Excellent premise; flawed execution
For as long as I can remember, the dark side of technology is the fear that it distances us from what is supposed to be real life. As kids, we were constantly being told to quit watching TV and go outside and play. The arrival of personal computing ratcheted up this techno-anxiety and now, with smartphones, texting, Twitter and the advent of wearable computers, the warnings of a techno-apocalypse are frequently heard.
The Word Exchange imagines that in just a decade or so, we will all have a Meme, a sort of super smartphone/ereader/wearable computer that taps into our neural networks to provide a word we're reaching for, call a cab when we enter the elevator to go down to the street, order us takeout Chinese food, make the pedestrian crosswalk signal go on, dial a friend we're thinking of, and make recommendations and suggestions throughout the day. Synchronic Corporation, maker of the Meme, has branched into monitoring and facilitating applications for every part of life, from caregiving to teaching, to security, to medicine and more.
With reading actual books now an anachronism, our young woman protagonist Anana's father Doug's beloved North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL) will quit print publishing when its just-completed third edition ships. The International Diachronic Society warns against the abandonment of the book and the rising power of Synchronic Corporation and its products, but the Society's warnings go largely unheeded.
Doug has always been a little absent-minded and unreliable, but when he doesn't show up for a scheduled dinner with Anana, she knows something is wrong. Her feeling is confirmed by messages Doug has left for her, a meeting with Doug's mysterious friend, Professor Thwaite, and a frightening encounter in the bowels of NADEL's building. Anana and her NADEL friend, Bart, set off on a quest to find Doug and find a cure for the "word flu" epidemic, which causes a bizarre form of aphasia, fever and even death, and threatens to topple all of civilization.
Much as I enjoy books about books and language, and I loved The Word Exchange's premise, characters and ambitious scope, it lacked the storytelling magic of other books with similar themes, such as Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, and Max Barry's Lexicon. One serious problem I had with the book is that the action often comes to a screeching halt and there are pages of info-dump exposition.
The battle between the plucky band of language lovers against the evil corporate Synchronic people was unoriginal, and the anti-technology messaging heavy-handed. I'm no fan of Twitter, for example, but I think it's going a bit far to lecture that streaming out messages of the minutiae of our lives is antithetical to reading, thinking and essentially a thread to civilization.
If Graedon works on toning down the preaching and learns to make her world building an organic part of the story, then I think she has the imagination and ambition to be a successful novelist. So, while this was a mixed reading experience for me, I'm sure I'll want to read her next book.
Note: Thanks to the publisher, Doubleday, and Edelweiss for providing an e-galley of the book for review.