Quiet Revolutions

The power of words — always a vital conceit in fantasy, where magical language on its own can perform miracles — is also much on the minds of science fiction writers these days, probably stemming ultimately from Orwell’s illustration of the principle that whoever controls the language controls the thoughts of the citizenry.

Early landmark treatments of the notion include  Samuel Delany’s Babel-17, where language is weaponized, and Jack Vance’s The Languages of Pao, where different castes are separated linguistically.

But a sheaf of powerful variations have emerged more recently. Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet conjured up a world where language had been poisoned. China Miéville’s Embassytown postulated a truly alien concept of language, attainable only by special humans. Max Barry’s Lexicon showed us a secret elite whose rigorously engineered utterances compelled obedience. And Marcel Theroux’s Strange Bodies asserted an identity between uploadable versions of our personalities and deep syntactical structures.

Now, synchronistically, come two fresh novels on the theme of language and its powers, each offering a unique map of this rich territory.

In its monitory and chilling portrait of the process whereby our ideational heritage and faculties are sacrificed to mind-warping new technologies, Alena Graedon’s debut, The Word Exchange, summons up associations with Dave Eggers’s The Circle, but by way of Philip K. Dick and Thomas Pynchon — specifically, the Pynchon of The Crying of Lot 49.

At some point in the near future, citizens are addicted to their Memes, sleek devices from a firm named Synchronic that communicate with their users via sensory headbands and earbuds. Memes are like smartphones ramped up to eleven. They perform so many everyday functions that they have become indispensable. But deleterious effects abound. Perhaps the worst is that Memes encourage memory deficits. People have begun to lose vocabulary, becoming partly aphasic or spouters of gibberish. This neurological stumbling is just accepted as the price to be paid for supreme convenience. And since the Meme supplements such linguistic gaps via dipping into a massive online dictionary dubbed the Word Exchange and feeding the prompts to the users, all seems well. (In a supreme irony, just like iTunes, words are purchased individually for a few pennies each.)

Our protagonist is Anana Johnson, a young woman who works under the supervision of her father, Doug, at NADEL, a publisher that is preparing the final printed dictionary of all time. On the eve of the book launch, however, Doug Johnson goes missing, failing to keep an appointment with his daughter, and the dictionary’s debut gets stalled. She receives a prearranged one-word alarm signal from him — “Alice” — and like that Victorian heroine, she soon plunges down a rabbit hole of surreal mystery.

In the basement of the publisher she encounters a book-burning “Creatorium” (shades of Bradbury’s Farenheit 451), but the facility is not there when she returns with the police. Minimal help with the enigmas strewn along her path comes from a slightly flustered and ineffectual but well-meaning co-worker named Bart Tate (whose increasingly hallucinatory journal entries, approaching Clockwork Orange neologistic density, alternate with Anana’s first-person narration). But Bart has his own problems, as he’s being tempted with the Nautilus, a new model Meme that offers total “biocellular” integration. (Readers might like at this point to search out Stephen Baker’s new novel, The Boost, which deals with brain implants along similar speculative lines.)  Likewise, Dr. Phineas Thwaite, a colleague of Anana’s father’s, steps in against the tide of strange events, although he seems to know more than he’s willing to tell. And disturbingly, even Anana’s ex-boyfriend Max seems involved.

Like Oedipa Maas (and Anana’s Elektra-like relationship with her dad is as evocative of myth as the first name of Pynchon’s heroine), Anana bounces pinball-fashion from one set of odd characters to another — friendly or hostile — while around her entropic forces are at work. She’s smart and resourceful, but the crisis is too large for any one person to master. A language virus (cue William Burroughs) is spreading, causing mental disorientation and even physical collapse of the sufferers. The planet seems on the brink of apocalypse. But the Diachronic Society is the Counterforce in Graedon’s schema:  “A motley group . . . What they hold in common is a dedication to words, and the worlds they open up. They also share an enmity to anything that might threaten language.”

