Lexicon by Max Barry

LexiconTitle: Lexicon
 Max Barry
18 July 2013
The Penguin Press HC
science fiction, thriller, mystery
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Two plot lines converge in Lexicon. In one, a man named Wil Parke is kidnapped to keep him safe from people who are trying to kill him. Wil doesn’t know how he could possibly have ended up in this situation, but that’s because his memory has been wiped. He used to live in a tiny Australian town called Broken Hill. Broken Hill had a population of over 3000 people. Now all of them are dead because of a single word. Except for Wil, who survived because he was immune.

In the parallel plot, Emily Ruff, a sixteen-year-old with a natural talent  for persuasion, is recruited by a mysterious and extremely wealthy but nameless organisation. They send her to their academy to train her to use words. This is not about rhetoric but about analysing people and using sets of keywords to hack their minds so that you can instruct them to do whatever you want. The people who do this are known as Poets. Emily isn’t particularly talented, but what makes her notable is her strong attack power and her disregard for the rules.

All of this can be quite confusing at first, particularly in Wil’s storyline where he struggles to get any kind of useful information out of Tom Eliot, the Poet who saved/kidnapped him (all the Poets use famous poets as aliases). But everything becomes clearer as the story progresses through Emily’s training and Eliot and Wil’s flight from the USA back to Broken Hills, Australia where the word is still killing everyone they send in to retrieve it.

I love stories about language, and Max Barry has made a particularly enjoyable sci fi thriller out of this one. Admittedly, it felt very familiar – Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson also used mind hacking and language mythology, and magic often serves similar functions in fantasy stories. But it was a great read nonetheless.

Also, unlike the stories this reminded me of, language and persuasion is the focus of the plot in Lexicon. Emily compares it to magic, suggesting that persuasion once took the form of magic, until it was studied, developed and organised:

“Once upon a time, there were sorcerers,” she said. “Who were really just guys who knew a little about persuasion. And some of them did all right, ruled kingdoms and founded religions, et cetera, but they also occasionally got burned to death by angry mobs, or beheaded, or drowned while being tested for witchness. So sometime in the last few centuries, maybe even just the last fifty or so, actually, they got organized. To solve the whole being-burned problem. And . . .” She gestured. “Here we are. No more beheadings.”

Emily’s education gives us an understanding of how it works. The students are all taught “attention words” which are words that basically cause people to stop, open their minds, and take in whatever instruction the speaker giver. Emily comes up with this rather useful explanation:

A word is a recipe. A recipe for a particular neurochemical reaction. When I say ball, your brain converts the word into meaning, and that’s a physical action. You can see it happening on an EEG. What we’re doing […] is dropping recipes into people’s brains to cause a neurochemical reaction to knock out the filters. Tie them up just long enough to slip an instruction past. And you do that by speaking a string of words crafted for the person’s psychographic segment. Probably words that were crafted decades ago and have been strengthened ever since. And it’s a string of words because the brain has layers of defenses, and for the instruction to get through, they all have to be disabled at once.

Yes, she’s info dumping, but I find this really interesting so I don’t mind. I also like the way the novel incorporates mythology like the Babel story into its plot. I actually wish there was more info dumping, because Emily mentions some myths I’m not familiar with.

Admittedly, it did get confusing on occasion, particularly since I’m not a linguist and I haven’t studied any kind of language-related science. I also got the feeling that, because I didn’t understand the science, I was buying into something that didn’t make any sense. The attention words used to compromise people felt particularly odd, since it’s just gibberish, like “Vartix velkor mannik wissick”. The idea that that could be used to hack someone’s mind seemed a bit unlikely. And does it still work if, for example, they wouldn’t pronounce those words the same way the speaker does? Because, as I understand it, there are different words for different languages, but languages themselves can be spoken with widely varied accents.

To keep things simple though, the book only deals with English speakers who have fairly similar accents. Persuasion is mostly limited to one-on-one confrontations. This doesn’t explain why the organisation exists though, so for that there are many breaks between sections where excerpts from news reports, blogs, and other media are used to give us a fuller understanding of the organisation’s purpose. This mostly involves data collection and information control. There are several news reports on events in the novel which show that the Poets have been at work, feeding people a fake story to cover up the truth. Some people manage to guess at the organisation’s workings, like in this comment on a $1.6 billion scheme to replace train tickets with smart cards that allow people’s movements to be tracked:

I’m not a privacy nut, and I don’t care that much if these organisations want to know where I go and what I buy. But what bothers me is how HARD they’re all working for that data, how much money they’re spending, and how they never admit that’s what they want. It means that information must be really valuable for some reason, and I just wonder to who and why.

The answer – at least in part – is that the Poets use this kind of information to analyse people. It’s how they built up the system of attention words, and in the age of information they can take their research so much further:

Everyone’s making pages for themselves. Imagine a hundred million people clicking polls and typing in their favorite TV shows and products and political leanings, day after day. It’s the biggest data profile ever. And it’s voluntary. That’s the funny part. People resist a census, but give them a profile page and they’ll spend all day telling you who they are. Which is . . . good . . . for us . . . obviously . . .

Not all of this is directly related to the plot, but I find it intriguing, and quite scary. It’s makes me nervous about how much information is on my Facebook page or how much I reveal about myself in my blog. It hints at how the Poets have been using their skills across the world, and the organisation hovers in the background of the story as this monstrously manipulative global power.

However, some readers may feel that there’s a major flaw here. The story focuses on a very dramatic and action-intense plot, which is great, but may leave you wondering about the more complex issues behind the story. How was the organisation formed? What exactly does it do with the Poets it trains? We get a few ideas, but these are asides. What could this story be about, if it was less like a Hollywood action movie, and more of a philosophical sci fi novel that delved deeper into the ideas at its core?

At times this kind of thing bothers me, when I feel like the author chose the lighter, more entertaining story over a more complex, thought-provoking one. In this case though, I think Lexicon strikes a good balance between action and ideas. The mysterious nature of the organisation gives you a curiosity that the novel never really satisfies, but at the same time the fact that you can’t know the whole truth is suitably disturbing. I’d love to read a more philosophical version that delves deeper into the organisation, but I like the thriller version a lot.

And I like the characters. Emily is tough and smart. I didn’t always like her or approve of her choices, but I wanted to follow her to the end of the story. Wil and Eliot made an unexpectedly amusing pair, because Wil keeps talking and asking questions and Eliot can’t stand him, but can’t bring himself to abandon Wil either. Initially I was annoyed that Eliot’s character seemed completely flat, but there’s a good reason for this. Poets operate by categorising people according to a system of 228 personality types or segments. Each segment has its own set of words for hacking (or “compromising” as they call it) those types of minds. To protect themselves from being compromised the Poets cultivate fake personalities or avoid showing any personality traits at all, hence Eliot’s bland personality. They need to avoid being characterised, so they can’t be religious or show vanity by being fussy about clothing. And personal relationships are out of the question.

It’s an extremely cold way of living that does not fail to have profound affects on the characters. And ultimately, their personalities and idiosyncrasies play an important role in the story. It’s not just about the ideas at work, but the people caught up in them, their emotions, and the decisions they make. All in all, it’s a fantastic sf thriller. And great holiday reading if you want something cerebral and action-packed.


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