“The Word Exchange” by Alena Graedon (2014)


“On a very cold and lonely Friday last November, my father disappeared from the Dictionary.”

Genuinely, I can’t remember the last time I used a paper dictionary. I’m just about old enough to recall them still being used occasionally in schools, but already it seems all children are issued with computers or tablets at school and so the entire of human knowledge is at their fingertips and they don’t need a separate dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia, and so on. For years now there’s long been a fear that the printed word will cease to be a thing as we all move into a world dominated by screens. Hell, I wrote an essay at university about the impending death of the novel, but it’s been ten years and it’s not gone anywhere yet. (To my credit, my essay argued strongly that the novel wasn’t dying, so I think I win and I’d like my grade revised, please.) However, one cannot deny the extraordinary rise of technology and how it has affected us, and Alena Graedon’s novel The Word Exchange takes the concept to the logical conclusion.

Sometime in the near future, books, libraries and newspapers are all but wiped out. No one sends letters or hand writes anything now, mostly due to the Meme, a handheld device that, while never accurately described, seems to serve all the functions of an iPad and Alexa combined. A Meme can hail taxis, place your order in a restaurant, phone your friends, and interact with external technologies all at the touch of a button – or something, the twitch of a synapse. Most importantly, you can now read everything you’d ever need on it, and if you’ve forgotten what a word means, you can buy a definition for just two cents a time. People are beginning to forget words, and they don’t even realise.

In New York, the final edition of the English dictionary is being printed, with Douglas Johnson, his daughter Anana, and the shy lexicographer Bartleby Tate hard at work. But then Doug goes missing, and Anana is left to find out what’s happened to him, with only a single clue to guide her: the handwritten word, ALICE. Determined to prove that her father is still alive and that something dreadful hasn’t happened, she sets out to find him through his friends. But things are not going so well. The new upgrade to the Meme, the Nautilus, is due to be released and it seems that many people coming into contact with the new technology is becoming sick. A computer virus has become organic and people begin to forget words and replace them with neologisms that until recently never existed. As language breaks down, the virus spreads, and the United States begins to collapse, Anana is on a race against time to find her father, but first she has to deal with shady secret organisations, a hidden code, underground passages and a conspiracy that threatens the thing she’s worked for her whole life. The dictionary is dying – and Anana doesn’t want to follow it.

As someone who thrives on words and language and considers them possibly our greatest invention, the ideas presented here are shocking and bleak. You can see the beginnings of this world happening today, but here it’s all turned up to eleven and we see what happens when we become too reliant on emerging technology, which some could say we already have. The novel’s key gimmick is the inclusion of word aphasia, which is a genuine condition that leads to an inability to comprehend and use language. Here, an addictive game on everyone’s devices allows them to make new words and give them definitions. These are then voted on by the public and the ones with most “likes” enter the vocabulary. As more and more arrive, people begin to get more stupid, and then they don’t realise that they’re even using nonsense words. Bart suffers quite badly from it, and so the chapters that come from his journal are often a struggle to get through due to the continued replacement of ordinary words with new ones. By the time his aphasia is at its peak, almost every sentence contains at least one example: “When I stood zyot, he’d come closer and was blasking a light in my face”, or “A zast under my door a little more than a week ago while I shwade in the bedroom in a mase, trippy, fever-sleep, vistish I was hearing things.” You get the gist of what he’s saying, but it isn’t half disconcerting.

In general, it’s vastly unnerving. As I said, we never get a clear idea of what this technology is or how it came into existence. This works to great effect, as nothing is always scarier than something. It’s also implied to not very far into the future, but there’s also the suggestion that this is an alternative timeline to ours, otherwise things went off the rails really quickly. Compelling, but written by someone who loves words and isn’t afraid to use six long ones when two short ones will do, it’s a horrifying insight into a future we may be stumbling into, showing what happens when we start messing with technology that we don’t understand.


“The Flame Alphabet” by Ben Marcus (2012)

Leave a comment

“We left on a school day, so Esther wouldn’t see us.”

