Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange is a thought provoking and entertaining read about our relationship with smart things and each other. It is a dense work that requires effort to read, albeit a well rewarded effort. [Note: I did receive this from NetGalley as an advanced review copy in anticipation for an objective review.]
In Ms. Graedon’s world, people are ceding their memories and vocabularies to their Meme (AKA smartphone on steroids). Memes also predict needs; hail cabs when you want one, order groceries when you’re low and set up a doctor’s appointment when you’re feeling sick. As people become more dependent upon them, they become less capable and their Memes become smarter. In the midst of this dependency, a virus spreads effecting both men and machines. Our technological crutch (and its infrastructure) fails, as well as our own language. Some also become physically sick.
This isn’t necessarily new ground, however Ms. Graedon’s treatment brings the focus on language (without language, can we think?) and a realistic rendering of the potential impact of future devices given their current capabilities. These issues are brought up in the context of an excellent techo-thriller. It’s also brilliant timing. Whether you’re seeing Her or reading Cassandra Rose Clarke’s The Mad Scientists Daughter, or simply reading today’s headlines, this is a primary issue for our age. (Additional reflections on our use of smart things here.)
Now a few words about the effort involved in reading this work. Much of the milieu of Ms. Graedon’s world is among lexicographers and other literati; they have both a technical lexicographical and simply more varied vocabulary than most. Ms. Graedon breaks the “Mark Twain Rule”: “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” In this context, it makes sense to do. There are lots of ten dollar words in this book; the story itself suggests they’re worth the effort to look up. It’s also clear, that The Word Exchange is an homage to words and Ms. Graedon’s love affair with them. There is the additional challenge of the aforementioned “word flu”; we read from the perspective of an infected person on a number of occasions as well as simply engage with the afflicted whose speech is peppered with artificial neologisms. So, if you have my meager vocabulary, you’re already looking up a word every other page and now new terms are introduced that may be fake. As the “flu” spreads, less of the speech makes sense. This is sort of like have the camera’s point of view for someone under the influence. It distorts your perspective, but gives you a sense of what they’re experiencing. It also has a fairly complicated plot with many characters. Finally, there are even footnotes. This is rare and typically unwelcome in a novel. Again, in the context of these lexicographers, academics and other word-devotees, it actually works. Yet, the novel never has a dry, academic feel; it’s primarily about relationships and, to put it bluntly, saving the world.
I was keenly aware of the irony of reading The Word Exchange on my Kindle, using it’s built in dictionary with a touch and seeing definitions pop-up. An author and fellow blogger Mr. Scott Whitmore, had a similar sense and also pointed out that the big, bad Synchronic may be loosely based on the big, bad Amazon. I presume the dictionary on my Kindle to be accurate and the Kindle versions of books to accurately reflect the novels. I have automatic updates turned on for my Kindle account. This is great way to receive revisions and errata. It would also be a great way to infuse different meanings and phrases into a work. Yes, that’s a little conspiracy minded (I haven’t changed my account setting), but it’s still a little unsettling. Especially since, after disgorging many volumes following a number of moves during my lifetime, the majority of my library is virtual.
I hope I have conveyed why the effort of reading the novel is worth the bother. It’s not unlike the novel’s erstwhile spelunkers of New York’s underground: there’s a bit of effort to receive a whole new viewpoint. Finally, there have been a number of reviews that suggest the book could do with a bit of tightening. While a bit more editing may be in order, I’ll simply say that I enjoyed all of it. I even found heavily Word Flu influenced dialogue intriguing if not enjoyable to read.
***Some light spoilers***
It’s interesting to me that Ms. Graedon went exclusively towards losing words and not language structure. Our grammar seemed safe. This is interesting on a number of levels. If you look at Noam Chomsky’s arguments for our having innate language ability and later arguments that tie meaning to structure (ala Richard Montague and Barbara Partee), then it seems like both should go. So, it seems a bit much that we would retain our language structure with simply fake words placed in it. Maybe that deterioration is simply slipping into silence.
Another aspect of the book I really liked is that she didn’t overdo the thriller/chase aspect. It was just the right element of threat and fear without sliding into some world in which nefarious deeds weren’t inline with the perpetrator’s self-interest. I loved the fact that those who initiated what they hoped would be a controlled virus got out of hand and backfired on themselves. I hate all of the loss, of course. However, the very countries and hackers that appear to have been initiated the virus were similarly plagued by it should (but probably won’t) dissuade them from future similar. activity. It also provided the sheer satisfaction That they received their comeuppance.