May 5 2014 4:00pm

Science Fiction Saves the Dictionary: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon

Hands up now if you think lexicographers and/or their visual artist daughters make great protagonists of action-packed novels. Nobody? Okay, what about a book about slimy tech-start up young-jerkface whipper-snappers who unleash a virus on the entire world because they want to make money fast; does that sound awesome?

If I’ve lost your interest in either of the above, then you’re probably not going to like the new novel The Word Exchange. But if you’re like me and the notion of dictionary lovers as heroes and smarmy new-media guys as villains sounds great to you, then this is our book of the year.

I’m going to get this out of the way right now: The Word Exchange will probably not get nominated for a Hugo or a Nebula next year, and it really should. The entire purpose of the Genre in the Mainstream column is to bring wonderful books—not being marketed and publicized as science fiction— to the attention of SF fans and readers. I’m sure SF traditionalists (who I’m not sure exist?) have sort have scoffed at my attempts to shoehorn Lemony Snicket or Miranda July into wire-racks of SF, but seriously guys, this time, I’m really, really right. This is the mainstream lit novel that truly is speculative fiction, science fiction, and just plain awesome fiction all at once.

Set in a near future New York City, The Word Exchange stars Anana, twenty-something daughter of Douglas Johnson, editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language, or NADEL as it’s abbreviated throughout the book. Anana (called Ana for short) does some work for her father at “The Dictionary,” as does her friend Bart (short for Bartleby!) But, right at the start of the novel, Ana’s father goes missing, as does any entry about him in an electronic version of a dictionary.

Ana’s recently been dumped by her old boyfriend Max, a guy with a start-up company called Hermes that’s just been acquired by a larger media mega-giant: Synchronic Inc. And it’s here where the novel introduces its true antagonist: a handy do-anything device called a “Meme.” More than an iPhone and partially a miniature computer and e-reader, everyone’s Meme is also an intuitive device. After being familiarized with its user, it can do all sorts of things for them, like calling them a cab when they’re drunk, or sharing the contact information with someone they are hitting on. Countless apps and games are incorporated into the Meme, with The Word Exchange being the early harbinger of the doom this book ends up unleashing.

In this world, tons of people have begun to actually forget the meanings of tons words, and instead rely on their Meme and The Word Exchange in order to remember what they need to know. As the book progresses, it’s revealed that Synchronic has purchased the rights to nearly all words from the various major dictionaries. Echoing the real-life drama of various publishers, the publishers here decide to give Synchronic what they want, since they figure there’s no way to actually make money off of copyrighted language. But the more and more people become reliant on Memes for their basic communication, the more words cost, and suddenly Synchronic is in charge.

Through the introduction of a device you strap to your head called The Nautilus and a new game/app called “Meaning Master,” a dangerous strain of aphasia strikes New York, which starts being referred to was “word flu.”

There’s more! So much more! But if I got into more specifics than I already have, I feel like it would ruin too much of the suspense and surprise this novel delivers. To be fair, I was initially skeptical of this novel’s premise as it seemed like a kind of mash-up between Super Sad True Love Story and The Flame Alphabet, and in a sense, it totally is. But whereas Super Sad True Love Story told a story about several SF themes (immortality, information gaps through technology) and The Flame Alphabet meditated on how language could become physically harmful, neither of the books was as realistic as The Word Exchange. This isn’t to say this books is better than those other two, because that’s just crazy and I love them all, equally, like little aphasiac children. But, if all three are a kind of science fiction, then The Word Exchange is the closest of the three to hard SF.

Graedon’s novel is rowdy with its judgment of intellectual laziness, and the author’s almost heavy-handed love of the written and printed word comes through constantly. Here, curing the illness that strikes the world is literally combated by abstract thinking and reading real books. Lexicographers and etymologists in this book become stand-ins for the medical professionals working around the clock in big-deal “outbreak” stories. But this book is never preachy in a way something else—like say 1984—might be. Instead, Graedon doesn’t really rely so much on metaphor as she does on excellent speculation. I’m convinced by The Word Exchange that not only could all of this happen, but that it maybe, in fact, is.

