Rating 3 stars
The Word Exchange is a speculative science fiction mystery suspense that imagines a world in which electronic devices have become indispensable, replacing the need for deep thought or retention of information, to the extent that the people plugged into these devices are easy to manipulate. Sound familiar? It’s only five years old and already it feels as though the world Alena Graedon has imagined is more than a few steps closer to reality.
I really enjoyed the mystery and suspense aspects of the story, finding it pacey and not too obvious, but it was the science fiction angle that really grabbed and unsettled me. There was enough about the book to make me feel anxious. It even infiltrated my dreams on a couple of nights.
It was an easy read, and a change from some of the heavier stuff I’ve been reading recently. It felt a bit like someone was relating to me their experience of watching a film about a young woman, Ana/Alice, whose dad Doug edits a dictionary and disappears a few days after her boyfriend Max sells his tech company to the conglomerate that threatens her dad’s livelihood and a few days before sinister goings on start affecting the people who are plugged into an electronic entity called The Word Exchange via a device called a Meme, i.e. everyone except her dad and his gang of old-school book and word lovers.
There were some nice nods to Terry Gilliam’s Brazil with both the erasure of memory and the use of a pneumatic tube delivery system as core themes. The system in Graedon’s book, however, isn’t a functional means of transmitting pointless information in an attempt to keep people smothered in bureaucracy, as it is in Brazil, but instead is there to keep important communication private. Communication needs to be kept private by some because Memes are all-pervasive. They can sense your mood, predict what you’re thinking, seamlessly provide the piece of information your brain is scrabbling to find. They deliver education with no need for human teachers to be present. They can be corrupted by anyone who knows how to code a disruption into the system. Memes are manufactured by a monopolistic conglomerate called Synchronic Inc. Synchronic, Graedon tells us, is a linguistics term relating to “that which is descriptive of a particular fixed moment in time, generally the present, rather than considered in light of historical precedent.” The conglomerate, she tells us, promotes accelerated obsolescence and the potential erasure of collective human memory.
Memes are connected to The Word Exchange, a massive electronic dictionary that supplies missing words for objects you’re looking at as well as definitions of words your brain has forgotten the meanings of, and all for the bargain price of 2 cents per word. I read the novel on my Kindle and smiled to myself as I used the inbuilt dictionary to remind myself of word meanings that I used to know, ever since I swallowed the dictionary as a child. It gave me pause to think about how so much of the way we communicate has been reduced to the lowest common denominator rather than using language to its full glory and stretching ourselves to use ever more beautiful ways of expressing ourselves. It’s a theme that Graedon places at the centre of her story.
There’s a next generation Meme in the story, too, called the Nautilus. This is a device that physically connects The Word Exchange to the body. There were aspects of this new technology and how it worked that terrified me, particularly the use of DNA code for storing data in live biological tissue – embedding the technology into the human body. DNA data storage is still a very new thing, currently being heralded as the future of secure mass data storage, but anything that suggests the use of our own bodies for the storage and therefore sharing of data, and the potential for manipulation of our very being, is a future that I’m wary of. If you think about the altruism of Sir Tim Berners-Lee when he created the World Wide Web and you look at the way the internet has evolved, there’s good reason to suspect the manipulation of technological innovation for nefarious purposes. More than the storage of data on DNA, the technology Graedon imagines uses proteins as logic gates. As someone who lost a parent to dementia, I’m aware that proteins play a significant role in brain function and anything that messes with them can negatively affect coordination, speech and memory at the very least. This is what Graedon plays on when introducing the side effects of the Nautilus. Alongside all this, the willing acceptance that characters in this novel show towards this technology is a mere step away from the acceptance people are currently showing for technology like Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant, but has worse consequences than the simple acquisition of your data and the manipulation of your choices. It’s the acquisition of your brain for the manipulation of your behaviour and personality.
There were a few clunky moments in the book when it felt as though Graedon had too many ideas in her head and was desperate to get them onto the page, but there was also a lot that I enjoyed about it. The suspense was gripping, as was the mix of realism and speculation. I hesitated slightly at the suggestion that everything bad was down to Russians, eastern Europeans and the Chinese, but then I remembered everything that has come to light in the aftermath of Trump and Brexit and the surge in popularist politics that relies on discrediting facts and knowledge and rigour, and I thought Graedon had a point.
There was also a glaring inaccuracy that, given the research that had gone into the historical accuracy of the pneumatic tube system, the technology developed by Synchronic, the contextual world history of cyber attacks, really jarred with me. Perhaps because I’m British. It had to do with postcodes, and one specific postcode in an English university town. Graedon apparently wasn’t capable of copying a British postcode correctly.
On the plus side, I liked Ana/Alice as a character. I warmed to her sidekick Bart gradually. His introduction as a character felt like a pen portrait of a classic geek, which does him a disservice. Other characters were ciphers and caricatures rather than fully fleshed out individuals.
The central conceit about the virus that affects anyone connected to a Meme or The Word Exchange was a solid one. I didn’t doubt it at any point in the story and thought Graedon had convincingly extended the viruses we’re already accustomed to in our electronic, virtual lives to something that is a hybrid of a biological virus and an electronic one, building on the idea that we are physically as well as emotionally and intellectually merged now with our electronic devices. I also liked the nod to A Clockwork Orange and the language invented by Anthony Burgess, Nadsat. When The Word Exchange starts replacing words with meaningless neologisms, the text starts to resemble the mix of English and Russian that Burgess used. The difference is that, in Graedon’s novel, the invented language means nothing by design. It exists to disrupt communication, not encode it.
I was also impressed by her projecting of potential futures from her 2014 viewpoint. An example is the reference to a serious cyber attack against Taiwan in 2016. In Graedon’s reality, this is when the virus was first tested by China. Graedon couldn’t have known that 2015 would see the election of Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progress party as President of Taiwan, and election that resulted in a surge in cyber attacks against the disputed territory from mainland China. Nor could she have known that in 2019, only a few days ago in fact, WhatsApp would need to issue an urgent update to protect users against control being taken of their phones via calls placed through the app.
Overall I found this novel a mixed bag. There’s lots to enjoy about it, but for all its cleverness and stress inducing believability, I thought it needed a bit more editing to make it the excellent book it could be. It didn’t grip me quite enough to feel like I couldn’t put it down, there was something lacking and I think it was the lack of depth to the majority of the characters. I couldn’t really care about any of them and that’s what stopped this being an excellent book.