Sunday, February 1, 2015

Weird & Wonderful: Lexicon

It felt like it had been far too long since I had the pleasure of attending City Lit's "Weird & Wonderful" book club, and last Wednesday's discussion of Max Barry's "Lexicon" (2013) was a delightful return! The novel uses a science-fictional concept (controlling people by means of neurolinguistic "hacking") but is done more in the mode of a thriller. We all quite enjoyed it, and while our discussion focused more on the ideas than the plot, there may be SPOILERS BELOW:

"Lexicon" is set pretty much in present day (there are references to the 2004 Bush/Kerry presidential election), with the action alternating between various parts of the U.S. and a small mining town in the Australian outback. One of our protagonists, a young street hustler named Emily, is inducted into an un-named organization of "poets", masters of persuasion who can directly command people by uttering "control words"; these poets are specifically linked to the tradition of legendary sorcerers and magicians, only recently organized and upgraded with neurocognitive science. Emily is ultimately embroiled in a complicated plot to test and then recover a "bareword", a visual instant-brainwasher of great power. Alternating chapters follow rogue poet Eliot and "outlier" Wil Parke as they run from the organization, with Wil (and us readers) eventually rediscovering his connection to Emily's story.

We didn't have much criticism or even discussion of the plot itself, with perhaps one quibble. We talked for a bit about the chapter structuring, which alternate times for quite a while: Wil's chapters are "current", while Emily's are "flashbacks" until they finally sync up a good way through the novel; there are also some sizable flashbacks from Eliot's perspective throughout. While starting the novel out-of-sequence allows Barry to really kick it off with a bang (Wil's zero-to-sixty "regular guy suddenly running for his life" trope happens in the first 0.5 pages or so), we weren't sure why the novel was otherwise structured the way it is.

We talked for a bit about examples of novels that are "braided" in terms of internal chronology (this has been coming up a lot in discussions of Ann Leckie's "Ancillary Justice" [2013]), why authors do that, whether we like it or not. The general thought seemed to be that it's frequently a "cheap" technique to create more tension. It doesn't seem to serve that purpose here, and while it does take a while to figure out that "Lexicon" works this way (it's not clear that Emily & Wil's sections are not contemporaneous for a few chapters), Barry doesn't seem to be using it to inject tension or create mystery where it wouldn't otherwise be. So while it wasn't super-annoying or anything, we're also not sure why it's told this way.

That said! We liked Barry's general writing style--he maintains fairly intense pacing and tension for long stretches, and is able to deliver some pretty effective emotional punches without feeling cliche. The novel also has some unexpected strengths in landscape writing; I for one really loved the Broken Hill sections precisely for the sense of place he gave it. Character-wise, well, this isn't a character study, it moves a little fast for that, but we definitely liked it, perhaps mostly from trying to fill in the gaps in all the poets we only briefly glimpse. I like Yeats, with the gripe that, of course, only the villain has a weird fetish. "Give the good guy a fetish" is apparently something I'm for?

We spent most of our time talking about the neurolinguistic "magic" and related ideas. Loved the whole sequence of Emily figuring out the basic structure of command words, looking for patterns in people around here, stuttering random syllables and studying the results. Barry does a good job of lending this idea just enough plausibility without going overboard.

Indeed, maybe the only real complaint I have about "Lexicon" is that I wish it had more, well, wordiness; there are only a very few bits that get into etymologies or deep language structure, and there is no exploration of poetry. I really dug the idea that the "poets" names themselves that (and borrow names like Eliot, Bronte, etc.) because actual poets have unique power over language--but that idea wasn't really explored.

Some of the topics we touched on in talking about all this language/programming stuff:
  • Feral children & language acquisition
  • The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis
  • John Lilly & Margaret Lovatt's work with dolphins, language, and pschoactive drugs
  • Chomsky's deep structures
  • Translation  issues between generations/immigrant communities
  • The recent PBS documentary about threatened languages, "Language Matters"
We also talked for a bit about conspiracy theories (Illuminati, Freemasons, etc.) and the general theme in this book of subtle global control by a secret, elite group. Curiously, we did not get around to discussing the kind of omnipresent surveillance/data-gathering/consumer psych-profiling that "Lexicon" satirizes and draws our attention to.

The idea of neurolingusitic hacking, viral memetics, visual/aural programming, however you want to put it--isn't particularly new, although it's also not been played out. A few SF & related stories that sprang to mind:
  • Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash" (1992) is impossible to avoid when talking about "Lexicon"; if not a parent then it's definitely a highly-involved aunt or uncle.
  • I brought Julian Jaynes' "The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind" (1976) for show and tell--a probable inspiration for "Snow Crash", "Lexicon" doesn't reference its concepts directly but it makes the whole architecture of word-priest-magician-hackers more plausible and interesting. "Origin" looms large in my personal library: it's one of those non-fiction books that changed the way I think a fair bit; while it's almost certainly "wrong" in any strong interpretation, Jaynes' combination of psychological, linguistic, and anthropological research and thinking, in order to say something really intriguing about consciousness itself, is really inspiring and thought-provoking.
  • Various species of contagious or weaponized memes have become pretty common in SF, particularly in short stories, and often connected to AI/singularity stories. I have a few in particular in mind, and am once again cursing the lack of an easily-searchable database for short-form SF (if you don't remember the author, near-impossible to look up).
  • I was reminded of that perpetually-prescient 1952 novel "The Space Merchants" by Frederik Pohl & Cyril Kornbluth; while it's not about direct psychological control of individuals, its satirical but all-too-accurate portrayal of the advertising media resonates with "Lexicon" and its poets.
  • "The Voice" from Frank Herbert's "Dune" (1965); while based on intonation rather than use of specific syllables, it's extremely similar to the control words used in "Leixcon". Barry's poets have many echoes of Herbert's Bene Gesserit & Mentats.
  • The care needed to handle the (visual, not spoken) "bareword" in "Lexicon" is reminiscent of the deployment of Monty Python's Killer Joke (which you should really watch).

 A really fun discussion! Next month's "Weird and Wonderful" pick is indeed Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash", an effing awesome read, and will be available at City Lit. Date for that will probably be Wednesday, February 25th, and at that meeting we will likely pick books for both March & April in order to get back on the two-months ahead schedule.

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