Fittingly or not, I read the entirety of this novel on my E-reader, and as Bart’s words on the page literally became slurred and his aphasia bled into the novel itself, I too found myself a little dizzy with “word flu.” And when I finished the last page of the novel, I felt epically creeped-out by the fact that I couldn’t actually slam its cover.

Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to and the creator of the Genre in the Mainstream column. His favorite Internet video-thing is easily the “Ask the Editor” series from Merriam-Webster.

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Dean B.
1. Dean B.
Reminds me of Emily Arsenault's terrific mystery, "The Broken Teaglass."
J. Akimatsu
2. DesertLorelei
This sounds fascinating, and I'll be sure to add it to my to-read list! Thanks for the great review.
Dean B.
3. John Kwok
Sorry Ryan, but I am going to disagree respectfully here. IMHO "The Word Exchange" is a pale reflection of William Gibson and Gary Shteyngart's "Super Sad True Love Story". Graedon's conception of the internet is suprisingly rather rudimentary in comparison with, for example, Gibson's "Cyberspace" trilogy ("Neuromancer", "Count Zero", "Mona Lisa Overdrive") or his later fiction, or even Shteyngart's "Super Sad True Love Story". (Speaking of which, I have to credit Gary for conceiving as the "apparat", a device that is far more sophisticated than Graedon's "meme" in storing, analyzing and extracting information. I also think she could have been more creative in naming her device, rather than borrowing Richard Dawkins' term for it.) IMHO "The Word Exchange" shouldn't be considered for the Nebula or Hugo Awards, nor should Graedon be considered for the John W. Campbell Award. Far more compelling debut novels are Monica Byrne's "The Girl in the Road" and Emma Itarana's "Memory of Water", which have far more compelling plots and characters and even more graceful language than does "The Word Exchange"; both are excellent examples of debut speculative fiction that could have been written during the height of the Anglo-American "New Wave" literary movement in speculative fiction. If any debut novels should deserve Hugo and Nebula nominations, it should be theirs, not Graedon's.
Lis Riba
4. lisriba
I also just finished Word Exchange (and also on an ereader) and would recommend it.
...with the caveat that the book has two different narrators. I almost bounced off the second chapter because I so disliked the second protagonist's voice. However, his tone improves greatly in later chapters, so don't let it put you off.
Dean B.
5. John Kwok
Having finished reading both Monica Byrne's "The Girl in the Road" and Emmi Itarana's "Memory of Water", Alena Graedon's "The Word Exchange'"pales in comparison with those with regards to plot, character development, story telling and prose. I also find fault with Graedon's concept of "word viruses" which are medically impossible. If she had written a fantasy novel, I might have withheld judgement. However, she has written a near future alternate history post-cyberpunk science fiction novel, and any reader familiar with the epidemiology of viruses would understand my objection, especially since I have worked in epidemiological research pertaining to diseases caused by viruses. It is medically impossible for people to contract "word viruses" or have them spread in the manner that Graedon descries in "The Word Exchange". What she has written is a very poor fictional addition in aiding public understanding of science as it pertains to the epidemiology of the origin and spread of viruses.
Hannah Mattner
6. Maelenna
I picked it up in hard copy because it had a pretty cover and cool blurb (I know, don't judge and all that...), then fell into it, like Alice down the rabbit hole.
My sympathies for (and a few chuckles at) everyone who read this on an e-reader. Every few chapters I realised just how glad I was that I'd found it in hard copy and not on an e-book store - reading it on any device would feel so inappropriate. And I say this despite being a keen reader of e-books and working in tech.
Thanks for the review, Ryan - I've been sending friends the blurb, but I'll use your review to recommend it from now on.

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