08 April 2014

The Word Exchange

Summary from Goodreads:
In the not so distant future, the forecasted "death of print" has become a reality. Bookstores, libraries, newspapers and magazines are a thing of the past, as we spend our time glued to handheld devices called Memes that not only keep us in constant communication, but have become so intuitive as to hail us cabs before we leave our offices, order take out at the first growl of a hungry stomach, and even create and sell language itself in a marketplace called The Word Exchange.

Anana Johnson works with her father Doug at the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), where Doug is hard at work on the final edition that will ever be printed. Doug is a staunchly anti-Meme, anti-tech intellectual who fondly remembers the days when people used email (everything now is text or video-conference) to communicate--or even actually spoke to one another for that matter. One evening, Doug disappears from the NADEL offices leaving a single written clue: ALICE. It's a code word he and Anana devised to signal if one of them ever fell into harm's way. And thus begins Anana's journey down the proverbial rabbit hole. . .

Joined by Bart, her bookish NADEL colleague (who is secretly in love with her), Anana's search for Doug will take her into dark basement incinerator rooms, underground passages of the Mercantile Library, secret meetings of the anonymous "Diachronic Society," the boardrooms of the evil online retailing site Synchronic, and ultimately to the hallowed halls of the Oxford English Dictionary--the spiritual home of the written word. As Ana pieces together what is going on, and Bart gets sicker and sicker with the strange "Word flu" that has spread worldwide causing people to speak in gibberish, Alena Graedon crafts a fresh, cautionary tale that is at once a technological thriller, and a thoughtful meditation on the price of technology and the unforeseen, though very real, dangers of the digital age.

Continuing in the bio-tech thriller reading-vein of Karen Russell's novella Sleep Donation I lucked into a DRC of Alena Graedon's debut novel The Word Exchange.  In this setting, an influenza-like-illness that causes aphasia spreads among the population, released under suspicious circumstances.  A very interesting idea.  I really like speculative fiction that plays just at the edge of our own reality so of course I downloaded it to the Bluefire app to read on vacation.

It's easy to see the crosswalk from our smartphone-and-wearable-tech-coveting society to the one in The Word Exchange where hand-held Memes - enchanting little silver boxes - detect brainwaves to anticipate users' needs for almost everything from meals to entertainment.  As users become more reliant on the technology, the easier it becomes to hijack that technology.  Hence, the "Word Exchange" - if you can't remember the meaning of a word, your Meme will supply it for you (for a fee, of course)...but what if it begins to substitute garbage definitions and made-up words?  Ideally, a paper dictionary would be the "gold standard" but the NADEL Ana and her father have been working on is the final edition.  When Doug disappears, Ana finds a secret basement room where copies of the dictionary are being incinerated.  Ana and Doug tell their story in alternating chapters; Ana's sections are footnoted autobiography, Bart's are a real-time journal, and they are racing to beat a deadly game.

It is a game full of secrets and lies, too, where no character is completely truthful with any other making them all complicit in the unfolding disaster.  At times Ana is bold and intrepid, other times you want to shake her for being such an idiot.  Bart makes the stupidest decision in the entire novel, then in his next chapter becomes the knight in shining armor.  Ana's ex-boyfriend Max is a dickish dude-bro for most of the novel then is revealed to have ulterior motives.  I wanted to kick Ana's father, Doug, repeatedly in the balls and very hard - his character is the hardest to like.  In short, all the flip-flopping the characters do makes them very annoying and very realistic.  Real people make hella stupid decisions and Graedon's characters follow suit.

A caution, for those who read very fast like me and will certainly want to read this novel: you will need to slow down.  As the "word flu" spreads among characters it is reflected in both their speech and the writing.  You can infer the intended meaning from the nonsensical words but you have to be watching for it.  I kept having to back up and re-read, which got really annoying, so I eventually had to slow down considerably and read almost word-to-word, particularly near the end of Bart's journals.

The Word Exchange was a great novel to read on vacation.  I was sort-of unplugged anyway (hey, when you spend six hours in the National Gallery of Art and don't check your phone even once - because you turned it off - that is a hugely significant change over my usual rate of checking) and it afforded me some time to consider how much I rely on my iPhone throughout the day.  I don't use it to look up every, single thing - I do math in my head and don't often need a dictionary - but I could see how neatly a service that just anticipated what I needed could slot into my life.  I am tired, ooo, coffee maker has started brewing.  I need to relax, the stereo pops on with my meditation track.  Look at how much information people entrust to the vast "cloud" now - a bit frightening to think about, particularly with all the security loopholes that keep cropping up.  While The Word Exchange does serve as a (fictional) cautionary tale about dependence on technology I don't think it bashes you over the head with it.  It's just food for thought and very worth reading, trust me.

Dear FTC: I was pre-approved for a DRC of this novel by the publisher via NetGalley.

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