Wil Parke prays it’s a case of mistaken identity when he’s waylaid in an airport toilet by a couple of guys who stick a needle in his eye and propose radical brain surgery. But when he’s hustled outside and a bunch of people, including his own girlfriend, try to kill him, he ends up on a journey with his supposed kidnappers that takes him from the frozen American countryside to the boiling wastes of outback New South Wales. Welcome to the world of Max Barry’s Lexicon, where Poets can stop you dead with a word, people are not always who they seem to be – or who they think they are – and your lover can become your killer in the blink of an eye.
The silence stretched. He couldn’t help himself. ‘Are you going to shoot me?’
‘I’m thinking about it.’
His bowels shivered.
The man lowered his gun. ‘She made you forget,’ said the man. ‘You really don’t know who you are.’
Wil sat in the snow, teeth chattering.
‘New plan,’ said the man. ‘Get back in the van.’
The Poets who cause so much mayhem in Lexicon are a secret group who use their advanced training in neurolinguistic programming, market segmentation psychology and a host of other tricks and tools that bombard us every day on a subconscious level through modern media in order to pull down our self-absorbed barriers and persuade us to go along with whatever they want. They’re like the smoothest tongued, most likeable sales guys you could ever meet times a million. Being a secret group, of course, you can tell they’re not using their powers for the public good. And beyond their cleverly persuasive phrases there’s the barewords, strings of sounds that, when spoken by a Poet to the right personality type, strip away any final reserves and leave the target a willing puppet.
The other protagonist in the novel is Emily, a 16-year-old street kid recruited by the Poets to enter their elite school (kind of like an evil version of the Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters) because she shows a certain aptitude for persuasion. It’s a fantastic opportunity, but when things go horribly wrong, she’s set on a collision course with the Poets’ inscrutable leader, Yeats.
Lexicon plays out as a taut contemporary thriller. The novel tracks both Wil and Emily, with the story moving backwards and forwards in time, and Barry demonstrates a virtuoso control of plot, taking full advantage of the reversals that can occur due to the strange power of the barewords. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, the story twists into a whole new set of operating parameters, then it does it again. In fact the way Barry uses the barewords and how he reveals their origin is one of the strengths of the novel. A lesser writer might have been tempted to resort to magical mumbo jumbo:
People still fell to the influence of persuasion techniques, especially when they broadcast information about themselves that allowed identification of their personality type – their true name basically – and the attack vectors were primarily aural and visual. But no one thought of this as magic. It was just falling for a good line or being distracted or clever marketing. Even the words were the same. People still got fascinated and charmed, spellbound and amazed, they forgot themselves and were carried away. They just didn’t think there was anything magical about that anymore.
The action in Lexicon is non-stop, the characters are strongly believable, the dialogue is snappy, the situations vividly portrayed and there’s tension and dry humour in equal measure. This is a top-notch action adventure with a subtext – expounded through a series of emails, blog posts and newspaper articles – about what the media and governments are doing to us, and how we are manipulated on a daily basis by having the millions of tiny details we reveal about ourselves in our social media interactions fed back to us to inform our choices and influence our decisions. It would be marginally less terrifying if it wasn’t all so very true. If this is science fiction, it’s science fiction on the bleeding edge of the now; the kind of two minutes into the future stuff that makes the later works of William Gibson so compelling.
I actually found myself slowing down while I was reading Lexicon because I didn’t want it to come to an end. If you believe in the power of words, you’ll do the same.
Max Barry Lexicon Hodder & Stoughton 2013 PB 400pp $29.99
Keith Stevenson is a speculative fiction writer and publisher at coeur de lion publishing. Visit him at www.keithstevenson.com and www.coeurdelion.com.au (He is also a judge in this year’s Aurealis Awards. The views expressed in this review are a personal opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Aurealis Awards judging panels, judging coordinator or management team.)
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