Release Date: April 8, 2014
"A dystopian novel for the digital age, The Word Exchange offers an inventive, suspenseful, and decidedly original vision of the dangers of technology and of the enduring power of the printed word.
In the not-so-distant future, the forecasted “death of print” has become a reality. Bookstores, libraries, newspapers, and magazines are things of the past, and we spend our time glued to handheld devices called Memes that not only keep us in constant communication but also have become so intuitive that they hail us cabs before we leave our offices, order takeout at the first growl of a hungry stomach, and even create and sell language itself in a marketplace called the Word Exchange.
Anana Johnson works with her father, Doug, at the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), where Doug is hard at work on the last edition that will ever be printed. Doug is a staunchly anti-Meme, anti-tech intellectual who fondly remembers the days when people used email (everything now is text or videoconference) to communicate—or even actually spoke to one another, for that matter. One evening, Doug disappears from the NADEL offices, leaving a single written clue: ALICE. It’s a code word he devised to signal if he ever fell into harm’s way. And thus begins Anana’s journey down the proverbial rabbit hole . . .
Joined by Bart, her bookish NADEL colleague, Anana’s search for Doug will take her into dark basements and subterranean passageways; the stacks and reading rooms of the Mercantile Library; and secret meetings of the underground resistance, the Diachronic Society. As Anana penetrates the mystery of her father’s disappearance and a pandemic of decaying language called “word flu” spreads, The Word Exchange becomes a cautionary tale that is at once a technological thriller and a meditation on the high cultural costs of digital technology."
This has been a difficult book to review. It starts off pretty slowly. My initial impression of this was not very high. We find ourselves with the two main characters, Anana and Bart, who both work for the North American Dictionary of the English Language. Anana really seems to work there because her father got her the position. Bart is a true word nerd (he's a lexicographer) and as you would expect, he has a huge vocabulary. The reader is treated to it extensively in his first chapter as narrator. Bart drops words like jeremiad and interregnum as if they were everyday language. He refers to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis several times, which no one outside of an English major is likely to be familiar with. In short, he seems overly intellectual and lacking in personality. His only endearing quality is his awkward crush on Anana, which seems unlikely to produce results, since she frequently states that she is not in to him. Anana herself, is a very average sort of girl- she's intelligent, but not as much as Bart or her father, she takes some martial arts classes, but doesn't feel competent enough to actually take on a bad guy physically, so that's irrelevant. She dated an egotistical jerk that she still carries a torch for, and is pursued ineptly by a guy who has never actually worked up the nerve to properly tell her how he feels. Basically, as people, Anana and Bart bore me.
The idea is what salvages this somewhat. The book is set in a not too distant future, and our technology has made a jump that seems plausible. Everyone, save a few old-fashioned folk, is attached to their "meme" the way we are currently attached to our smart phones. That's not much of a stretch. The difference is, the meme will do so much for you. It will hail you a cab, administer pain meds, diagnose your illness, and even give you that word that you forgot, via the Word Exchange. In fact, people have become so reliant on this last feature that they have been forgetting relatively simple words in their day to day life. Instead of thinking, remembering a word, or working to look it up, the Exchange just quickly and efficiently offers it up to them for a small fee. And in a startlingly small amount of time, people were just dependent upon their devices.
So, when Anana's dad disappears, and suddenly there are men in the basement of the NADEL building burning the new editions of the dictionary, you start to suspect that maybe the Exchange has something to do with it. They are the competition after all, so they have a stake in destroying the NADEL. But it's not just that simple. There is a new device about to be launched- the Nautilus- a meme that interfaces directly with the neural pathways in your brain. It's rumored to be even more efficient at anticipating your needs, naturally. Except, the first people to get one, seem to be suffering from a "word flu"- they feel physically ill, and have episodes of aphasia. They speak in garbled nonsense words- a few at first, but the illness gradually worsens and the sufferer eventually loses the ability to communicate at all. And the illness seems to be spreading to other devices. Even people who don't use the meme appear to be at risk.
Anana is trying to find her father. But that search is leading her straight into the middle of a conspiracy to control communication, exposure to a potentially fatal virus and contact with a secret organization aiming to save what they can of the English language. So it is pretty exciting at times. It makes you think about language and it's importance, and it makes you contemplate a future where we have let technology go too far- control too much of our lives.
But, for all of the fascinating concepts, this story just doesn't work well. The romance between Anana and Bart is non-existent. The action is bogged down with the execution. By that I mean, that we get all of this cool stuff happening, and in between that we get a lot of Anana waiting around and pondering things, and Bart going on diatribes about the philosophies of language. And Bart's side of the story is constantly bogged down by that hyper-intellectualism or as he succumbs to word flu, downright gibberish. It's a pain to read, either way and slows the story down measurably. The author also adds footnotes to the story. Literally. There are asterisks throughout the chapters, and at least in the Kindle edition I received, the actual notes appear at the end of the chapter. They do supply extra info that you want to read, but being at the end of a long chapter, I often forget what they were referring to and then I have to flip back and find it. That just adds a level of tediousness that wasn't necessary.
So, essentially, I thought this was interesting. I can't say I really liked it, but I did think the point the author was trying to make was a valuable one. The concept was intriguing enough that I wanted to keep reading, but the characters didn't excite me, and the author focused too much on details that seemed unnecessary to the work. The use of footnotes added to the frustration. After a long chapter, it seems almost laughable that she still couldn't cram in all of the relevant details and had to add them in after.
So, good idea, poor execution. Read it if you consider yourself a word-nerd. You may like it. If you were wanting action or sci-fi or romance...it falls short.