Befitting a novel so besotted with words, Graedon’s prose is zesty and alluring “A good reporter’s steady, bready gaze, sopping up all the messy signals ordinary mortals might miss.”  Structurally, she offers the pleasing conceit of twenty-six chapters headed each by a letter of the alphabet and an Ambrose Bierce–style caustic definition. While the plot is somewhat diffuse, there is never a longueur, as we agonize with Anana about the possibility of losing something so central to human existence.

Eventually, Anana finds a refuge away from the chaos of New York, abroad in a place at once likely and unlikely, and finally comes to understand the full dimensions of the planet’s self-inflicted quandary. The book closes on a note of rueful hope.

* * *

Originally presented on various digital platforms in bite-sized expository bursts, the collaborative novel The Silent History translates to the printed page surprisingly well — perhaps the best such thing to come along since Geoff Ryman’s 253, or Tube Theatre.

As in The Word Exchange, a kind of language plague is coursing through the population. But this one is strictly generational, not spread across all individuals, although the fallout from the plague is certainly all-pervasive. Children are born without the ability to speak, read, or write. It seems they can hear, but the portions of their brains concerned with those other functions simply remain inactive. The afflicted come to be called the “silents.” (Immediately, one recalls John Brunner’s little shocker, “The Vitanuls.”)  By postulating this Village of the Damned scenario, authors Horowitz, Derby, and Moffett immediately begin to ring fruitful changes on all the tropes connected with parenting, education, Homo superior, enfranchisement, prejudices, disabilities, mutants, obsolescence, industrial birth defects, and clade incompatibility.

The book is presented as a kind of oral history, a mashup of Studs Terkel with Robert Heinlein’s famous chart of things-to-come. The period covered is from 2011 through 2043, and a true speculative rigor is exhibited throughout. This is no mere farce or satire or horror tale but a genuine logical  extrapolation — with laugh-out-loud absurdist strokes. In a series of first-person chapters, we get a paradoxically rich panoply of voices orbiting a black hole of speechlessness: teacher, politician, scientist, parent, sibling, classmate, shopkeeper. At first, each tranche across the phenomenon seems discrete and unduplicated. Then the narrators begin to recur and intersect, providing a fascinating pointillistic plot. As the silent children grow up — reviled, warehoused, disdained — they start to exhibit nonlinguistic modes of communication, and to cluster among themselves.

The authors deliberately never choose to broaden their focus outside the USA, and consequently the book becomes in large part a Menckenesque portrait of the nation’s standard mode of exuberantly grotesque and idiosyncratic response to all crises. Entrepreneurs arise to cater to the silents and their relatives; heavy-handed authoritarian backlashes occur; and media circuses of various stripes abound. Even street mimes get in on the action.

I am not familiar with the past writings of either Eli Horowitz or Kevin Moffett, but I am a huge partisan of Matthew Derby’s Super Flat Times, a collection of wacked and surreal stories that project an assured voice like an amalgam of Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, and Mark Leyner. I detect a fair amount of Derby’s chords in The Silent History, especially in the loony chapters that center on the daft New Ager Patti Kern. “I’d built a doghouse once, but the dog found it oppressive and liberated himself soon after.”  But no matter who wrote what, the organic unity of the disparate chapters is undeniable. There is no sense of cross-purposes or failure to think through all the mutual implications of the project.

In its depiction of a new branch of Homo sapiens — albeit only a cul-de-sac — this book reminds me of John Varley’s famous story “The Persistence of Vision.”  In that tale, a commune that serves as a safe harbor for differently abled people becomes a launching platform for a new kind of cosmic consciousness. The authors of The Silent History, being far removed from Varley’s hippie roots, take a less utopian, more Swiftian view of such a scenario. But still they share with Varley an abiding affection and respect for whatever useful lacerations cut across the stale ruts of our lives.