“It may seem to some readers that the dystopian future we’re imaging is exaggerated or, at the very least, a long way off. We can only hope, for all our sakes, that they’re right. Because if not, then these and all words may very well soon lose their meanings. And then we’ll all be lost.”
Anana Johnson works with her father Doug at the North American Dictionary of the English Language, one of the last surviving print dictionaries in the world. In the near future, most dictionaries have been bought up by Synchronic Inc. and incorporated into the Word Exchange, a cloud-based service that allows users to download definitions to their Meme devices on demand for only two cents each. Thanks to Doug’s clever stewardship, the NADEL has managed to survive as a non-profit organization, but with their last round of grant funding coming to an end, it seems likely that the Third Edition will be the final print version of the dictionary before it becomes online only as well. Doug himself is fiercely anti-technology, and is particularly opposed to Synchronic’s pervasive Meme device, which anticipates and sometimes even directs the user’s wants and needs. Ana has always humoured her father’s paranoia, while continuing to use the Meme herself, but when her father disappears on the eve of the publication of his life’s work, his entry simultaneously disappears from the online version of the NADEL, giving weight to his digital anxieties. Assisted by her NADEL colleague, Bart, Ana goes in search of her father, and falls headlong into a world of corporate conspiracies while all around her, people are forgetting common words, and suddenly spouting gibberish as “word flu” begins to spread.
The Word Exchange combines Ana’s ex post facto reflections on the origins of the epidemic with entries from the journal Bart kept during the outbreak. Ana’s passages are more explanatory, while Bart’s musings tend towards the philosophical. Nonsense words begin slipping into their writing as the epidemic continues, and I occasionally spent too much time trying to figure out what word had been replaced, and looking for patterns in the missing words. Similarly distracting are Ana’s frequent footnotes, which she assures us are only there because writing in a discursive style is form of word flu rehabilitation. Ana’s narration stays mostly in the moment, but there is some heavy-handed foreshadowing such as “I later found out…” and “only later would I learn…” that tends to interrupt the flow of the storytelling.
More literary than science fiction, Alena Graedon weaves in elements of philosophy, linguistics, and etymology, but spends little time on world-building. Ana’s world is very familiar and similar to our own, with Memes representing the major difference. The exact date the book takes place is a bit unclear, but characters reference some events that happened in Taiwan in 2016 as being a few years ago. This ambiguity means events are just distant enough to seem surreal, and yet close enough to be frighteningly familiar.
The Word Exchange is a very cerebral science fiction, and it is no surprise that there is a long bibliography and years of research behind this novel ranging from etymology to lexicography to philosophy. It is a very self-conscious novel by an author who has thought long and deep about both the written and spoken word, and the role it plays in our lives in conjunction with technology. Undoubtedly, some readers will find it a little too self-reflexive. But for all that reflection, it doesn’t feel didactic or prescriptive about the role technology should play in our lives; it is merely meditative, and that gives it an accessibility that an anti-technology screed would lack. Three starred reviews—from Kirkus, Booklist, and Publisher’s Weekly—show that the book is likely to be popular among literary types, but is perhaps less likely to appeal to those looking for a more typical sci-fi adventure.
You might also like:
Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan