I just finished Australian author Max Barry‘s 2013 novel Lexicon and I think it’s terrific.
I first became aware of him and this novel by reading a 2014 article he wrote for Gizmodo called How to Write a Great Science Fiction Novel in 7 Easy Steps and, as far as I can tell, “Lexicon” is the first SciFi novel he ever published, though he’s written other books before.
The novel is intriguing in that words are used as weapons, and they can ultimately kill. It’s a lot more complicated than that, but as it turns out, there are certain individuals who, properly trained, can analyze the personality “segment” of people around them, determining which words (which in the book are all nonsense words) will influence them.
But it’s worse than that. A teenage girl named Emily Ruff, who is a runaway and homeless in San Francisco at the beginning of the story, is recruited by a mysterious group of people and begins training at an exclusive prep school in Virginia (think “Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Children” except the children are especially persuasive, but not mutants).
An amnesiac named Wil Parke seems to be the only person totally immune to the effects of persuasion by these “poets,” and is the key to recovering a deadly item called a “bareword,” one that can influence anyone regardless of segment, and has been used to murder the entire population of an Australian mining town.
In the middle of this is another poet named Eliot, and as the story unfolds, it’s difficult to tell where his loyalties lie, with the organization run by a despot named Yeats, or with Emily, who events and ultimately Yeats, transforms into the lethal threat Woolf.
The tale switches back and forth in time, which at first is fairly easy to follow, but becomes more complex as the reader progresses. I found myself becoming “lost in time” until the final eighty pages or so.
One of the side effects of the novel is that Barry made me look up words, usually those related to clothes such as “wife beaters” (yes, it’s a kind of shirt) and “akubra,” which is a type of hat. Ironically, it’s Yeats own affection for expensive designer shoes (poets aren’t supposed to give off clues as to their personality because that information will allow other poets to figure out their segment and compromise them) that is his undoing.
One “weakness” I found early on was the poets’ dependence on English. Emily, while at school, encounters a Pakistani convenience store clerk who she influences, but English is his second language. How does that work? What happens if the person understands little or no English?
Barry resolves this problem much later in the story, but up until that point, I thought I had found the concept’s Achilles heel.
The author leverages his knowledge of marketing, interactive web development, and targeted ads, as well as mythical and biblical history (think a magician who must keep hidden his true name, and the Tower of Babel respectively) in crafting his tale, and it all merges very well.
I rarely give five star reviews on Amazon, because a book has to truly blow me away, but, if you’ll pardon the mixed metaphor, Barry knocked it out of the park with “Lexicon.” I highly recommend it.
Oh, I loved the page below so much, I photographed it and posted it on social media.
Oh, one more thing. So many science fiction stories (and really, any creative work or entertainment product) these days, seem almost obsessively focused on bringing up issues of race, or gender, or some other social justice theme, as if those qualities are the only thing that justifies writing a tale. Barry writes a good novel with real, believable characters, but given the premise of his narrative, they act like authentic human beings, not progressive, Mary Sue, literary tropes such as the “strong female character” (although Emily does have strength), or the racist white villain (Yeats is [probably] white, and while evil, doesn’t appear particularly racist…I mean, it never comes up in the story).
I found this refreshing because, at the end of the day, it’s not about lecturing the reader.It’s all about telling a good story.
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