The Silent History
Eli Horowitz, Kevin Moffett, and Matthew Derby
The Silent History follows a global phenomenon. Typically we expect babies to start making basic vowel sounds at two months. However, significant groups of children unable to make this fundamental progress by 30months were thus diagnosed as Silent: completely unable to make a sound or hear voices as a form of communication. It’s not long before first hundreds, then thousands of children were diagnosed.
The Silent History answers the question of; what might we do if a large proportion of the world is born with the inability to communicate at all with everyone else.
The novel can be split into roughly three sections; the discovery of the Silents, the scientific solution to the communication barriers between people and Silents, and (spoiler) the twist. The discovery section portrays the stereotypical conservative American thinking of the 1950’s; that if you’re not like us, you can’t be happy; that different is bad; everyone should aspire to the American Dream (which includes speech).
The, somewhat lame, the premise is that these children have no inner voice, narrative or thought. That actions are expressed without forethought and that all respond in intuitively similar ways. I can just about get on board with this, however, towards the end of the second section, many previously ’cured’ children are returned to their natural state, all reacting in the same bizarrely wild way, due to the loss of their inner voices. It seems naive that they should all act as one, like their Silence is a virus with particular cause/effect responses when in fact, it’s surely more akin to autism (if that’s the heredity route they’re taking) which is displayed in many different ways …
Aside from this strangeness, the notion of ’curing’ a perceived disability is very reminiscent of the issues regarding deafness.
There is currently a Cochlear implant available which improves the quality of sound heard, which allows those who are partially deaf, to hear clearer (and thus learn to speak). This implant is called the Assisted Listening Device (ALD). Like in The Silent History, the operation to implant the device is most successful if performed when the individual is younger (three-years-old compared to the seven of the Silents), but, can also be conducted at a later date if someone loses their hearing after learning a language. By no coincidence, the implant also leaves a tell-tail sign from the operation on the individual in the form a small disc behind their ear, as per the Silents.
The humanitarian issues regarding this are evident. Even with children learning ASL/BSL from an early age, the ’signing explosion’ only occurs between one-and-a-half, to two years old, and understanding the repercussions of such an operation would be beyond them. At such an age, the child would be too young to remember life without hearing. One Silent mentions his preference to be genuinely silent, accentuating the intentional thought-provoking nature of this novel.
However, I hated the twist with a passion. (Spoiler) People born with voices were becoming ’infected’, turning quiet and their families treating them as cancerous, dying people? This felt extreme, ridiculous, and a betrayal; I’ve never been so close to the end of a book and considered quitting out of irritation. Maybe naively of me, I’d expect people to be ’more’ understanding of Silence, not less …
The book is written in a usual manner—an aspect carried over from its original medium*. Each chapter is a first-person entry and dictated in a slightly different style. Depending on the connection of the character to the protagonists (the Silents), the tone of the oral history is either journalistic (media/doctors/key-workers), or personal diary (parents/relations). The entries appear to be transcribed shortly after real-time, meaning the majority of the narrative is read by the reader post-event, creating gaps of discovery and dawning realisation as the audience piece the tale together.
Unfortunately, as the novel progresses the individual voices become confused. This may be deliberate as characters become more emotionally involved—those who were previously only onlookers with a scientific or social investment, become closer with particular Silents over time. Combined with a lack of clear chapter marking denoting which character you’re reading, this adds murkiness to the already murky latter stage of the book.
A final small irritant I had was, Despite this phenomena apparently being worldwide, all but one chapter is a record by a person from the USA. This may be a particular political point about nationalities, despite everything, being unwilling to collaborate on crucial discoveries (especially if they could result in financial gain), or that the authors simply ’forgot’ and hastily added it in for continuity.
*Initially released in 2013 as an interactive reading experience on iOS, readers would purchase the book in parts, reading extracts, and visit specific locations (mostly NYC) to gain extra info. Two years later the excerpts were compiled, and published as a book; this is the version I read.