities became involved: first the police, then the Boston Department of Children & Families, who required monthly visits and demanded that Ada be enrolled in an accredited school. Within a year, David was institutionalized and Ada, sent to live with Liston, who also took over the lab.

While transferring custody of Ada to Liston, a background check revealed some inconsistencies in David’s history. David’s parents reported him missing at the age of seventeen; and, while he eventually resurfaced through a letter, they never saw him again. Furthermore, Caltech had no record of a David Sibelius ever attending. Nor could attorneys find any record of David’s arrangement with Ada’s birth mother, Birdie Auerbach.

Was David a fraud? A baby-napper? A murderer? If he was going to steal someone’s identity, why choose such a prominent family? And why not capitalize on the Sibelius family name? If David wasn’t who he claimed to be, what became of the “real” David Sibelius? Where did Ada come from?

These questions threaten to upend Ada’s life in ways both practical and metaphysical. David has always been the center of Ada’s life – for her, he represents everything that is moral, safe, and good in the world – so to find out that he’s been lying to her all this time shakes Ada to her very core. And she cannot turn to David for answers, for his mind is failing them both.

Yet Ada is not without hope: There’s Miss Holmes, the kind and dedicated librarian who helps Ada troll through microfiche in search of answers. Gregory, the second-youngest Liston kid, who shares her love of science, math, and puzzles. And the mysterious floppy disc David gave her shortly before he disclosed his illness to her. An unassuming little thing, inscribed with a message: “Dear Ada, it said. A puzzle for you. With my love, your father, David Sibelius.

It will be twenty-odd years before David’s mystery reveals itself to her – and to us. Luckily, this story has nothing if not a patient and compassionate teller.

The Unseen World is, in a word, brilliant: full of heart, empathy, history – and lots of geeky science stuff. The story starts out rather slowly: a portrait of an unusual childhood, marked by a father-daughter relationship that’s both exhilarating and a little unhealthy. While Ada’s intelligence and curiosity blossoms under David’s unconventional tutelage, she lacks social skills (at least with kids her own age, a fact that becomes painfully apparent when she’s forced into Queen of Angels Catholic school) and their relationship seems enmeshed and almost codependent at times. She readily accepts her father’s likes and dislikes as her own, without forming her own opinion on anything. Or mostly: Ada craves normalcy, whereas David shuns it. Perhaps this is because the latter had it (and was found it sorely lacking), whereas the former never did (and when she does, she’s rather ambivalent on the matter).

Oftentimes it feels as though David expects his child to bend and adapt and mold herself into his life, rather than adjusting his own life to accommodate her. Even as later revelations offer a kinder, gentler perspective on David’s more questionable decisions, this thought remained with me; in many ways, David is a neglectful father.

Ada is forced to grow up before her time – well, even more than she’s already done – with the onset of David’s illness. The story transitions seamlessly into a coming-of-age story that’s equally fascinating (see, e.g., the junk food excerpt above) and heart-wrenching. Of course the more normal growing pains are amplified by David’s illness and likely death: gone is the father who wrote and directed Christmas plays at the lab, who gave Ada challenges and puzzles, who taught so many. Now David often resembles ELIXIR during its infancy, uttering non sequiturs when more complex and appropriate responses elude him. Ironically, Ada sometimes sees pieces of David – a favored phrase here, a grammatical tic there – in her talks with ELIXIR, which continue even after the rest of the lab has moved on.

Then, of course, there’s the mystery that forms the core of the story, which is both more devastating and yet more benign than the places my imagination invariably led me. I don’t want to say more, lest I ruin the surprise, but suffice it to say that The Unseen World has something for just about everyone: mystery, historical fiction, romance, STEM fiction, coming of age, speculative fiction, and social justice.

There is diversity like whoah here, woven into the very fabric of the story; diversity that doesn’t quite present itself until the denouement, but was in fact hiding in plain sight the whole time. It’s beautiful and heartbreaking and had me bawling my damn eyes out. Perhaps best of all, it casts a new light on Ada and David’s relationship – particularly David’s deception – one that adds nuance and complexity and, yes, understanding and maybe even forgiveness.

And the last chapter. THE LAST CHAPTER. I don’t think I’ve read a more perfect ending in my entire life.

I honestly can’t say enough good things about The Unseen World. Moore has created a story that’s understated yet surprising; twisty-turny and lyrical and lovely. David, Liston, George, Ada, ELIXIR – these are characters who I won’t soon forget (if ever).

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)


Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: So much I hardly know where to start!

When Ada Sibelius was ten, her father David was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. (He decided to have a child rather late in life; Ada was born to a surrogate when her father was 46 years old.) He waited two years to tell her, when the symptoms became too obvious to ignore. At 59 years old, David is “well below the age the literature listed as the cutoff point between early-onset Alzheimer’s and the more typical variety”; the former leading to a much more rapid progression of the disease. Indeed, it isn’t long before David goes missing and the police – and DCF – get involved.

Having been (unofficially) homeschooled her whole life, the authorities demand that David enroll Ada in an accredited school; at the advice of David’s coworker and best friend, Diane Liston, they decide to send Ada to Queen of Angels, a nearby Catholic school. Painfully shy and awkward around kids her own age (but more than able to hold her own with adults), Ada struggles to assimilate in this new environment.

