“Your ability to persuade is the single most important determinant of your quality of life.”

The organization can teach you a potent form of persuasion, primal syllables laden with the power to “hack the protocol” of human language and thought, to “compromise”, to implant commands into the minds of others. This is the premise behind Max Barry’s Lexicon (2013). The story revolves around a word so powerful that it amounts to a psychological Master Switch.

Lexicon is a fun read and high in action. Like all good science fiction, the book takes some aspect of modern life and turns it up to the nth degree. Here, it’s our vulnerability to manipulation by corporations and political interests – a vulnerability magnified by the trail of electronic data that follows us around revealing our hopes, fears and desires.

The germs of the ideas are laid out in Barry’s blog:

Privacy is obviously very important for reasons nobody understands. Generally, there’s a much stronger incentive for companies and governments to want to know things about you than for you to keep your data private.”

Persuasion. This is the most valuable skill in the world, right? People who are good at persuading others become rich and successful; people who are easily persuaded by others do not. But nobody really thinks about this.”

Privacy + Persuasion. It’s easier to persuade people if you know more about them. And if you can persuade them, you can get more information from them.”

Barry’s openness is refreshing, offering insight into his process and encouragement for aspiring writters.

The power of words is the core of the story, but the one place were the author underplays his hand is with words themselves. On the run, hunted by the organization, the heroine studies a dictionary learning to derive for herself new keywords. Always keeping on the move, she discusses the derivation of the word awful with a sympathetic fellow train passenger. This scene hints at how linguistics could have been woven more deeply into the story. I know I would enjoy geeking out on that stuff but maybe I’m in a narrow demographic.

Barry advises against getting too hung up in research. “Research is useful in two phases: the idea phase and the rewriting phase. In between, […] research is a distraction from what’s important, which is story-telling.”

Similar themes are covered, maybe a bit more bookishly, in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose or Don DeLillo’s The Names, for those needing a bit more erudition with their sex, violence and evil conspiracies.

Lexicon manages to be thought provoking without ever slackening the roller-coaster pace. The book offers a choice. Do we live in paranoid isolation guarding our every thought lest it reveal too much about us? Or, accept that being open carries the risk of compromise?

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