A week is far too long to spend reading a 300-page novel, no matter how small the text. My friends ask me often how I know whether I’ll like all the books I buy and I have no answer – I’m just lucky. Most of the time, that is. Oh yes, it’s one of those rare negative reviews.

Somewhere in New York state, an epidemic has sprung up that has turned children’s speech toxic to adults. All around the neighbourhood, parents fall ill as their children realise the power they have and begin to terrorise the community. Sam and his wife Claire are left with a horrible decision – do they stay with their teenage daughter, or abandon her to get to the quarantine where they can start to recover?

Sam soon finds himself lumbered with the unwanted company of Murphy, a large man who seems to know too much about what’s going on, though is almost certainly not to be trusted. He knows things that only Sam, Claire and the other Jewish members of the neighbourhood know, thanks to their secret forest synagogues. As the plague worsens, soon it isn’t just children that can cause damage. Before long, all communication becomes nigh-on impossible, and there’s a race on to find a cure, or at least a method of communication that won’t kill everyone.

On the Venn diagram of literature, this book sits somewhere between Nod, Lexicon and Lord of the Flies, all of which are better written and more engaging – and I say that having really disliked Lord of the Flies, too. The premise, that of a toxic language, is really great and I was hoping for a novel that would run with the idea, and while this one does, it feels like it’s going the wrong way. The language is dense and quite pretentious. There seems to be a big issue made of the main characters being Jewish, with an early theory being that it was only Jewish children who were causing the sickness, but there’s never a definite answer as to whether this is how it started or not. None of the characters are remotely pleasant people, especially Sam and Claire’s teenage daughter Esther, who is presumably painted in a negative light so that we don’t feel bad when they plot to leave her behind.

The reviews on the cover suggest that the book is funny, too, but that’s passed me by. It’s not that I didn’t “get” the jokes, it’s just that I couldn’t find any to get. There’s nothing remotely funny here, and if anything I would describe the book with a single altogether different word: harrowing. Ben Marcus has painted a rather shocking world, and the images are very visceral, made more so by the fact there isn’t, by the nature of the plot, much dialogue.

Are there redeeming features? Sure. The scenes where Sam is part of the team of scientists trying to invent a new alphabet or method of communication are quite fascinating, with a lot of imagination used to come up with any number of alternate patterns of speech, such as staining wood with water or constructing letters out of yarn that only form words when the right breeze is applied to them to give them shape. The rest of the time though, I can’t say I’m particularly bothered by what’s happening. I felt uncomfortable, and the endless references to the Jewishness of the main characters contrasted with images of emaciated victims is a horrifically stark reminder of the Holocaust. This seems too much, especially for a book billed as “funny”, and which seems, at it’s heart, to be a huge metaphor for the fact that parents don’t understand their children.

I found several mentions online emphasising that Marcus is experimenting with the art of novel-writing here. If that’s the case, then I conclude his experiment has failed. Time to go back to the lab.

“The Art Of Language Invention” by David J. Peterson (2015)

1 Comment



“The first time I heard a language of mine spoken on-screen was at a cast and crew premiere event for the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones.”

I’m a native English speaker and sometimes I think that’s for the best. I’m not disparaging other languages by any means, or suggesting one is better than any other, but just take a look at this language. English is full of irregular verbs, strange grammatical quirks, silent letters, wonky pronunciations, unusual plurals, and words that have been pilfered fully-formed from other languages. I can’t imagine not having this as a first language and having to try and understand why “read” rhymes with “red” and “read” rhymes with “reed”, but “reed” and “red” don’t rhyme with each other.

Languages and linguistics are very interesting topics, and this book comes from a man who knows a thing or two about them. David J. Peterson has a job that seems ridiculous on the surface – he is a conlanger; someone who invents languages (conlang comes from “constructed” and “language”). But if you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, or Defiance, then you will have heard his work. Thrones is probably his best-known project, for which he invented the languages Dothraki and High Valryian. I don’t watch the show, but I looked up some clips of these being spoken, and you have to admit that they sound very realistic.

