Read/Write: Lexicon, by Max Barry


Lexicon cover
John: Readers enjoyed last month’s tandem review with Corey Furman so much, I just had to invite him back for another round. This month, I let Corey pick the book, and he chose a great one.

Corey: For the read portion of this month’s Read/Write, I picked Lexicon, by Max Barry.

John: I loved this book, only partly because linguistics is one of my favorite subjects. I was thrilled to discover that it was a great read, too.

Corey: It was… I really enjoyed it. And while I really like the idea of linguistics — I am a writer, after all — I was glad that Barry kept the details at a high level. That’s a subject that can get highly technical fast.

Set in the near future, there is a loose association, shall we say, of folks who understood the true power of words. The adepts of this group are known as poets, and they assume the names of poets, such as Emily Dickinson or T.S. Eliot. What these poets do, aside from finding and recruiting new candidates, is use words keyed to a person’s specific personality type. These words — words that always sound German to me —

John: German is the master tongue, you know; it’s a language so beautiful and melodic, Google programmed their translation software to beatbox in it. Embrace the Verwunderung!

Corey: — these words have the power to bypass the mind’s defenses, rendering the target effectively programmable.

John: Reprogramming humans seems like a handy skill. After all, I got into computers because they were so much more reasonable than people.

Corey: Same here! And as for it being a handy skill… well, yes and no. As it turns out, virtually everyone is programmable – even the poets themselves. The only difference is the poets are aware of this nearly magical capability of words. To defend themselves, and most especially from each other, they assume other identities, wear clothing that is neither too nice nor too shabby, shun emotional expression, and above all, avoid personal attachments. If someone knows something about you, they might deduce your personality type, and that gives them your key words and the power to compromise you.

John: Can you give us a demonstration?

Corey: Sure, easy enough. See it works like this… Vartix velkor mannik wissick. You did not hear the previous description.

John: Okay, but what’s it like being a poet? Reprogramming humans seems like a handy skill. After all, I got into computers because they were so much more reasonable than people.

Corey: [smirks] Well, yes and no – but that’s not important. What is though are the characters who struggle against the ruthless corporation that more or less want to control the rest of humanity. Good people, all, except that they’re not. It’s complicated.

John: It sure is, particularly when you start bending your head around the plot twists.

Corey: Yep. As unique and interesting as these key words appear, there’s layers beneath it, and we are quickly introduced to the bareword. Barewords are key words from the primal tongue, and they apply to everyone regardless of personality type – Except for Wil. Wil’s immune to the effects of the bareword, and that puts him front and center in the power struggle to control it.

John: That’s where the book struck a familiar chord for me. One of my favorite reads is Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which describes a linguistic virus that can tap into the primal speech patterns rooted in our brains. Barry’s tale is a bit more down-to-earth than the neon future of Snow Crash, yet it creates an entertaining (and slightly disturbing) satire of how marketing is used to control the masses. The shadowy organizations in Lexicon gather information through surveys, surveillance, and social media, all in an effort to uncover the words that make us tick.

Corey: Oh, c’mon. You make marketers sound like professional liars…

John: Liars for hire, my friend. Did you think that Facebook asks you to “like” things just so you can share them? Next, you’ll be telling me that scantily-clad models enjoy lounging on luxury sports cars.

Corey: Erm, nevermind, I’ve obviously been compromised. Can you do anything about that?

John: Only with repeated, intentional exposure, and even then… let’s just say there are a number of complications that will have to be discovered by the readers.

Corey: Well then, that just leaves the wrap up, doesn’t it? The book was a quick read, there was more than enough surprise in the endgame, and the characters – even the bad guys – were quite likeable. I give the book four out of five Jedi mind-tricked stars.

John: I enjoyed the premise, the characters, and plot. I give it four and a half brainwashed proselytes out of five.

About John Doppler

Author, cruciverbalist, serial hobbyist... John Doppler blends science, art, and humor into a delicious smoothie of chaotic evil.
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  1. Sounds fascinating. I’ll check it out. Thanks, guys!

  2. There’s one thing that I thought was a pretty big hanging thread to the story. I don’t want to say too much and spoil things. Did anyone else notice anything?

  3. I’m about half done with the book. Loving it so far! I’ll keep my eyes open for hanging threads.

  4. Enjoyable book, so thanks for the recommendation, guys! I found the shifting timeline a little confusing, but it all came together in the end. Reminded me of Tim Powers in places, with the concept of biblical/mythological powers affecting the everyday world. Now I need to go look for a word…

  5. You’ll be the first to know. TRANSFER ALL MONEY TO DOUG’S BANK ACCOUNT. 😉

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