Wow! Occasionally, as a reader we come across something truly original, something extraordinary. The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon is just that. I will admit that it was a bit of a slow start for me and at the beginning of summer when things are busy I didn't have the time to devote to it that I had wished. Once I was able to really sink my teeth into it, I was hooked.
Sometime in the not too distant future we have become dependent upon our personal electronic devises, known as Memes in Graedon's novel. Memes are our phones, our contact lists, they order our groceries and hail our taxis. More than that, they are an extension of our memories, remembering things and people for us. Some people have taken it a step further and had a microchip implanted in their brains and the newest upgrade is a device that attaches directly to one's forehead that interacts with one's brain function, supplying a constant stream of information ranging from the current temperature to the names of the other people in the room. It even serves to replay memories complete with sounds, tastes and smells. As we have become more and more digitized, print has neared extinction. Newspapers no longer exist, books are a rarity and libraries have become private museums. One character said this: "And I tried, for about two minutes, to read a book, until my mind collapsed in boredom." Adding irony to it all, I read this on my Kindle so each time a character mentioned how unusual reading from books had become, I felt slightly chastened.
As people have continued to use their Memes to communicate, play games and conduct business, it seems their intellectual capabilities have weakened. "Our facility for refection has dimmed, taking with it our skill for deep and unfettered thinking." The Word Exchange is actually the way people look up the definitions on their Memes as they have increasingly forgotten their meanings. Each definition has a cost of course. "Suffice it to say that as our idiom shrinks, the Word Exchange has become far more lucrative." One of the features I like about my Kindle is the option to look up any words I don't know. Graedon intentionally included many obscure words and I found myself clicking define often. See if you recognize any of these:
discrete (no, not discreet)
That's quite a list, isn't it?
Unfortunately for the users of this technology, a virus is being spread only it isn't your typical computer virus. This one, called the Word Flu, involves code fusing with your DNA. Symptoms include fever, nausea, muscle aches and aphasia- the inability to speak coherently. Victims usually don't realize their speech has altered and it is spread simply by hearing an infected person speak even over the phone or the television. The word flu can be fatal, but even those who survive are rendered mute. And who is responsible for this? Hackers? A nefarious corporation hoping to capitalize on society's Meme addictions? The conspiracy theories abound and add to the excitement.
I really enjoyed this book. It was brilliantly conceived and expertly executed. It was not an easy read, my brain was certainly stretched, but as made clear by the plot that is a good thing. This is exactly the kind of book that I wish had been a book club selection because I would love to have a nice long discussion about it. There are so many interesting points that it deserves thorough analysis. If you read it, let me know. I would really love to discuss it with you!