Inventing a language is more than just substituting the symbols of the English alphabet for new ones and putting in too many x’s where they don’t belong. In this book, Peterson introduces the reader to the basics required if someone is wanting to make their own language. Not only do you have to work out what words are important to these people, you also have to get to grip with verb tenses, possessive pronouns, compound works, locative words, and even the basic biology of the species you’re writing for. If this is an alien species with an extra pair of lungs, or no tongue, how would that impact what sounds they’d be able to make? And then once you’ve got the sounds down, you need to decide what they’ll look like written down, or how they work together.

Although the topic has the capacity to be insanely dry, in Peterson’s hands, it is interesting and engaging. He writes with humour (stopping mid-paragraph at one point to emphasise how much he hates onions) and skill. This is a man who knows his craft, and really cares about it, which is such an important factor in writing good non-fiction. It’s also a great lesson in linguistics, although I don’t think even now I could rightly explain the difference between the ablative and partitive case. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to read about how languages and writing evolved, and to see examples from other languages that seem daunting but must be easy to master, or they would’ve died out by now. For me, I’ll stick with English and Spanish, but I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in language, as well as anyone who writes fantasy or science fiction and needs a few pointers on what makes a language look realistic.

And if you take nothing else from this book, you will at least finally understand the correct way to use “who” and “whom”.

Fonas chek!

Podcasts: Part One


Hello! So here’s something I’ve never reviewed before: podcasts! I’ve been fairly late to the podcast game, not getting into them until late 2014 but then devouring them by the score over last year. I’ve decided to share my favourite podcasts here, perhaps at the start of each month, and give you a brief precis of what they’re about. Some you’ll have heard of before, others perhaps not. So, let’s crack on with the first four.

podcast 1Podcast: Thinking Sideways
Number of Episodes: 150+
Release: Every Thursday

Thinking Sideways is a newer podcast for me and it specialises in tales of the unexplained. Basically, wherever there’s an unanswered question or a mystery that has never been solved, this podcast will step in, give you the facts and try to come to a conclusion that explains the puzzle. The hosts are Steve, Devin and Joe, three smart and funny (the best descriptors for a podcaster, I find) Americans who claim to have no formal training in investigation, but are simply interested in the world. I confess that I haven’t listened to many of the episodes yet, but what I’ve heard so far is brilliant. Each week, we are introduced to a new mystery and one of the team runs through all the facts we have about it, with the second half of the podcast dedicated to potential theories.

Episodes have covered everything from what happened to the Mary Celeste, where the Voynich Manuscript comes from and what it means, how the Max Headroom broadcast intrusion was achieved, the disappearance of Lord Lucan, and the suspicious deaths of Kurt Cobain and Princess Diana. Episode lengths range from twenty minutes to over two hours, although most are about an hour long. If there’s ever a question you’ve wanted answered, then this is the podcast for you.

If you want a flavour of the podcast without committing right away, the “Santa Claus” episode just a quarter of an hour long and gives you an idea of what to expect. I also highly recommend “Taman Shud”, about a man who was discovered dead on a beach with no identification and all the labels cut from his clothes, and, because it’s me, I also suggest “Agatha Christie Disappearance” for suggestions on what really happened to her.

podcast 2Podcast: The Allusionist
Number of Episodes: 35
Release: Fortnightly

This podcast is hosted by Helen Zaltzman, who most of you probably know better as one third of Answer Me This, a podcast I’ll cover another time. Helen is obsessed with language and grammar, and this podcast is her pet project to delve deeper into its murky waters and pull up something shiny. Each fortnight, she selects a topic related to language and explores its history and usage, and fills your brain with trivia you never knew you needed. Most episodes include an interview with someone related to whatever she’s discussing.

