The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon (Galley)
Release Date: April 8, 2014
Genre: Fiction, dystopia, apocalyptic, science fiction, literary, I probably shouldn’t have read this on an eReader
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Summary: Anana leads a pretty comfortable life working for her father at the Dictionary, the North American Dictionary of the English Language. They are hard at work on what will be the last print edition of the NADEL when her Dad goes missing, leaving behind a few cryptic messages for his daughter Alice who is not Alice. Now she must head down the rabbit hole if she hopes to find him, all while struggling to escape the strange new word virus that seems to be spreading through the seemingly innocuous Memes, a device that have made humans lives easier yet more reliant on the new tech than anyone could have imagined.
The Word Exchange first drew me in because of it’s simultaneously intriguing and horrifying premise. It takes place in the not so distant future (think a few years) during the spread of a terrifying illness known alternatively as the Word Flu, the Language Virus and S0111, which if left unchecked can cause humans to lose all ability to form speech, fall into a state of silence and eventually die.
This is Anana’s story, which she recalls from the first stirrings of the virus to its effect on society to the aftermath, with some additions from the journal of her co-worker and love interest Bart. Get ready for a whole lot of heavy introspection and not enough talk about the intriguing and fully fleshed out world at large!
To fully immerse you in the idea that the novel is about words as literal weapons, each chapter corresponds to a letter of the alphabet, A through Z. For example, chapter one is titled Alice and comes complete with a tongue-in-cheek definition of the word. In this case, “a girl transformed by reflection.”
Our narrator Anana works with her very well-respected (albeit tad loony) father Douglas Samuel Johnson, the Chief Editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language — also known as NADEL or merely the Dictionary. As a scholar, Doug is concerned about the loss of civilization’s desire to read and write on something other than a screen, what he calls “accelerated obsolescence” and compares to the “ouroboros,” the serpent that eats its own tail.
You see in the future, all of humanity relies on a technology called the Meme. The Meme is a tablet and phone device all in one which has made human life much simpler. Through the Memes combo of Ear Beads and the Crown (which you wear on your head), people can order food from a menu without talking to a waiter, “beam” limns (eBooks), take prescription medication, get help sleeping, buy groceries, do your taxes, order a taxi, change traffic lights, estimate how long it will take you to get work done, control your appliances, the limits are pretty much endless. And if you want your Meme to work even better, you can also get a microchip implanted in your brain that can help you recall memories in vivid detail or even help you forget painful events.
The company behind the Meme, Synchronic, Inc.’s first attempt at the device was the Aleph, which was designed to save trees and help make the world paperless. It revolutionized security systems, reduced traffic related deaths by helping drivers co-pilot, monitored children, the elderly and parolees and assisted doctors in doling out prescriptions and diagnosing certain diseases and illnesses.
On the flip side, the Sixth Sense mechanism on the Meme is known to order too many drinks at a bar and get the user super inebriated, sends unwanted messages to people because of misplaced thoughts, destroyed all communications between humanity (it can give you social cues for how to act with others) and inhibits the ability to think and process. It also may contain some evil software.
Unfortunately, because the Meme makes life so easy and works with Sixth Sense technology to sense your moods and decide what you need, people have become ultra dependent on their Memes. As a result, humanity’s ability to recall and remember has been destroyed, because the Meme is there to remember and think for you. Problems which will just be made worse with Synchronic, Inc.’s latest model the Nautilus, which interacts with the brain directly and is a semi-biological organism that links with your brain through your skin.
One of the more popular components of the Meme is the Word Exchange, a program which can give you the definition of words you have forgotten or don’t know. You have to purchase these definitions for a small fee, but seeing as how the money is automatically removed and you pull up definitions with a mere thought it becomes a compulsion. With the Exchange’s buyout of most dictionaries during the time when the publishing marketplace crashed, the Word Exchange is poised to be the only way to receive definitions. And with humanity struggling to recall things, definitions for even simple words are becoming more and more in demand. It’s a vicious cycle. The more people use the Meme the less they remember, which requires them to use the Word Exchange which limits their brains capabilities further. See also that pesky orobouros.
As a result of this advanced technology, humanity has slowly done away with the need to keep diaries, compose handwritten notes, pass love letters, print photographs, pour over maps, send physical thank you notes and work on their penmanship. If you’ve been paying attention this may seem awfully familiar.
In this future however, things have gone a tad farther than they have in our current society. Movie theatres have fallen, the mail has been reduced to twice a week, books are not in wide circulation and the death knell has been rung for most libraries and bookstores. If The Word Exchange is anything, its a cautionary tale about what happens when we rely too heavily on technology. Also what happens when you give an obviously devious company almost absolute power over the meaning of words.
Opposing this reliance on tech brought about by Synchronic and their villainous Memes are the Diachronic Society, who are named after the word diachronic, a “method of looking at language that’s become extinct.” Unfortunately for them, they seem to be fighting a losing battle as the Memes seem to stricken people with the Word Flu, which begins with mild aphasia — a disorder that makes it difficult to form and comprehend language. Mild cases can be treated with antiviral medication, but some cases may be even beyond the help of medicine and ceasing the use of Memes. So much so that it becomes a nationwide epidemic.
It’s all very clever, and I especially appreciated all the references to Alice and her journey to and from Wonderland. Unfortunately, while The Word Exchange was high in premise, it was ultimately a little too clunky and heavier than I generally like my dystopias. Especially when you’re struggling to read lengthy passages by someone who keeps inadvertently saying made up words because they’re infected.
-Great premise, loved the idea of the word virus
-Fun, futuristic touches without being too crazy
-Fantastic commentary on our reliance on technology
-The references to Alice were an added bonus
-Can be overly wordy and dense (although the reasoning is explained)
-Was especially difficult to read anything written by someone suffering from the Word Flu and only got worse as the story wore on
-Wanted more about the world at large and less about everyone’s serious emotional problems
All of this is of course incredibly ironic considering that I wrote a review of a book about humanity being destroyed by their reliance on technology with my laptop and immediately put it on the internet. Even worse, I read the advanced copy I received on an eBook. Womp womp womp.