This technological thriller is the kind of book that is written to terrify you into not wanting to so much as glance at your smart phone, lest it attack. AKA, the PERFECT kind of book to be reading on your Kindle late at night; AKA the book my 5th-grade-teaching, technophobe, grammarian grandmother would have agreed with 5000%.
It’s a book that takes a serious look at the dependency of people on technology and one of the (oh so numerous ways) that can come back to haunt us, all while being entertaining, erudite, mysterious, and scary as hell.
When her father, Doug – the editor of the New American English Dictionary, one of the last remaining actively cultivated and printed (both paper and digital versions) dictionaries in the world- mysteriously disappears a few days before the Dictionary’s latest edition is set to be published (to much fanfare) – Anana – this book’s own Alice – has no idea what awaits her on her own disorienting trip towards The Looking Glass.
Anana (rhymes with banana) already leads a pretty disconnected life – she works closely with her father, but has recently broken up with her long-term boyfriend Max, and most of her other social connections now seem draining or superfluous. She’s even been avoiding her mother – afraid of her commentary on the break-up and having to ‘brave-face’ her way through it. So she’s completely unprepared for the trials that she faces once her father is missing: Namely, the Dictionary is suddenly purchased – and put out of business – by the creators of its archenemy, The Word Exchange – a ‘digital word depository’ and resource, which charges for definitions, spellings, origins, etc. Suddenly there are people following her; her father’s assistant, Bart, to help ponder clues with; pneumatic tubes delivering mysterious papers; actual book burnings; secret codes and hush-hush meetings; and a strange virus that keeps popping up in unexpected & unwanted places.
There are hints along the way – the format of the book, for example: Divided into alphabetically arranged chapters, each beginning with a dictionary definition, some containing long lists of footnotes – that the story is more than it seems to be as it is first unfolding. Even though the character is speaking as if the action is happening now, she adds her own reflections – or journal entries where appropriate – so there’s a bit of foreshadowing. And, so, when the word ‘pandemic’ is first mentioned, the reader dares not take it lightly.
Symptoms of this ‘Word Flu’ (as it comes to be known) include those associated with regular flu – nausea, fever, headache, vomiting, weakness, body aches. But what makes it different from the usual flu is its first symptom, aphasia – a kind of speechlessness. Only, instead of being lost for words, victims just insert any old word, or, more likely, any random combination of letters in place of real words, most often without even knowing they were doing it. So an average spoken sentence could read like this “And despite the disbelief he’d eks when I said yes, just saying the word yong me feel stronger, tyen” Not the easiest of texts to comprehend.
This was really my only criticism of the book: Although the author had to include conversations with the sick, it’s a fine line between portraying the disorientation of the aphasia (for the listener) while still making the text readable. I did think she sometimes went a bit too far…For the literacy of the story, I felt that a little of the confusion (like an accent, for example) written into text goes a long way.
But, at first, no one knows where this Word Flu is coming from – or almost no one, anyways. Maybe Anana’s father wasn’t simply being anachronistic when he insisted on staying analog while most of the world went digital (and, in this context, even e-mail is considered anachronistic). Maybe he was being prescient, rather than paranoid when he raved about how having instant access to facts (basically ALL of the facts, ever) wasn’t making people smarter, but stupider: leaving them with an inability to process, think about, engage with, or recall any of the information once it was outside of the tech’s window. His insistence that The Meme (the main piece of technology at the book’s open) narrows users’ ability to think or focus; creates a real loss of basic communication skills & deepens a dependency on the Word Exchange (at high mental & financial cost) suddenly seems all too realistic.
The Meme, and the surrounding technology that arose with it, changed everything – it’s a smart-phone descendent, let’s say, only if smart phones suddenly mated with super computers and bioengineering and also learned how to read minds & create art. Just a few of the things that were revolutionized by the Meme’s introduction (and adaptation) include communication (not just how you communicate, but with who, and what is being said); safety (tracking); shopping; education (substitute virtual teachers on call 24/7); transportation; medical services (Diagnoses & treatments, up to & including sending you a prescription); sleeping (it’ll lull you, using your own brain waves to measure when you need to it to) and so much more. Including, in the latest release, the ability to cause physical pain or calm you, create elation or dispense a paralytic – all because the newest version of the tech (called the Nautilus) is biologically integrated and can connect directly to your brain. Oh, wait – not just connect to – change the pathways IN – your brain.