There’s an episode for everyone here, and they’re only ever 15-20 minutes long, but she packs so much into that short space of time. These are bite-sized nuggets of joy; both genuinely funny and genuinely interesting. Helen is potentially the only person who could make a discussion on the use of spaces between words interesting. Some particularly good episodes include: “The Writing on the Wall”, which talks about the display signs used next to objects in museums; “Crosswords”, which goes into detail on how to make a good crossword and how to write cryptic clues”; and “Toki Pona” in which she and guest Nate DiMeo try to learn one of the world’s smallest languages in just a few hours.

While usually light-hearted, a few episodes take on a more serious tone, such as “Pride”, which deals with the usage of that word in the LGBT community, or “Step Away”, which tries to argue for a better term than “step-parent”, which conjures up all the connotations Disney have imbued it with over the years. You can dip in and out of the series in any order; you’ll find yourself wanting to listen to them all anyway.

podcast 3Podcast: Stuff You Should Know
Number of Episodes: 800+
Release: Tuesday and Thursday

Have you ever wondered if lethal injection is really humane? Do you want to know who gets to name the continents? Do you have questions about pinball, maggots, werewolves, AIDS, collective hysteria, electricity or anything in between? Well, Stuff You Should Know has you covered. Josh and Chuck are on hand twice a week with a new topic that they’ve researched and want to tell you all about.

They are excellent hosts. Josh has a very soothing, sleepy voice that gives you the impression of a wise man imparting his knowledge interspersed with dry quips, and Chuck is there keeping him awake with more of his own facts and jokes. They can take any topic and make it interesting because, frankly, all topics are interesting. It’s going to be a long time before I make it through all the episodes, but the thirty or forty I’ve listened to so far have been wonderful. They’re great for commuting, as you feel your time isn’t wasted – you’re learning and becoming a better person all the time! To give you an example of the variety here, in the last month alone they released episodes about cats, labour strikes, the Big Bang, kin selection, tornadoes and lead. Episodes typically last half an hour to an hour.

It’s impossible really to suggest an episode to start with, so just think of a topic you’re interested in and have a rummage. If you do want to just dive in and try something at random, I suggest “What makes us yawn?”, “How Royalty Works” or “How Jim Henson Worked”. Their medical-based episodes are also particularly great.

podcast 4Podcast: Kraken
Number of Episodes: 100+
Release: Every Sunday

I always feel Kraken ought to be better known than it is. Hosted by four guys – Mazin, Craig, Joel and Ian – each week they take a topic and share their opinions on it, with the second half of the episode dedicated to a related question, in search of an answer or at least something sensible. The thing they discuss can be a film, a book, an article, a person, or something a bit more bizarre, but generally comes from the field of “culture, technology and that”.

The related questions are always interesting and bring up so many issues regarding things that aren’t even related, as well as those that are. This is a podcast that enjoys a tangent. Some examples of related things and questions include “Amy Winehouse / Do we kill our celebrities?”, “Game of Thrones / How far is too far?” and “Adventure Time / Are we becoming a culture of children?”. Sometimes they’re far more simplistic, such as, “Christmas / What do you want for Christmas?” or more recently, “Brexit / In or out?” There are also occasional episodes that have a twist, such as one in which they play Dungeons & Dragons while discussing games, or a recent episode about William Shakespeare which was recorded while in the audience of a play, a gimmick that treads the fine line between being hilarious and ambitious, to simply being impossibly rude. It leads to a very tense episode in which you wonder at what point they’re going to be thrown out of the theatre.

The four guys all have their own voices and opinions. Mazin seems the most level-headed but is plagued by strange dreams, which become the focus of an episode themselves at one point. Craig has given up on films entirely and doesn’t want anything to do with them anymore. Joel is obsessed with the power of stories and will throw this into the conversation whenever possible. And Ian usually hasn’t seen or read whatever they’re talking about, but if he has, will invariably deem it “alright”. Good episodes to start on are “London / What’s the worst thing about living in a city?” and “Swearing / Do words have power?” If you want to see just how strange it gets, look for the episode “A stick / Is this the greatest stick?” Later episodes are generally better than earlier ones – once they’ve established the template for an episode – but they’re all worth a go. Even if you don’t know about the topic they’re discussing, odds are it won’t matter. Soon they’ll be arguing that chicken should be free or plague pits are thrifty instead of racist. Just listen and laugh.

