Thriller about the dictionary (!) aims high and falls just short

The Word Exchange, Alena Graedon (Random House, 2014)

In the not-so-distant future nearly everyone owns a Meme, a sort of supercharged iPhone that can access information not only across the Internet but inside your brain. It knows to call a cab when you get in the elevator to head home from work. It can order for you at restaurants, anticipating what you will want to eat, bypassing the need for waiters and waitresses and their forced chumminess. And it can provide you with all the entertainment you could ever want, from videos (“streams”) to art (“glyphs”) to books.

In fact, so successful are Memes at running their owners’ lives, the need for the printed word is all but gone. Newspapers, magazines, and books have all gone online, the better to be accessed by Meme, and dictionaries have been superseded by The Word Exchange, an online program that instantly pops up definitions on the Meme’s screen when it hears a word spoken in your conversations that you don’t recognize. It’s so quick and easy to look up what you don’t know — phone numbers, song titles, word definitions — that people stop bothering to remember … well, anything. So what happens when a virus spreads a sort of “word flu” inside the Meme operating system that leaves people unable to think straight, speak coherently or use language at all?

That’s the premise of The Word Exchange, a book that has a big, exciting premise and lots of small successes but fails to completely pull together into a satisfying whole. The story is told almost entirely from the point of view of Anana, who works with her father, Doug, the editor of the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL). The edition that is about to be printed will be the last printed dictionary on earth and when Doug disappears just prior to the big launch, Anana suspects something sinister might have happened to him. But who could be behind his disappearance? Who wants to suppress the NADEL’s publication? What is going on in the boiler room in the dictionary’s basement? And why are Anana and lots of other people suddenly unable to remember even the simplest vocabulary as she searches for answers?

Along with the suspenseful aspects of the plot (“a thriller about the dictionary” is how I described it to my friend Liz), Graedon provides long swatches of conversation and musings by Anana and co-worker Bart on the meaning of language and words. A fair bit of it went over my head, since I was sick the day we covered philosophy in school (ahem), but I got enough of the gist to appreciate what might be at stake in a world where printed words no longer exist. If there’s no authoritative source to prove what a word means (given that online definitions can be altered in the blink of an eye), who gets to write the definitions? And what if the people in charge don’t have the most noble intentions?

I wanted to love this book more than I did, although I liked it plenty. It felt as though Graedon expended so much energy and space on both the background of how Memes became so ubiquitous and the philosophy of language that the actual day-to-day plot got shoved to the side at times. The big reveal of the bad guys was a bit anticlimactic.

It felt as if The Word Exchange wanted to be two different books — a suspenseful mystery and a love letter to language and the written word — and in the end both suffered a bit for being crammed into the same suitcase. I still think it’s well worth reading, however, for the ways it will make you think about how much you’ve ceded your memory to your computer and smartphone, and how much you love the way language can communicate the human experience in all its glory and despair.


It’s the end of the world as we know it, and ‘Countdown City’ feels fine

Countdown City, Ben H. Winters (Quirk Books, 2013)

Hank Palace is back in the second book in the “Last Policeman” series. Hank is no longer a cop, after his homicide unit was disbanded at the end of the first book, The Last Policeman. Indeed, the police aren’t doing much of anything anymore, just biding their time like everyone else until an asteroid strikes the earth and destroys civilization as we know it. As the time grows nearer, people become increasingly unnerved and unpredictable, most governmental services are just a memory, and informal barter sites have sprung up to help people get the things they need to survive until the end.

That’s the situation Palace is living in when he answers a plea from his former babysitter to find her missing husband. No one he talks to can understand why he’s bothering. It’s not his job anymore, and anyway people are going “Bucket List” all the time these days, as impending disaster causes them to rethink their lives and cut to the chase of what’s really important to them. But then again, what else is there for Palace to do while he waits with everyone else for the imminent end of the world?

Palace has a quality that reminds me of Lawrence Block’s great noir series character, Matthew Scudder. Neither of them are brilliant analytical minds or geniuses at reading clues. But each has a bulldog tenacity that will not allow them to give up until they find the answers they are looking for. That stubborness leads Palace — and his bichon frise, Houdini — to a possibly mob-connected pizza/bowling joint, a commune established on the former campus of the University of New Hampshire, and an abandoned fort on the Maine coast. Every time he thinks he’s getting closer to find the answer, he realizes he’s asking the wrong question.

I found Countdown City a reasonably compelling read. As I did with the first book, I found the psychological impact of an impending asteroid strike irritatingly underdeveloped. Winters’ characters are well-drawn and interesting, and I found much to admire in Hank and his dogged insistence on doing what’s right even when no one else seems to care anymore. This one ends not with a cliffhanger but with a plot development that promises some interesting possibilities for the third book, which I look forward to reading when it comes out.

Chaos Walking trilogy: ‘The Knife of Never Letting Go’, ‘The Ask and the Answer’, ‘Monsters of Men’

This young-adult trilogy is set on the planet New World, where settlers from Old World (presumably Earth) headed looking for a new start after ruining their original home. The initial landing went badly, resulting in a native species of intelligent beings (known as the Spackle) being slaughtered and then subdued as slaves, all the men being infected with a virus that makes every inner thought audible to everyone (the Noise), and all the women being killed in one of the original settlements, Prentisstown.

Out of Prentisstown comes Todd, a young teen who is forced to flee when the mayor, who is plotting a war to take over the planet, turns against him. He soon meets up with young Viola, a girl who crash-landed with a scout ship from an incoming group of new settlers. Todd and Viola travel across the planet to try to warn the incoming settlers before Mayor Prentiss can start his war. Along the way, they encounter other settlers from other towns, including a renowned woman healer who sets herself up as the leader of an armed resistance to now-President Prentiss.

I thought this trilogy (plus The New World, the very slight short story that showcases Viola’s life on the scout ship just before it lands) was really well done. The writing is certainly on a young-adult level (sensible since all three novels are narrated in turns by Todd and Viola), but the themes that it tackles are far from simplistic: What is war? Is it ever OK to kill someone? Do the ends ever justify the means? Is it possible to do the wrong thing for the right reasons? Is redemption ever really possible? Time and again I braced myself for a pat answer, and time and again I was pleasantly surprised. Ness takes pains to present the good and bad sides of both heroes and villains, to the point where readers will find themselves questioning which is which.

Partway through the series, I expressed the opinion that this is a better YA trilogy than The Hunger Games. After finishing the third book, I stand by that opinion. While I enjoyed both series quite a bit, I think Ness does a better job of presenting and exploring the larger themes that lie behind the narrative.