Title: The Word Exchange
Author: Alena Graedon
Rating: 2.5 Stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Length: 384 pages
Verdict: The Word Exchange has a wonderful premise with a less-than-wonderful execution, hindered by overly pretentious characters.
Synopsis: Twenty-something Anana Johnson’s life is like most people her age: she works for her father at the North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL), is more addicted to her Meme (an evolved smart phone that can do things like call cabs, order food when we’re hungry, or remind us of words without us telling it to do so) than her father is comfortable with, and is trying to get over a recent break-up with her former boyfriend, Max.
In this near future, the Meme has all but replaced the printed word. Words themselves have been commodified on the Word Exchange, which address that tip-of-the-tongue sensation by providing the word you’ve forgotten for a small fee. Our technology is smarter than ever, and there are rumors of a new device on the way: the Nautilus, which will be even more connected to our brains than ever before.
Of course, there are some people who opt out of all this technology, such as Anana’s father, Doug. Editor of NADEL, anti-meme, and a member of the Diachronic Society. NADEL is one of the last dictionaries to hold out against being purchased by Synchronic for use on the Word Exchange.
Shortly before the publication of the 3rd Edition of NADEL, Doug disappears, leaving only a few obscure clues before, including a code name for Ana he said he’d use if he was in trouble. To make things worse, something called Word Flu is springing up among Meme users–people are replacing common words with nonsense words without even realizing it.
The Word Exchange is an example of a book with such an amazing premise–words, dictionaries, books, technology, the WORD FLU. It’s like the book was written for me. However, what the book has in a great premise falls flat on actual delivery. I really had to push myself to get through The Word Exchange. In fact, if there wasn’t the promise that the Oxford English Dictionary was going to be involved somehow at the end, I probably would have given up. (My love for the OED is deep and lasting, what can I say?)
Of course, there were some parts of The Word Exchange that I enjoyed. The story is told from two points-of-view, Ana’s and Bart’s (her father’s protegee who harbors a crush on Ana). Ana’s chapters were more interesting to me. She was easier to relate to and had a more convincing character voice, especially when she was talking about her relationship with her father, who was another great character. The near-future world Graedon builds is really interesting. And, once the Word Flu storyline finally started moving, I found the story and the fear of a virus that can spread through language equal parts fascinating and terrifying. Also, Graedon obviously dedicated a lot of thought to word choice and stylistics, and when it works, the writing is great. When it doesn’t, it feels a bit like the author spent a bit too much time flipping through the thesaurus.
However, I really, really, really struggled with Bart’s chapters. He was a completely insufferable and snobbish. Also, I don’t care about Hegel. I just don’t. The first half of his chapters were like a combined unrequited love letter to Ana and Hegel written in the worst academic prose possible, and the second half were a struggle because Bart gets a bad case of the word flu and you can hardly tell what he is trying to write.
Overall, The Word Exchange is built on some really intriguing concepts, but it missed a lot of opportunities to be great. The story does get better in the second half of the book, earning it a solid 2.5 star rating.
I received an advanced copy of The Word Exchange from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.