The Unseen World: A Novel, by Liz Moore
This amazing book is really hard to categorize. At first it comes across as YA fiction but it takes some genre-bending twists and turns that make it impossible to pigeonhole.
The book starts with the story of 12-year-old Ada and her father David, a university professor, and his first decline with Alzheimer’s disease. Ada is David’s only child and is the daughter of a surrogate mother who has no interest in being part of Ada’s life. She is home-schooled, which mostly consists of David, a mathematician and programmer, giving her challenging questions and allowing her to hang out with the staff and graduate students in the university programming lab.
As David’s deterioration continues he is eventually forced to retire from the university, but it’s also discovered by child protective services that Ada has never attended school in an era when homeschooling was a new concept and required state certification and supervision. Ada is placed in a Catholic school also attended by the children of David’s best friend and colleague, a single mother with three kids. Eventually she brings Ada into her own home when David’s condition requires he be hospitalized.
By itself, this part of the story would be a compelling YA book, it’s well written and is third-person but entirely from Ada’s perspective. We learn what she learns at the same pace. She’s never interacted with people her own age and has to treat their speech patterns like a new language. She enters both the school and new family as an awkward outsider.
But here the book takes a mystery writer’s turn when, after David dies, it’s discovered that he was not who he seemed to be. This creates a sudden shift in the book. Ada is nearly thirty and working in the nascent gaming industry as a programmer. She is still struggling to discover David’s true identity as well as unravel a cipher left by David shortly before he was hospitalized which he assures her will reveal everything. When she does, with help, manage to solve the puzzle we learn all about the real David, his life before Ada was born, and his life as a gay man in the politics and sexual mores of the 1940s and 1950s.
Along with this Moore also deals with the beginning attempts at programming an artificial intelligence by the members of the computer lab trying to get it to pass Turing Test levels, as well as the beginning attempts at designing virtual reality worlds which brings the book to an almost mystical ending.
It’s rare to run across a book with so many interesting topics to tackle while still maintaining a strong mystery in the story line. The first hints at David’s secret and real life seem a little disappointing at first but Moore does a wonderful job of describing the times, especially the paranoia of the McCarthy Era.
Published mid-2016 it’s a great book that deserves a lot more booklisting than it’s gotten so far.