Published by Doubleday on April 8, 2014
Genres: Science Fiction
Source: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration.
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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.
Set in the near future, The Word Exchange takes place in a world where print is almost extinct and people can biologically interface with smartphone-like devices called Memes. Anana is searching for her missing father, following a single clue he left behind. She follows a trail which uncovers a secret society and the true intentions of the corporation behind the Meme, all while the English language begins to decay thanks to a “word flu” pandemic.
The way the technology worked and how the word flu spread make me skeptical. I’m not sure if I felt like details were too scarce, if the details weren’t consistent enough, or if I wanted things to be more grounded in reality. Also, the characters seemed flat and one-dimensional. During what should have been signification moments of interaction between characters, I didn’t feel anything for them at all; it felt like filler. Some more background would probably have helped me connect with them.
I did enjoy the way Graedon uses (and tinkers with) language throughout the novel. I wondered if the story would eventually dissolve into gibberish at some point. The premise behind this dystopian world is what kept me turning the pages, and that is what kept me wanting to read more. When it was all over, though, that wasn’t enough to make me feel like I loved this book.
Side note: I’d like to mention that I was thrilled with how Knopf Doubleday handled the footnotes in the e-book version. It was great to never have to leave the page I was currently reading: when I tapped on a footnote’s number, the note was displayed in a small pop-up frame. (I’m not sure if this will be true across all devices, but that’s how the epub worked on my Nook.)
Even though this one fell flat for me…Whatever the future brings when it comes to technology, The Word Exchange will certainly come to mind!