I’ll be back on this next month with four more podcasts.

“The Left Hand Of Darkness” by Ursula K. LeGuin (1969)


left hand“I’ll make my report as if I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination.”

So many books I read take place on Earth. In fact, I think most books take place on Earth, or at least the ones written on this planet do. As such, it’s nice to occasionally make a beeline for somewhere entirely different; a whole new world. Ursula K. LeGuin is often billed as one of the greatest science fiction writers ever, so why not take to the stars with her and visit her famous planet of Gethen.

Gethen, known as Winter by explorers because of its permanently freezing temperatures, is a planet in a remote corner of the universe that has no knowledge of anything living beyond its atmosphere until an envoy comes down to meet them and welcome them to the Ekumen, a league of planets that is trying to work together in harmony and to share information and technology between them all. The envoy is Genly Ai, who has been on Gethen for two years now, trying to convince the people of Karhide, a Gethen kingdom, to join with the other humans on other planets.

Shortly before his meeting with the king is finally arranged, Genly finds that the Prime Minister, Estraven, is a traitor and has been accused of treason. He is banished from Karhide, and Genly must meet with the insane king alone, only to discover that he is not trusted. Frustrated, Genly meets with the Foretellers, a group of people who can see the future, to ask if Gethen will ever be part of the Ekumen. When he is informed that it will, he moves to another country, Orgoreyn, to try his luck there. But soon his luck will run out, as the people of this planet are highly suspicious and before he knows what’s happening, Genly has been imprisoned and carted off to work against his will. When things start to seem completely hopeless, help might just come from the place he would least expect it.

Notably, I’ve managed to summarise the plot without mentioning one of the key things about this novel, and one of the things that is most well known about it. That is, that the Gethen people are neuter, having no gender or sex or most of the year, and then once a month entering a state called “kemmer”, in which they turn into either a male or female – which isn’t constant in an individual – and breed. After this passes, they return to a neuter state again. This way of living has shaped their entire culture, and so they find Genly strange, since they view him as permanently being in kemmer, which is perverse to them.

Estraven and Genly Ai (Copyright: Evan Dahm 2013)

There’s a lot going on in this book but despite the fact it’s set in a different world with a different calendar, you find yourself very quickly invested in Genly Ai, his mission and the world of Gethen. Exposition is delivered via the use of notes taken from the first investigators, or from old stories told by the Gethen people about their history. The themes are manyfold, but none detract from the story. Clearly, it is primarily a story about gender and sex. Genly has difficulty at first in understanding a society where there is no division of the genders, so there are no dominant/subservient or protector/protectee relationships based on different parts of the population. Genly attributes “he” and “she” almost randomly, based on whether someone seems masculine or feminine in his eyes, but he trips up. The King has been both a mother and a father, and his “landlady” has only ever fathered children.

Communication and the struggle of communicating with different cultures is also a key topic. The people of Gethen have something called shifgrethor, which appears untranslatable to non-Gethen ears, but refers basically to a set of social rules to do with pride, honour and respect. The people of Karhide and those of Orgoreyn treat it differently, and Genly is slow to realise that he’s often been misunderstanding people because of it.

It also appears that in this story there was an original race of humans who spread to different planets and then, when their civilisation collapsed, each planet lost contact with the other. This explains why people look basically the same across the galaxy, as they try to re-establish these connections thousands of years later. Genly is explicitly stated to be from Earth, known here as Terra, which was simply one of the planets populated by the Hainish millennia before. A whole series of books is built up around this by LeGuin, but this is the most famous.

