The Word Exchange: A Novel by Alena Graedon

WORD Jacket

Paranoid much? Do you love words, and fear that the world is full of people who use them badly? Are you convinced that ebooks and downloaded music will destroy our current model of “owning” creative works? This book is for you.

Anana (rhymes with banana but means pineapple, she explains) works for her father, Doug, the editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language. Doug longs for the days when people emailed or spoke face to face, and fears that Anana’s generation is losing the ability to use the written word. He disapproves of Anana’s use of her meme, a device rather like a smartphone but which integrates itself with the user over time so that it can anticipate your needs and wants. For example, it will call a taxi for you just as you decide to go somewhere, or order you takeout if you begin to feel hungry. The more you use your meme, the better it gets at doing what you want it to do before you can even ask. The most insidious thing the memes do, in Doug’s opinion, is to link the user with the Word Exchange – a service that will automatically define a word for you if you hear or read it and cannot recall what it means. For an automatically deducted fee per word, of course.

Anana loves and respects her father, but that doesn’t stop her from using the technology he warns her against anyway – until she begins noticing the effects that it is having on her memory and on the communications she has with her friends. When Doug disappears, Anana begins hunting for him – only to discover that North American Dictionary of the English Language has been sold (to the company that owns the Word Exchange, naturally) and all printed copies are being destroyed.  It turns out that Doug wasn’t just being a paranoid Luddite – a shadowy group really is hatching a diabolical plot to infect users with “word flu” – an infection that causes them to lose the ability to remember the words they need to communicate at all, rendering them fully dependent on the Word Exchange…which now owns all of the words and can make them mean whatever they want. Conspiracies abound, everyone she loves is in danger, and she can’t count on anyone once they start to muddle their words.

All in all, it’s an engaging read. I didn’t really like Anana at first – at the start she has just broken up with her boyfriend and is depressed and whiny – but as the story progresses, she becomes stronger and more determined. I like the fact that this woman of average intelligence manages to get through a horrible ordeal despite the fact that evil geniuses all around her appear to hold all of the cards.

I discovered this book by accident when looking for Max Barry’s Lexicon, which someone told me was similar. I have since found it on a lot of “If you liked Lexicon…” lists, so maybe I’ll try Barry’s next. As for other read-alikes, it is kind of like George Orwell’s 1984 in the sense that a powerful entity can make the news the public hears mean whatever it wants.

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