Compare two commonly-used adages: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” versus “The pen is mightier than the sword.” In your own life, which saying have you found to be truer? It’s all well and good to claim that an intangible thought, either spoken or written, is less powerful than a physical object, but one can easily come up with several examples to the contrary: Discarded treaties between the United States government and various Native American tribal peoples; Chairman Mao’s infamous little red book; documentation in South Africa upholding the so-called legality of apartheid; Stalin’s issuance of the Great Purge and subsequent refusal to acknowledge its existence; Adolph Hitler’s deranged, inflammatory Mein Kampf. Words are powerful, dangerous things. One might even say that they’re magical. In Lexicon, by Max Barry, they are all that and more.
1. Are you a cat person or a dog person?
Barry tells the story of a world in which people who are gifted with language are taught to use words in ways that are both creative and terrifying. They are known as “poets,” taking on the names of famous authors like Charlotte Brontë and T.S. Eliot, trained to hide their own quirks or weaknesses while exploiting those of the people around them at the behest of a global organization. Every person alive or who has ever lived belongs to a “segment;” this segment is determined by personality type, much like a Myers-Briggs examination or even a simple Internet quiz (“What Super Power Are You Hiding?” “What Internet Meme Are You?”). Skilled poets, with just a few questions, can whittle an individual’s segment down from hundreds of options to one or two, and then use the appropriate trigger words to command that “proselyte” to do the poet’s bidding.
The brain used language to frame concepts: it employed words to identify and organize its own chemical soup. A person’s tongue even determined how they thought, to a degree, due to the subtle logical pathways that were created between concepts represented by similar-looking or -sounding words. So, yes, words did make things real, in at least one important way. But they were also just symbols. They were labels, not the things they labeled. You didn’t need words to feel.
2. What is your favorite color?
Naturally, such power is not used to end world hunger or achieve global peace; the organization seeks to control people and information, find words of great power, and generally keep themselves at the top of the social hierarchy. (The head of the English-speaking division, a frighteningly disturbed man, is named Yeats. His second-in-command is named Sylvia Plath. Poetry fans, rejoice!) One would think that this should be easy, and for thousands of years, it has been relatively so — with a few exceptions, such as social unrest resulting from the tinkerings of a man named Gutenberg — until something terrible happened in the town of Broken Hill, Australia. An ancient word of terrible power has been discovered and used to kill all three thousand people living there, a word so powerful that it hangs in the air, killing anyone who comes into range. Regular people are not safe; even the most skillful poets are not safe; only one man, Wil Parke, inexplicably escaped, and naturally he is the subject of an intense manhunt. The poets want to know how he survived and what the word was, and they will do anything to find out. Wil would rather they not carve his brain open to get the answers which even he doesn’t know, but he may not be so lucky. Whether he will remember what happened in Broken Hill on his own, and whether he can do so without either being killed or accidentally killing everyone around him, drive his narrative.
“I don’t understand how it can be a word.”
“That’s because you don’t know what words are.”
“No, they’re not. You and I are not grunting at each other. We’re transferring meaning. Neurochemical changes are occurring in your brain at this very moment, because of my words.”
Lexicon‘s pages are split between Wil’s desperate attempts to stay alive in the overwhelmingly strange world around him and a young woman named Emily Ruff, who takes quite well to the life offered at the poet academy until she is banished to Australia for disastrously using her training against another student. Emily is best at survival, though, and while this exile is only the beginning of what the organization has in store for her, they have no idea what she’s truly capable of. Their gradually-revealed connection and involvement is one of the better aspects of the plot.
3. Do you love your family?
As Emily and Wil each learn more about language, Barry reveals bits and pieces of the magic/science holding his conceits together, and at no point did I feel as though he was simply crafting his rationale from whole cloth: the majority of his science, while it may have been seen as magic in the past, is grounded in linguistics and neurochemistry in a satisfying way.
The brain had defenses, filters evolved over millions of years to protect against manipulation. The first was perception, the process of funneling an ocean of sensory input down to a few key data packages worthy of study by the cerebral cortex. When data got by the perception filter, it received attention. And she saw now that it must be like that all the way down: There must be words to attach each filter. Attention words and then maybe desire words and logic words and urgency words and command words. This was what they were teaching her. How to craft a string of words that would disable the filters one by one, unlocking each mental tumbler until the mind’s last door swung open.
If you like language, if you like intriguing plots and fascinating characters, if you like Machiavellian manipulation from all angles, then read this book. Just don’t plan on taking Internet quizzes any time soon.
4. Why did you do it?