This book caused me quite a bit of trouble, ironically (I discovered upon reading it) because I kept misremembering and misreading the title as world exchange instead of word. I finally figured it out (actually, I went through the process of trying to remember the title a couple of times, two of them involving other librarians) and set about reading it.
The Word Exchange is a novel about the future, it’s a dystopia set in a world not far off from our own. In that world, devices reminiscent of today’s smartphones basically run people’s lives (predominately Americans, but other countries as well). These devices, called Memes, do everything smartphones do for us today — and then some. They can basically figure out what it is we need at any given moment, from directions to music to clothing. But, at the same time, they’re slowly replacing that which makes us who we are — our brains.
Of course, the majority of the characters in Graedon’s novel don’t realize this. How can they? They’re so attached (addicted) to their Memes that they don’t realize something’s gone wrong until it’s too late. The Word Exchange takes place right before the word flu strikes and society (at least temporarily) collapses.
The novel is told in the format of a transcript, complete with letters. Anana is writing her recollections of the events surrounding the word flu pandemic. Her chapters are separated by journal entries from a friend of her and her father, Bart. There’s some romance, Anana’s ex-boyfriend Max is partially responsible for the word flu’s spread, if not it’s creation. Bart himself is tangled up in the mess of the word flu and Max (they were friends, of a sort).
Each chapter is a letter and below the letter is a word beginning with that’s letter, followed by a definition. Anana, her father Doug, and Bart all work for something called The Dictionary. This is something similar to the OED, but in North America. Anana’s father is in charge of the rewrites for the 3rd edition. One day, not long after Max leaves Anana, she and her father are set to have dinner when he fails to show up. This sets in motion events that will change Anana’s life, at that of her family, friends and the whole of the globe.
Of course, Anana, like the readers, is unaware of what’s happening. But, of course, because the story we’re reading is Anana’s recollections, we also get the benefit of her hindsight. She intersperses her story with insight (explaining things that she won’t know until later, among other things) that moves the story along in a very interesting way.
Both Bart and Anana catch the word flu, though the severity of their diseases vary. It’s through the disease, the word flu, that Graedon’s story is most effective. Anana recalls a moment on the train with her father when he uses what she calls an ‘obscure’ word and she pulls out her Meme (discretely, as her father doesn’t like them) which supplies her with the definition. And thus begins what I find to be quite terrifying.
You see, one of the ways the Memes worm their ways into the lives of the characters is by remembering things, remembering words, for us. You’ve been there. You’re staring at something (in the novel, it’s a fork, in real life it’s an armchair, a pen, a notebook, a lamp, anything ordinary) and suddenly you can’t remember the word for it. You know what it is, but you can’t come up with it. It’s happened to all of us. I blame our reliance on technology, the same way that Doug (Anana’s father) does with the Meme.
It’s through these devices, the Memes and others, that the virus spreads. The details of the virus, the impact it has on people and the delivery mechanisms, those are all for you to discover when you read the book. There are, of course, bigger things at plan that just addiction to Memes and the fears of Doug and eventually Anana, too. But, really, at the heart of the novel is the importance of communication — what happens when we’re cut off? — and the written word — how do we communicate when you cannot speak?
Books, magazines, reading and writing, conversation and debate, all of these are important to the characters in the novel. But, really, I think that Graedon is trying to get across the idea that these are also important to us, today. Others may disagree, but I never really felt like she was trying to hit us over the head with the idea that these “ancient” technologies are any less important today than they were when, say, printing was invented. Perhaps some thing she’s being heavy handed, but I felt that wasn’t the case. If anything, it made me want to put down my phone and read more books.
So, if you’re looking for something that’s not quite science fiction, but not quite fiction, either. This straddles that boundary in an excellent fashion. It might slow to start, but it’s well worth the effort. And while the conclusion is rather open ended (I could see a sequel), I rather liked it’s conclusions (or lackthereof).