Ah, that rare beast – as elusive as a Griffith: the intelligent thriller.
A thriller is, more often than not, disposable entertainment. Fast-paced, easy to read, full of action and tension – a self-contained and complete narrative package designed for consumption on a plane or bus ride. As such, they are not known for being sources of thematic or literary depth. The main payoff of the thriller is in knowing how it ends.
As such, when a book like Max Barry’s Lexicon comes out – with a healthy sprinkling of interwoven thematic elements on the pervasiveness of surveillance, control, and free will – critics begin to marvel at this odd creature, this unlikely marriage of the cerebral and the visceral – the intelligent thriller.
Lexicon is undoubtedly a very good marriage of the best of those two traditions. On one hand, it is the perfect thriller – fast-paced, unputdownable, and full of twists, cliffhangers and tantalizing puzzles that keep you reading. Barry’s prose style is perfectly tuned to the needs of this kind of narrative – always snappy, maintaining a constant but not overly hurried pace, eschewing description and other orthogonal-to-the-story fluff. The narrative also does a great job at maintaining the precarious balance between excessive exposition and needless opacity. No character sits around and talks in excessive depth about the minutiae of the world and characters. On the other hand, information and worldibuilding nuggets are doled out at appropriate and natural moments in the narrative in a way that never leaves the reader completely adrift and confused. There is great craft involved in this balance, and Lexicon is one of the few books I’ve read in the speculative fiction tradition that nail it.
This achievement is doubly impressive when one considers that Barry is, in effect, engaged in creating a “magic system”, so to speak. The book starts in medias res, with the reader knowing nothing, and Barry builds upon that tension to introduce a world in which there exist clandestine forces that are able to control people with mere words – special words that, when processed by the brain, short circuit the brain’s defenses and causes the victim to become susceptible to whatever order the wielder of the words gives – kind of like the biological equivalent of a drop_table SQL injection. There is a scientific gloss applied to the practice, and the specifics of it are described in some detail. This is a well-defined system of magic with historical depth and verisimilitude, as the misuse of the power of words is made the explanation for the various “Babel” events that occur in myth – basically a Poet, as these practitioners are called, create empires with their power, is overthrown, and their peoples begin to speak different languages to prevent another Poet from rising and controlling them again. It’s a relatively novel magic system and one that is used to good effect.
Underlining this narrative and magic system is that uncomfortable question of free will, which is dealt with in the end of the book. What is free will if a single spoken string of words can turn its victim into a puppet who thinks that the command arises out of their own desire? In the absence of clear neural stimuli, what is free will if merely a bundle of stochastic inputs? It’s not an easy question to answer, of course – the book tries, in a way that I won’t spoil but that I find not very satisfactory. But he tries.
Interspersed with this are more down-to-earth concerns about surveillance, especially self-reported surveillance, the kind that you volunteer freely to the state just by doing things like updating your Facebook profile, or agreeing to install security cameras as deterrents against terrorism. The magic system is a kind of metaphor for this, insofar as Poets learn what words to use to control people by profiling them with questions that sound like they came from a particularly pointless Buzzfeed quiz. People, Barry says, are in effect giving away the keys to the fortresses that are their minds freely to these information-collecting and gathering algorithms. Foucault’s discipline of the modern state, anyone? But in all seriousness, I doubt Barry is using the book as a libertarian pulpit, as the theme here is inserted very unobtrusively. But it’s there, and, although perhaps a little trite, is a good example of how speculative fiction can use its world-building to draw the reader’s attention to real-world social and political conundrums.
I must confess, though, that I may have had inflated expectations of this book. I bought it purely on account of the many glowing and enthusiastic reviews were placed on its cover, from big names like Cory Doctorow and Hugh Howey. The book itself, while a fun and at times thought-provoking read, did not quite live up to the lofty expectations I’d unwittingly set of it. The novel has its flaws – it’s perhaps too short, the ending is slightly rushed, some plot elements don’t quite work or are inadequately explained, and Barry’s sparse prose can sometimes make it less than clear what is happening. It reminds me of Grim Fandango in that that was a similar, highly venerated product that I didn’t quite enjoy as much as I expected to. I just think it may have been a little too lightweight and true to its thriller roots than the kind of fiction toward which I am usually drawn.
Minor quibbles, however. In the end, Lexicon is that kind of book I’d like to see more of – politically aware, intelligent mass market appeal speculative fiction. Barry has in Lexicon written something of great reputational value to the mainstream.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 barewords