I bought, and read, The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon, on the strength of one word (which was the second word of the title on the inside-dust-jacket blurb – A dystopian novel for the digital age.
My first warning: Although this first novel is well-worth your time, it is not a quick read, nor is it a love story dressed up like the flavor of the moment. The use of dystopian is deliberate and not just an attempt to ride the horse of the moment into the winner’s circle of towering book sales
My second warning: The number of people mentioned in the acknowledgements achieves a size suitable for running a small banana republic. I never can imagine how much time it would take to develop, let alone nurture, so many relationships as so many writers claim and thank. However, among those names Graedon provides are a number of other fine younger writers whom I have read with great satisfaction. This one is really about me, I guess. I do not, by choice, have a lot of friends. Or collaborators.
My third warning: Graedon’s similes will blow you away.
Like a child playing with alphabet blocks, struggling to spell your own name, you will be surprised, and dismayed, by how quickly Graedon turns her pile into amazing and apt clauses.
The story turns on a bastard son of a cell phone and one of the devil’s favorite demons that goes by the name of The Meme. This embedded-brain-chip aware device will call a cab for you, pay the fare, and give the address you want to arrive at. You get the idea. The Meme reads your thoughts, and as you walk through the rooms and streets of your life, it gives you constant data about everything, whether it moves or not. The device takes digital addiction to a new level. In a world where Facebook seems to be enough for most of us, the difference is like that between a mosquito and a jet. Both can fly, but the comparison ends there. Stings vs. Stingers.
Our narrator, Anana, is a young woman of many talents and few ambitions who becomes the administrative assistant of her father, who runs a dictionary called the North American Dictionary of the English Language, or NADEL. In a time where more and more people are relying on their Meme for everything including word definitions, and where print books and magazines are largely a thing of the recent past – the story is set a few years ahead of the present – the NADEL is planning the release of its Third Edition, in print form as well as digital. What happens instead is the rapid entry of a word-eating flu virus that seems to be spread by the Meme and has a benign and a virulent form. In time, thousands will die. Both persons and words.
Enter the idea of dystopia.
In this dystopia, we see what happens when words and word meanings become monetized and corporations, the evil empires of the future, put profits ahead of lives. This is like what happens when corporations become people and money becomes free speech. That is a present reality rather than a speculative future, in my view.
There are many loveable characters and interesting situations, but the author stays a hair’s-length of distance away from her characters, to create a story that stresses what is happening to these people, and everyone in their world, rather than becoming some jumped-up, page-flipping word thriller. Thus the demands on the reader, to attend without the usual tricks of plot and lite.
This author has a bit more interest in instruction than in delight, and in a world – our world — where the impossible teeters at the edge of the precipice of life, this well may be the better choice.
And since The Word Exchange is more an important book than a fun book, it just might be worth your time and effort.