Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

Main characters: Anana (aka Alice), Bart, Doug
Location: Manhattan and Oxford, England
Time period: Near future
Genre:  Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Science Fiction

I found this book utterly delightful.  Not just for the thriller plotline and characters, but for the clever thesis, examination of language and communication, speculation on over-dependence on computers, and references to other works.  (I am such a sucker for clever things.)

Ana is worried about her father, Doug, who missed a dinner date with her.  As she tries to locate him, she discovers that he has seemingly disappeared without a trace from his office, where he is the editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language, which is about to release the massive 3rd edition.  Bart, a co-worker of Doug's, tries to downplay Ana's fears but soon even he has to admit that something is wrong.

That simple setup does nothing to prepare you for the rabbit hole that this story plunges into.  In a near future where most Americans are literally addicted to their smart phones, a corporation is attempting to monetize language by buying up the copyrights to all the printed dictionaries, then destroying the printed copies so that people are forced to use the only online dictionary--The Word Exchange--where they are charged per word lookup.  Next, a game encourages people to make up their own words.  Soon, whispers of a word flu begin to leak out and a virus attacks both computers and human brains, threatening to destroy language entirely.

The delight begins with the table of contents, where you see that the chapters are named in alphabetical order.  The chapter titles are then matched with definitions that recall those of Samuel Johnson, the great English lexicographer.  For example, empanada is defined as "a source of considerable digestive discomfort."  Compare that to Johnson's definition of oats: "a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."

Samuel Johnson's dictionary is a running theme in this novel, even down to Doug and Ana's surname of Johnson.  Another literary work that is referenced is is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.  Doug's fondness for nicknames leads him to refer to Ana as Alice, and there is a reference to the poem, Jabberwocky, which is filled with made up words.  And who can forget Humpty Dumpty's assertion that "when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

Though not referenced this work, I was also reminded of another science fiction book I recently read--Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, which also has a running theme of a virus that affects both computers and minds.

I wonder what Grant and Martha from A Way with Words will think of The Word Exchange.

I read this as an e-ARC from NetGalley.  The Word Exchange is scheduled for release on April 8.

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