What would happen if we could no longer communicate with each other? If we can no longer use, or even understand, the words that the vast majority of us take for granted and that form the basis of both personal interaction and knowledge?
This very interesting and frightening idea is the premise of The Word Exchange, the debut novel of Alena Graedon, which I received an advance copy of in exchange for an honest review. The novel touches on quite a few genres/themes — sci-fi, dystopian, conspiracy thriller, romance, fear of technology & globalization, a certain fairy tale — but ultimately it is a love note to words, printed or spoken, and the folks who love words.
Set in the not-too-distant future, the story is told mostly from the perspective of Ana Johnson, a twenty-something New Yorker who works for her father, Doug, editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL). Doug, who is one of those who love words, suddenly goes missing just days before the launch of the third, and likely final, printed edition of the NADEL.
Doug had always been a bit of a wild card, heading off on adventures in Alaska and exploring the sewers of New York City, but Ana becomes instantly worried because of late his rants about technology’s negative impact on language had become more dire and opaque. He even hands Ana two bottles of pills to take in the event she gets sick and can’t speak clearly. This is the first hint the reader gets of what would eventually be called SO111 — the word flu. As Ana digs into her father’s disappearance the world she knows begins to crumble as the first traces of SO111 appear in New York, leaving both her and the reader to wonder if the two are connected.
Viewed from 2014, Ana’s world is an imagined future that could easily be realized. Print — books, newspapers, magazines, restaurant menus — has become for the most part a curiosity for collectors. Even texts and email are the stuff of memory, replaced by “beams” of information that are based on your thoughts.
Printing and writing words has been rendered obsolete by the evolution of “smart” devices, especially the Meme, a sort of future iPhone that dispenses medicine and can sense its owner’s needs and wants. Manufactured by the Synchronic corporation, the Meme will add everyone you meet to your virtual contacts list as well as update your Life status (one can only guess Life is Mark Zuckerberg’s follow-up to Facebook). Encounter a word you don’t recognize? For a small fee the Meme will pull the meaning from The Word Exchange, Synchronic’s database of words.
Of course the downside to having everything done for you is clear: you forget how to do it for yourself, and in doing so you become dependent on others. This can be unimportant when the stakes are low — taking your car in for an oil change instead of doing it in your driveway — but potentially disastrous when dealing with the underpinning of knowledge and human interaction.
As interesting as I found the premise, I’m a bit underwhelmed at the novel itself. It seemed overlong by about a third, and the pacing was erratic. As devastating as the potential havoc that a virus like the word flu could generate, I never felt a sense of real danger for Ana or her cohorts until the suspicious death of a very minor character near the halfway point. In contrast to the somewhat ponderous early third of the book, the final chapters move at lightning speed to a conclusion that left some unanswered questions.
And a word about … the words. There are a lot of Mark Twain’s “five-dollar words” in The Word Exchange. Part of this is because many of the characters are lovers of words: lexicographers, publishers, writers. Part of it, I came to suspect after finishing the novel, is a result of Ana’s therapy after exposure to the virus. Even so, I used the “dictionary look-up” feature on my Kindle quite often, which may or may not have been an irony intended by the author.
I would never fault an author for telling a story the way they want to tell it. In different hands, the word virus premise could have been a fast-paced, slick sci-fi story that does for lexicographers what Indiana Jones did for archaeologists. I’m not saying it would be better told that way — just that it could have been. It is obviously not the way Ms. Graedon wanted to tell it, and I respect that.