The Word Exchange is a kind of science-fiction crossover novel in the usually-male “techno-modernist” vein, and very interesting. It’s a first novel, and those tend to have a sort of “first novel” feel, for the most part. I was expecting something like The Year of the Gadfly, which I’d liked a lot—examining the mystery of a secret society that takes it upon itself to punish people publicly for their sins. It takes place in a high school, so the stakes are never very high, but the idea itself was elaborated very nicely. It probably helps that though it’s Jennifer Miller’s first novel, it’s not her first book. Alena Graedon’s The Word Exchange is a bit more ambitious than Miller’s novel is, but in many ways it’s not as satisfying. I could say this is because it’s more “arty” or “literary” than The Year of the Gadfly is, so it doesn’t offer the same “quick and easy” satisfactions, but I really think it’s primarily because it’s very much a first novel. Secondarily, maybe, because it doesn’t tie the two sides of the crossover equation as tightly together as they needed to be.
The Word Exchange comes close to something like Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet (in which a community is terrified of catching an illness from their children’s speech) in its interest in the nature of language and of linguistic change, and how language both reflects and affects the society that uses it. It takes place in a near future in which everyone is nearly umbilically connected to their devices. The narrator, Ana, works for the publishers of a printed dictionary, which her father edits. But printed dictionaries are becoming dinosaurs. Everybody except for a few old fogies uses the advertising-enabled dictionaries on their devices. The opening of the book focuses on the elder generation’s dislike of this development, and in particular, on the way young people no longer think when they want to recall a word. Instead, they look it up—or rather, they rely on their devices’ predictive technology to tell them what they want. An app called “the Word Exchange” lets them pay micro-amounts of cash in order to have definitions uploaded to their devices—in essence, to have ideas uploaded to themselves.
Worse, in those elders’ opinions, “to themselves” soon will be quite literal. New technologies (involving electronics, as well as drugs) are permitting devices to be permanently implanted onto users’ central nervous systems. The narrator’s boyfriend—a jerk, with whom she’d broken up just before the beginning of the story—is a founder of a company promoting this new technology.
Even worse, Ana soon finds out that the dictionary’s being sabotaged, because someone from the new, high-tech company has infiltrated her father’s.
There’s a not-bad triangle where Ana becomes involved with a male protégé of her dad’s. I thought his character was nicely drawn, and better than her mostly twee-ish character is. But the primary interest in the story is in the futuristic setting: the world-building, the implications, the speculations about language. I did not entirely like the ending, which seemed a little like a cop-out, as the world becomes post-apocalyptic and only a small remnant (including, fortunately, Ana and her loved ones) survive (somewhat nostalgically and even, astonishingly, complacently) to preserve old culture for the aftermath of the chaos. I also didn’t feel the novel made strong connections between the trigger for the disaster—the overuse of devices like the ones we have so many of today—and the disaster’s specific nature—the questions about delegation of mental energies, and so on. Furthermore, the insertion of a sinister alliance between the techies and infiltrating foreign operators was really too much.
But those are minor objections. It’s the ideas and the way they’re transformed into details of a world that makes the novel a serious one, something that feels like a novel for grown-ups, something that gets reviewed in the New York Times—and that’s not nothing. Graedon does this very well.