Who thinks this is a good idea, again? Lots of people, apparently, including Anana’s ex-boyfriend Max. He’s one of the people behind some of these latest ‘advances’, and now I’m going to take a minute out of this lovely review to explain to you how much I hate him. To be fair, I don’t think the author wants me to hate him as much as I do – especially towards the end of the book, when she tried to show that there (were/may have been) some redeeming qualities to the creep; But from his very first mention, all I wanted was for him to disappear. He’s the kind of boyfriend that I promise you’ve either had yourself or know someone who’s had – the outwardly charming ass-hat who’s constantly ‘just teasing’ at the expensive of the person they’re supposed to care about or the people they’re with; the kind of guy who convinces you really hate your favorite type of food or tells you, ‘for your own good’ that maybe you don’t need the extra calories, simply so that he may have it all to himself. Bad tipper; backhanded compliment-giver. Just smarm wrapped up in a nice suit.
Needless to say, I was not a fan.
Of course, creepiness & ex-boyfriend hating aside, there could be many plus sides to this kind of advanced tech – I was particularly interested in the ways the Meme changed medical treatments, most specifically mental health diagnoses and treatments – but, as the book goes on, Anana – and the reader – become more aware of the negatives (or potential negatives) of living in a world where everything has shifted to some involvement with technology. Eventually, throughout her investigation into her father’s disappearance and the Diachronic Society (an anti-Meme group that includes many of her fathers co-workers) she comes to realize that she – and most of the country – have become overly dependent on the tech for everything from doctors to directions, rankings to recipes, banking and bedtime stories.
By then she (and I) felt entirely creeped out by how overwhelmingly the Meme had integrated itself into their lives: “Only later did I feel truly horrified that for years I’d invited something to eavesdrop on me.”
Enter the Nautilus: As heuristic a device as mankind has ever created, and things go downhill pretty quickly from there. Here we are, all thinking that it’s the Zombies we’re going to have to protect our brains from, but what if it’s really our computers/whatever version of computers the future still holds in store for us?
Of course, this was the author’s main challenge – making a ‘bunch of zeroes and ones’ capable of killing actual human people in this dystopic future. And boy, did she do a good job: Our world is a world of real-life Fit Bits and smart phone Aps that help you sleep – is it really SO far-fetched to think that (
Spoilery scientific-ish explanation ahead) a bit of neuron-rerouting hardware, combined with diseases hiding in our own DNA & a particularly vehement and violent piece of malware called The Germ, could create a virus that spreads through devices that are practically wired into our brains? Maybe, on a purely scientific basis. And maybe? Maybe it’s just on a purely scientific basis given today’s science: if you had asked me 20 years ago how many planets there were, it wouldn’t have been open for debate. [Pluto lives!] And if you had asked me 12 years ago if measles would be making a comeback, I would have told you you’d lost some marbles. [Vaccines are important, kids!] My point is… science changes, so maybe that’s not as bonkers as it sounds.
In addition, I liked all the illusions to Alice (of Wonderland) fame – I thought the blurring of real/fantasy; the idea that the people in charge know even less than the people they are supposed to be in charge of; the inclusion of secret societies and abstract thinkers; the degrading of language to a point where it makes little sense & communication is near impossible was ripe for such comparisons. (“You used to be much more…”muchier.” You’ve lost your muchness.”) And, although it was not a style I was used to, the verbosity of the book also seemed particularly well-suited. (And, well-explained, come the end of the story.)
In short, the author does a great job of making me want to disconnect from every social network ever, and every squiggly red line I see in this pre-edited piece makes me wonder if I’ve already got my own form of spelling Word Flu (especially since it’s telling me that pre-edited is not a word, although I know it is). One of the key elements in the story is the importance of words, of language, of meanings. That “language is a miracle of evolution.” I think this book is a fine example that that miracle can be used to scare the wits out of people. And, given that this is Ms. Graedon’s debut novel, I’m looking forward to all the fine ways she chooses to scare us in the future.
*Received complimentary advanced copy from Netgalley*