Review: The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon

51fAD9zTxnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_>>Published: April 2014

>>Finally got around to it: April 2015

Details were difficult to confirm; some news reports had started getting garbled, too, and like many people, I’d mostly stopped tuning in. Anchors averred that the disease couldn’t be transmitted by airwaves, but no one knew for certain. And a few scattered reports claimed that infections had happened by phone.

Strangely, most people didn’t seem to suffer symptoms other than aphasia those first few days and weeks. The ones who did, though, got desperately sick, and often very quickly. Some shook. Some raged violently. Some were euphoric, or emptied of emotion. Most were felled by blinding headaches. Nausea, vomiting, weakness, fever. Their bones and muscles ached. All displayed varying degrees of difficulty with language. Progression rates varied; while some succumbed within days, it was said that others lived, even managed to function, for far longer—weeks.

We didn’t understand transmission then, didn’t know that while only one fatal illness was circulating, something else, also highly contagious, was producing similar indications in victims. All we knew was that a virus—what had popularly become known as “word flu”—appeared to move through speech and language. Soon after talking with an infected person, interlocutors also often stopped making sense. Antivirals, even given early, didn’t always seem to prevent death. Of those who survived, many weren’t quite the same after.


In the not-so-distant future, books, libraries, magazines, and newspapers have fast been made obsolete—products of a bygone era in human history. They’ve been replaced by Synchronic Inc.’s Meme: a hybrid e-reader/personal computer that feels a little like a supercharged tablet (or, like a lesser version of the Mass Effect omni-tool—not holographic but just as pervasive). Though in existence for only four years, the Meme has sold globally more than 100 million units to date. Now Synchronic is upping their game with the impending release of the Nautilus—a wearable Meme upgrade more invasive than any to come before.

But with the advent of the Nautilus, the world has fallen into chaos. Its coming, alongside the exponential growth of the Word Exchange—an app store for the Meme containing definitions for a nominal cost—has only exacerbated the growing problem of aphasia among the populace, affecting many individuals’ ability to communicate. Battling this “word flu” are Douglas Johnson and his daughter Anana, who work for the North American Dictionary of the English Language, their colleague Bart, and the somewhat elusive members of the Diachronic society—a small group of former booksellers, publishers, librarians, teachers, writers, and editors, among others, who seek to keep all language from falling into Synchronic’s hands. When Douglas goes missing on the eve of the NADEL’s most recent publication, Anana and Bart begin a quest to discover not only Doug’s whereabouts, but also to uncover the extent of Synchronic’s wrongdoing.

Divided into three parts (“Thesis,” “Antithesis,” and “Synthesis”) with twenty-six chapters—one for each letter of the alphabet—Graedon’s The Word Exchange is a thoroughly planned, tightly constructed narrative. Unfortunately, however, it buckles beneath the weight of its construction and stylistic idiosyncrasies.

Let’s make this simple—The Word Exchange is like an elegant version of a Robert Sawyer novel: it’s well written (not something that can be said of Sawyer, but whatever), but ultimately empty. The ideas portrayed exist entirely on the surface; it’s as if, despite detailing a worldwide epidemic, everything that happens in the novel does so within a bubble—the world feels small, as if everyone knows everyone. However, while so many of its characters seem to walk within the same small social circuit, they are not given much in the way of personalities. Sure, we know that Anana is an installation artist, and that Max, her ex, is one charismatic bugger, but for the most part we don’t see this; we’re told it instead.

I harp on this a lot in my reviews, but The Word Exchange is a pretty blatant example of a book that tells readers almost everything without really showing or involving us in what happens. This is especially noticeable when the novel goes to great lengths to describe, in detail, the events of December 7 and the start of the epidemic. Unfortunately, though, it’s a lot of talk and very little action. And as a result, its technophobia, of which we’ve seen similar shades for years, feels muted and tired.

And while I previously mentioned that the novel is technically well written, I did find myself frequently annoyed by the incidents of aphasia present throughout. Yes, this is essential for the narrative, but at times it felt overdone and I found myself wanting to skim over entire sections of awkward, made-up words. Additionally, its use of footnotes are more a distraction than anything else, offering unnecessary asides instead of further intel or detail into the novel’s characters or events. They oftentimes seemed like subtext made text, as if the author felt the need to spell things out for fear the audience wouldn’t come to the same conclusion on their own, instead of simply trusting their intelligence.

The Word Exchange is not a bad book, but it is, sadly, forgettable. It doesn’t really do anything we haven’t seen before in contemporary dystopia. And while at the outset it seems especially appealing to word nerds like myself, any of its quirk or inventiveness is lost amongst what is, in the end, a dry and only marginally intriguing narrative.