Continuing on in my quest for books that I lost track of during my early days on NetGalley, we come to one of the few books on the list I remember requesting–and being very irritated when I’d found I’d run out of time for it. That was about all I remembered about it. Reading the blurb brought back basic memories of why I would have requested it, but all in all, I was excited.
I got way more than I bargained for with this one.
The book is told in alternating perspectives: half in the voice of Anana Johnson–more commonly called “Alice” throughout the book–who is the daughter of one of the more prominent people working at the North American Dictionary of the English Language (or NADEL for short). The other half is one of Anana’s colleagues at NADEL, Bart Tate. The world has become almost completely digital, the era of “print media” all but completely eliminated. Doug, Ana’s father, is staunchly against the tech-takeover, and is in the process of publishing what will be the final edition of the NADEL print dictionary–when he suddenly goes missing, leaving only the name ALICE as a clue: his code for a situation where something bad has fallen on him. And as this “Alice” takes her trip down the rabbit hole, a “word flu” begins to infect the population and suddenly, something as solid as the definition of words is more influx than should be possible…
The creation of the world itself is fascinating. Memes–which have replaced cell phones and are infinitely more useful/terrifying–remind me a great deal of the tech hinted at in the movie Her, which was equally fascinating and terrifying. The Meme can determine how you’re feeling, reorder groceries for you, answer emails and phone calls, play music, schedule appointments… In many ways, it’s kind of the Internet of Things, or Amazon’s Alexa, all made into your phone–and pretty much everything else. And on the Meme we have the Word Exchange, a quick way to check the meaning of a more obscure word you hear in everyday life for a pittance of a cost to the company. But the more people begin to rely on the Exchange and their Memes for information, the less they let themselves think on their own…which leads into the edges of the word flu.
I love the name Meme. I just have to put that first. It’s brilliant. Because in many ways, we’re heading down this route already. There are some frightening correlations to popular culture, which makes it a very clever commentary on reliance on technology and the “death” of the printed book. (I’ve already stated my arguments on that, so I shan’t repeat myself.) The actual conveyance of the “word flu” is fascinating, and I found myself comparing it to Nadsat, as if we were watching the world fall into what would become the setting of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. (And, I’ll note, they used the term “droog” once, which made me insufferably happy.) It never becomes impossible to read, though eventually the aphasia does claim the coherency of some of the characters, and it’s fun to try and piece together the bits we’re missing.
I also got a few callbacks to my read-through of Tony Noland’s VERBOSITY’S VENGEANCE (and had my own feeling of needing the Word Exchange) with some of the vocabulary. Despite the fact that I often find myself with a larger vocabulary than many of my peers, this one stretched me to the limits of my knowledge on occasion. I’ve seen a few reviews comment that the thesaurus-grabbing element of this kind of writing comes off as pretentious and hokey, but given that all our narrators work–literally–for a dictionary, I don’t see any issue with it. Bart routinely quotes people I’ve never heard of. These people know all the words. ALL the words. And I bet they use most of them.
It ended about the way I expected it to, but as I hope for in any book, I was invested enough in the characters and just uncertain enough about the outcome to keep me turning pages until the end. (And besides, I HAD to find out how Bart’s storyline concluded. I had to. And it ended exactly as I really wanted. I have every hope for him, in every regard.)
I do find Ana’s apparent complete lack of knowledge of who Charles Dodgson is a little astounding, given the prevalence of Alice in Wonderland references, but given how late in the book this takes place, I’m willing to give her a bit of the benefit of the doubt with all she’s been through. But still.
In the end, a very smart and highly enjoyable book, and a very clever dig at all of us in turn. I love books that make me think. And this does just that.
Rating: **** (Recommended)