About a year after disclosing his diagnosis to Ada, David is sent to an assisted living facility, St. Andrew’s Manor; a house fire being the deciding factor. Ada had taken to locking David in the house to prevent him from wandering, and he nearly died since there was no means of escape. (Moore describes Ada and David’s day-to-day struggles in raw, unflinching detail. As David’s only family, Ada is left to care for him, mostly on her own. Oftentimes it feels as though the adults around her failed Ada, even if it was her wish to stay at home with David as long as possible.)

After David’s institutionalization, Ada goes to live with Liston – who lives four houses down – and her four children. David continues to deteriorate, and eventually passes away when Ada is 18, the summer after her high school graduation.

Once the authorities become involved and start to dig into David’s life, it quickly becomes apparent that he isn’t who he says he is. After decades of digging, Ada eventually uncovers her father’s past. Born Harold Canady, Jr., in 1918, David fled his home in Olathe, Kansas, when he was 18. His father, Harold senior, was a preacher and an abusive man; he frequently beat Harold and his older sister Susan, once so badly that Harold was forced to miss school for two weeks straight. Susan died of a botched abortion at the age of 15, an “embarrassment” that Harold senior covered up.

With the help of one of his father’s parishioners, Harold got into Caltech, where he showed an affinity for mathematics and computer science. Harold blossomed in other ways, too: after years of hiding his sexuality from his devout father, Harold met and fell in love with Ernest Clemson, a graduate student at Caltech. Upon graduation, Ernest used his contacts to procure Harold a job working as a code-breaker for the state department in DC. Harold escaped the draft due to poor eyesight and color-blindness, but Ernest wasn’t so lucky: he died in combat in 1944. Harold only found out six months after the fact.

In 1950, after ten years of working for the U.S. government, Harold (and many of his colleagues) began to fear for his job as a wave of anti-Communist sentiment swept through the ranks. Though Harold wasn’t a Communist, Communist and “homosexual” were slurs used interchangeably, code words for “deviants” and “perverts.” Harold and his lover, an artist named George, devised a plan to fake Harold’s death – suicides were common among the persecuted – so that Harold could resume his studies using George’s identity. David George Sibelius had been estranged from his family for years, anyhow; when he was a teenager, they caught him with a boy and threatened to institutionalize him. He ran away from boarding school when he was 17 and never saw his family again.

Instrumental to their plan was Robert Pearse, President of the Boston Institute of Technology – himself gay, and a Sibelius family friend. He admitted Harold/David to the the applied mathematics graduate program at BIT despite his sketchy paper trail, and personally recommended him to Maurice Steiner, whose lab David would take over at the age of 30.

David and George – now going by his “brush” name, George Wright – stayed together for a time after David’s relocation, but eventually they broke up due to the distance. They keep in touch, however, and David takes (a very young) Ada to visit him several times, introducing him as an old friend. David never dates while in Boston – or at least not that Ada can tell; Ada assumes he’s straight, since he sometimes flirts with women in her presence, but celibate or at least painfully discrete. The only person in his “new” life who knows that David is gay is Liston.

Shortly before his institutionalization, David visits George one last time. It’s the mid-80s, and George is dying of AIDS (or GRID, as it was then known).

After David’s death – and before the mystery of Harold Canady is unraveled – BIT strips Steiner Lab of all references to David, fearing a scandal. Liston assumes control after David retires; and after her passing, the job goes to another one of their contemporaries, Frank Halbert. By the time of his retirement, it is re-christened the Harold A. Canady Memorial Laboratory for Artificial Intelligence, in honor of its most influential member. (Cue the waterworks. I freaking lost it here.)

Liston passed away in 2003, after a decade-long battle with breast cancer.

Robert Pearse lives with his longtime partner, Jack Greer; Robert passed away shortly after Ada began her investigation into David’s past.

Miss Holmes is a librarian who helps Ada in her search. Her daughter Constance is cognitively impaired.

Gregory, one of the Liston children, stammers.

Animal-friendly elements: Not really, except for one odd and unexpected passage. It’s August, and Dr. David Sibelius is throwing his annual welcome party for his coworkers and graduate students. In keeping with tradition, he’s serving a regional food – lobster – as he teaches at the Boston Institute of Technology:

In the black pot were three lobsters that had already turned red. He had stroked their backs before the plunge; he had told her that it calmed them. “But they still feel pain, of course,” he said. “I’m sorry to tell you.” Now he took the lobsters out of the pot, operating the tongs with his right hand, continuing to stir the roux with his left, and it was too hot for all of this, late summer in an old Victorian in Dorchester.

David’s a cerebral, intelligent, scientifically-minded man, so it’s not surprising that he’d so readily recognize the sentience of animals, I guess. More disappointing, though, is that this knowledge has so little impact on his behavior. To be fair, this was the ’70s, so perhaps convenience was a factor; social conventions, less so, as David rarely cared what others thought about him.

Several decades later, when Ada has taken over her father’s old lab, she resumes the tradition – but with one obvious change:

Like her father, she invited every year’s students to dinner in August at the house on Shawmut Way; like her father, she made dinner for them—grilled vegetables, not lobster, since so many were vegetarian—and like her father she worried over them, guided them, discussed them avidly with Gregory.

Baby steps?


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