Mixed feelings here about Maxx Barry’s science fiction secret-organization thriller, Lexicon. Actually, I’m not sure that science fiction is the right genre. To the extent that linguistics and psychology are sciences, I suppose this novel counts as science fiction, but it’s pretty iffy on that score. It does fit squarely into the secret organization box, somewhat like Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore but with less humor, even if it does have a similar literary bent. This time the premise is an organization of so-called poets (each is given a pseudonym of a real literary figure, usually a poet) who have discovered how to use words to persuade listeners to do what they want. Sometimes the words are ordinary English, but often they are made-up syllables based on some nonsensical linguistic principle that causes the listener or reader to do what the speaker or writer commands. The words become weapons, so we’re unquestionably in the “pen is mightier than the sword” camp rather than the “sticks and stones can break my bones” camp. The story line is reasonably captivating: I kept wondering what would happen next, although “next” isn’t quite the right word. The book is filled with flashbacks and flash forwards to the point of confusion. Perhaps the printed version would have made the timeline much clearer, but I listened to the audiobook version, in which it often was very hard to tell whether an episode was taking place in the past, the present, or the future.

Lexicon contains echoes of Neal Stephenson and China Mieville, both of whom are better writers than Barry. Read all three authors if you have the time, but skip Barry if you don’t.

Character development in Lexicon is adequate but unimportant. Like most thrillers, this one is purely plot-driven, not character-driven. The plot eventually becomes clear enough, but it takes awhile. Some of the story takes place in Broken Hill, Australia, which I had thought Barry made up but turns out to be real. Some of it takes place in San Francisco and Virginia, both of which I believe are real.

Categories: Books