Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Word Exchange, by Alaena Graedon

The Word Exchange, by Alaena Graedon (Anchor, 2014), begins as a promising techno-mystery but quickly bogs down—into polemic, ever-incrementing layers of improbability, and inconsistent form. The first few chapters, about the kidnapping of an internationally famous linguist who is the editor of an American dictionary similar to the Oxford English Dictionary, and his daughter’s effort to find him, or to find out what happened to him, easily seize the reader’s interest.  But the narrative stalls and struggles when we find ourselves in a room deep in the basement of the American dictionary’s building where drone-like individuals, guarded by large and menacing attendants, are burning the pages of the third edition of the dictionary, even though it is about to come out.  This chapter reminded me of the Oompa-Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  Many other complications (too many) follow: a council of eminent men (and a woman) guard special secrets; a computer virus infects humans and causes partial-aphasia, its victims increasingly replace normal words with nonsense words; a company begins buying up all dictionaries in the world and charging people to look up on their smart devices words they have forgotten.  This same company begins changing the meaning of words on a whole-scale basis so that people have to look them up. People increasingly rely on an iPhone-like device (the Meme) that supplants what their brains would usually do. An even newer device (the Nautilus, that is implanted in the brain) is soon to arrive, and so on.

The apparently feminist hero of this novel worries a great deal about which man—a former boyfriend or an office colleague—both infected with the virus--she should care about most.

The Word Exchange warns of over-dependence on technology and the increasing hyper commercialism of our world.  Its world is post-capitalism run amok. Graedon apparently prefers that we read physical books and dispense with technology altogether.  She doesn’t like smart phones. Her novel is a right-leaning argument for the traditional humanities.  I support the humanities, reading (in any form), and the benefits technology can bring.  It’s true that technology—smart phones, the Internet, computers, you name it—are rapidly becoming extensions of our cerebral functions.  It’s right to be wary of over-dependence on them.  But it’s not right to let hysteria and paranoia rule the day. Despite the ingenious conception of this novel, improbabilities overwhelm it.

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