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Onyx reviews: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 05/15/2014

Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoatnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteers be at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Alena Graedon takes this oft-shared meme to its logical extreme in her debut novel, The Word Exchange, a near-future dystopian thriller that explores the frightening consequences of surrendering too much of ourselves to our smart technology.

The book opens with the disappearance of Ana Johnson's father, Douglas. He is the brain trust behind NADEL, the North American Dictionary of the English Language, which is the last surviving independent dictionary in America. Its third edition is about to go to press when he vanishes. Ana is especially alarmed when his entry in the dictionary also disappears for a while. She soon uncovers a conspiracy to eradicate the dictionary as well, by a sinister corporation that wants to appropriate its contents into the Word Exchange, a place where words can be made up at will and definitions applied to them.

The prime suspect is Synchronic, an Apple-like megalith whose Meme devices have taken a deep hold in society. They are like iPhones taken to the next level, devices that can sense how people are feeling and react accordingly. Extreme versions have a subdural microchip, but even the regular device has had a deleterious effect on humanity. People no longer need to remember words, because the Word Exchange will supply that term you are groping for. For a few cents, it will also supply the definition of an unfamiliar word, so there's no need to remember those, either. The Meme will also do your taxes, pay your bills, and tell you what to say (or not to say) in social situations. It makes people lazy and, perhaps, stupid.

Suddenly, the English language is now the property of a nefarious corporation. All they need to do is start substituting made-up words for real ones to drive people to the Word Exchange, and all those definition requests add up. With the promise of a monopoly on all dictionary terms, they will be able to jack up prices, essentially holding the language for ransom.

Worse, though, a computer virus is being spread via the Meme and its updated version, the Nautilus, a screenless device with a biological interface that communicates on a cellular level. The virus causes "word flu," which turns spoken dialog into word soup. There is a "benign" version of the affliction, where aphasia robs people of the ability to be understood, but there is also a lethal version that could cause thousands of deaths. Taking anti-virals helps, but not for all.

Doug's pet name for his daughter is Alice, as in Alice Through the Looking Glass, and there are many references to the story and to Lewis Carroll, who also wrote the ultimate "word flu" poem, "Jabberwocky," and had Humpty Dumpty say, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean." The question being: who is the master—people or language? The fact that Doug the lexicographer's last name is Johnson (think: Samuel) is no coincidence, either.

It's up to Ana to come to the rescue, though she's ill equipped to be a heroine. She's young, somewhat shallow, and not noticeably brilliant, perhaps because of her Meme reliance. She recently broke up with her long-time boyfriend, whose company was absorbed into Synchronic, and is oblivious to the long-term infatuation of one of her closest friends.

The Word Exchange crosses the boundary between literary and popular fiction with ease. It contains a lot of philosophy (mostly Hegel, who influences the book's structure), lexicography and etymology, but it's set in the natural world so it is replete with references to popular music, fiction (the droogs from A Clockwork Orange, naturally) and culture. Its fundamental hypothesis borders on the ludicrous, but its message is clear: the dangers of giving too much of our history over to technology are real. If the written record no longer exists on paper but only in bits and bytes, the chance of losing valuable information is increased. Plus, our addiction to technology is making us lose focus, and lose the ability to really communicate.

At times, the book seems like it could have been written by Jasper Fforde, although it doesn't have that author's whimsical sense of humor. It has, after all, footnotes, the reason for which will be made clear late in the proceedings. This is serious stuff, and it's more of a thriller than a parody. People are after Ana, meaning to do her harm. Likable characters are murdered. Her lovelorn friend and colleague Bart (after Bartleby the Scrivener, of course) comes down with a serious case of word flu. Graedon challenges readers to keep up with Bart as his aphasia worsens, littering his journal with gobbledygook, and it works. The reader's mind will naturally gloss over the substituted words and fill in the gaps, especially since many of the replaced words bear some relationship or resemblance to the intended words. All without the help of an embedded online virtual dictionary.

Even sympathizers with the cause, people (many of them Luddites) who band together to form the Diachronic Society in opposition to Synchronic, can't be completely trusted. The word flu is contagious and once it takes hold, social order is threatened. It's a different kind of apocalypse, but equally frightening. The Word Exchange is, ultimately, a cautionary tale about the risks to society of not reading. The message can be a little overt at times—too overt, perhaps, for what otherwise might be described as a thriller. But people who read books are the people who will read The Word Exchange, and most of them will end up nodding in agreement. And, perhaps, switching off their smart phones instead of checking their Twitter feeds.

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