Nonetheless, the story is keenly interesting and mostly about a political situation brewing thanks to the arrival of Genly Ai. The use of many words that are native to the planet or can’t be translated can be a bit overwhelming at times – some of the Karhide people have very long names that, when used in full, can dominate a paragraph – but there’s something about it that makes everything seem believable. At the back of the book, or my edition at least, is a guide to the calendar of Gethen and the names of all the days, months and seasons. This is a great resource to check back on, but not essential to one’s enjoyment.

There are some incredible ideas going on in this book, not least the idea of a population that doesn’t understand gender, and it should be compulsory reading for absolutely everyone. And it’s not often I say that about a book.

“Lexicon” by Max Barry (2013)


Sticks and stones may break bones, but words kill.

Sticks and stones may break bones, but words kill.

“He’s coming around.”

I’ve always considered myself rather persuasive, which is lucky because in my jobs both as a salesman and a writer, that’s a pretty essential quality to have. I’m not saying I could make someone rob a bank, but I can make them buy something they didn’t know they needed. However, when it comes to persuasion, the characters in Lexicon are something else.

The story opens with Wil Parke being kidnapped from an airport in Portland, and the first chapter explodes by with murder, destruction, escape, capture and persuasion in good measure. The men who have taken him want him for something, but Wil has absolutely no idea what it is, but it soon becomes clear that without Wil in tow, the men are failing their job and there is a danger on the way.

The story then changes and focuses on Emily Ruff, a down-and-out homeless teenager who has nothing but the bag on her back and a knack for tricking tourists into playing cards with her and taking all their money. She finds herself approached by a man in a cheap suit who claims that he can offer her an outstanding future of great promise. There exists a school, known just as the Academy, that will train her to better use her powers of persuasion. It turns out, you see, that there are a finite number of personalities available to people and when you can work out someone’s segment, you can speak a few select words and gain complete control over them.

Wil’s story continues as he is held captive by his kidnapper, Eliot, and Wil tries to make sense of the situation around him. Meanwhile Emily begins studying at the Academy and honing her skills. But there is more to it than this. Somewhere in Australia there is a town called Broken Hill, and there is a word there that should never have got out. It kills anyone who sees it, and someone needs to go and get it out of there and take it somewhere safe before it can do any further damage.

In this excellent and very fast-paced thriller, linguistics and psychology tie themselves together to show that anyone is capable of being controlled if you just know what you’re doing. It expounds many ideas about how this is going on in our world as it is, most obvious with things such as the Internet, which tailors its adverts, links and stories to show you what you want to see and buries the rest. You may think you have free will, but how many of your decisions are entirely your own?

The novel is telling one story, but jumps around at different points along the way. It quickly becomes apparent that the two main stories, those of Wil and Emily, are not happening at the same time, but it takes a while to work out which one comes first and what the consequences of that are. One of the twists I got a long time before it was revealed, but one remained hidden from me until I slapped my forehead and realised I’d been an absolute dunce.

I like a book that sets the world up as the one we know and then just tweaks a single detail, such as this ability to fully control people simply because of the right words. It’s long been accepted that words have power, any reader and writer worth their salt knows that, but this turns it up to eleven and shows what we might just be capable of. There are a lot of references to the Tower of Babel and general discussions on evolution of language and why exactly it’s so powerful. My favourite touch is that all the characters with these persuasive abilities are known as “poets” and each one adopts the name of a famous writer, meaning we get characters called Virginia Woolf, T S Eliot, W B Yeats, Sylvia Plath, Charlotte Bronte and Margaret Atwood, among others.

Alright, so the ending didn’t quite stack up the way I’d hoped and a couple of things remain unexplained, but a lot of thought has gone into this world and, frankly, I can’t think how I would have ended it, or how indeed I expected it to end. It’s a terrifying book in some ways because we’re all so convinced that we’re acting out our own desires, and we think we project a certain version of ourselves to the world, but there’s no way we can really know if any of it is our own decision.

Were I a poet, I would be able to persuade you to read this book with just a few words, but I’m not, so hopefully this review will have done enough.