Liz Moore’s captivating new page-turner, “The Unseen World,” is a wry, gentle coming-of-age story and an intriguing glimpse into the development of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, both early on and as envisioned for the future. It is also an incisive, insightful, and compassionate examination of the complexities of family and identity.
The novel’s endearing protagonist is Ada Sibelius, whom we first meet in the 1980s as a shy, awkward, and brilliant 12-year-old being home-schooled by her single father, David. The head of a prestigious computer lab at the fictional Boston Institute of Technology (also known as BIT, in a nod to the real-life institution across the Charles), David doesn’t so much home-school his young prodigy as “lab-school” her. Ada spends most days with her father at BIT, “putting in the same hours he and his colleagues did. At night he rounded out parts of her education that he felt he hadn’t adequately addressed: he taught her French, and gave her literature to read, and narrated the historical movements he deemed most significant,” testing her knowledge with frequent oral quizzes.
Under David’s tutelage, Ada flourishes intellectually, though she suffers socially. On the sly, she tries to absorb as much popular culture as she can, craving a sense of normalcy and fitting in. But the closest thing she has to a social network is her father’s colleague, Diana Liston, and her three sons, who live just down the street. Liston, Ada’s favorite person in the world besides her father, tries to keep Ada somehow grounded in the necessities of functioning in the real world while her father attends to the more cerebral concerns of “the unseen world” being developed in his lab.
During the dawn of the personal computer in the pre-Internet days, David and his colleagues are developing a continuously self-teaching program called ELIXIR designed to accumulate intelligence with each user interaction, collecting thoughts and stories. “ELIXIR seemed to be a compilation of them all, a child spawned by many parents.” For Ada, ELIXIR becomes a kind of interactive diary, a way to process and reflect on her world.
Everything changes when Ada’s father begins behaving erratically and is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. When his condition requires assisted care, Ada moves in with Liston and her family, getting a welcome dose of mothering and her first thrilling and terrifying taste of school. Moore (“Heft”) paints a fascinating portrait of a quirky child grappling with the strange social norms of average kids, especially girls, “their volume, their exuberance, the outlandishness of their humor; the way they invented wild, improbable scenarios in their heads and then speculated about enacting them.”
When Liston discovers information that David may not be who he has claimed, Ada’s world is shaken to the core. As she tries to unravel her father’s past, the novel jumps back and forth 20-plus years into the future and beyond, catching up with adult Ada and the technological advances in artificial intelligence. While the big reveal is a little protracted and anticlimactic, Moore beautifully evokes some troubling issues of the eras she traces. One delightful moment chronicles adult Ada’s reconnection with the computer of her childhood. “She fed the disk into its mouth as if it were a child, and reflexively it swallowed.”
The Framingham native’s richly textured novel is both spare and evocative, with flashes that perfectly capture a character’s experience, such as when Ada reflects on Liston’s strong Boston accent and colorful expressions, which “Ada rolled around in her head like marbles.” “The Unseen World” also brims with vivid details of Boston and the surrounding area, most of them authentic, all of them believable.
I won’t give it away, but the surprise twist at the end is wonderful and beautifully written. Without being the least maudlin, it is powerfully touching yet provocative, challenging us to reconsider our relationship to technology and the digital devices that both distance and connect us to one another.
Karen Campbell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.