The Word Exchange

By Alena Graedon

If it’s true that science fiction projects present-day anxieties into the future, then the closer those projections are to the present the more acute we might expect the sense of nervousness to be.

Alena Graedon’s debut novel is a very nervous book set in the near future, and addresses a concern shared by many over the impact of the digital revolution. As the question is popularly expressed: Is the Internet making us stupid?

The short answer offered by The Word Exchange is Yes.

Our young heroine, Anana Johnson, gets bored after a couple of minutes of reading, and she’s considered a rather bright light. It seems that as our machines have gotten smarter, we have become duller and more dependent, “our capacity for language – and perhaps, then, thought – becoming so seriously compromised that even scanning headlines, telling bedtime stories, greeting family . . . have become tasks requiring help from a device.”

That “device” is the key. In Graedon’s vision of the future, instead of reading books, watching television, or even surfing the Internet, people browse streams of data sent to them directly by personal communication devices, the latest generation of which takes the form of an implant that bonds directly with users’ own neural networks.

It’s the kind of thing guaranteed to stick your head in a cloud, and while it may sound like cybertopia to some, things really go to hell when the devices (known as “Memes”) are infected with a sinister language virus or “word flu” that leaves its victims stricken with a high-tech form of aphasia that threatens to send us all back to Babel. Before long even the brainiest of word nerds are sounding like Alex and his Nadsat-spouting droogs in A Clockwork Orange and civilization is heading into meltdown. Only the deaf and the Amish are safe, at least for a while.

The Resistance to the new verbal anarchy is led by a Diachronic Society made up of a real rogues gallery of “former booksellers and librarians; teachers; writers, editors, and agents; publishers and publicists; lexicographers and linguists . . . translators and poets, critics and readers” and even “devotees of old zines.” Look out, Google!

Much like Peter Norman’s recently published fantasy Emberton, a sharp line is drawn between the old world of print and the new digital dispensation. As in Emberton, the hero of The Word Exchange is employed at the moribund head office of a dictionary, which is about as old school as it gets. Anana is there because her father is one of the dictionary’s lead editors, but she has a foot – and a love interest – in both worlds: ex-boyfriend Max is a tech start-up wizard while promising newcomer Bartleby is a humble lexicographer.

You can guess who has the inside track to getting lucky.

Readers will recognize just from this outline traces of many other books, from Emberton to Stephen King’s Cell and Tony Burgess’s language-virus classic Pontypool Changes Everything. These echoes only highlight how deep a cultural anxiety Graedon is addressing. Anana is not alone in seeing something end-of-the-worldish in the war on the word:

As more and more of our actions are mediated by machines . . . there’s no telling what will happen, not only to language but in some sense to civilization. The end of words would mean the end of memory and thought. In other words, our past and future.

“It may seem to some,” she acknowledges, “that the dystopian future we’re imagining is exaggerated or, at the very least, a long way off. We can only hope, for all our sakes, that they’re right.”

The Diachronic Society have pills for the word flu, but the best antidote may be a return to old-fashioned, slow reading. This is, of course, a self-serving position for a novelist to take, but one still worth heeding in our diseased time.

Review first published in the Toronto Star April 11, 2014.

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