Summer Reading: Speculative Fiction and the Power of Language
Looking for a beach read this summer, but craving something off the beaten path from your usual reads? Well, look no further because I’ve rounded up three speculative fiction selections for your perusal. Unfamiliar with speculative fiction? Over at GoodReads, speculative fiction is defined as “a fiction genre speculating about worlds that are unlike the real world,” and can intersect with a wide variety of genres. For these reasons, speculative fiction lends itself to spaces for interesting ethical explorations by envisioning possible futures or scenarios with, for example, alternate timelines or new technologies. The following beach reads deal with the intersection of ethics and language, from the power that language can have to the intersection of technology and language to ethical issues raised at the language-power-technology nexus. These novels may not be ethics-based in nature, but their speculations give the reader an opportunity to pause and reflect on his or her own thoughts on the ethical nature of technological dependence, enhancements, and the use and misuse of language in personal and political realms. In giving a flavor of each of these novels, I’ve attempted to remain as spoiler-free as possible while highlighting some areas for ethical consideration for your maximum reading enjoyment.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson (1992)
The book that put Stephenson on the map, Snow Crash is a tour de force of a near-future world where language viruses can be transmitted via various means. With twee character names (“Hiro Protagonist”, anyone?), love triangles, and multiple perspectives, Snow Crash is fast-paced read with something for everyone. Stephenson offers up commentary and room for ethical musing on topics including government, online avatars, start-up and hacker communities, televangelists, and religious history (including the Tower of Babel and the Sumerian writings like the nam shub of Enki). There are some illusions to transhumanism through implanted antennas wired to brainstem of certain characters, giving the reader space to consider the implications of how these implants could be used for good and evil.
I first read Snow Crash years ago and still come back for a re-read every now and then. While this book suffers from Stephenson’s inability to write an ending after establishing a compelling set-up (see also, in this reader’s opinion: Cryptomonicon, Anathem, Reamde) it’s still worth the afternoon investment. If you’ve been looking to up your Stephenson street-cred or just interested in dipping your toe in the cyberpunk/speculative fiction waters, Snow Crash is an easily accessible entry point. Additionally, if you are interested at all in either of the two following books, I would suggest reading Snow Crash as well as both draw inspiration from this novel.
Lexicon by Max Barry (2013)
What if people only came in a discrete number of types and every person could be classified into one of these types? Even further, what if each of these types could be controlled by a certain grouping of words? Lexicon explores a group of individuals, called Poets, which study language and can wield control over the personality types by memorizing control words. This novel follows the recruitment of a Poet, her development, and the ultimate destruction she causes. This novel challenges the reader to consider what happens when the power of language is placed in the wrong hands and also asks when destruction can be justified by love? Lexicon raises the issue of how we should wield the power that education and language can have and the repercussions of placing power within certain people or groups. Like Snow Crash, Lexicon tackles the themes of the Tower of Babel and existence of a nam shub (and even reviews of Lexicon have invoked Snow Crash). If you’re looking to pick a book based on it’s awards, Lexicon captured spots on Time Magazine’s Top 10 Fiction Books 2013 list and NPR’s Best Books of 2013, just to name a few. If you found this book interesting, and could be interested in ideas behind logos and branding, Max Barry’s second novel, Jennifer Government, may also be of interest.
The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon (2014)
For those of you who like name-dropping Hegel and Habermas (and sly references to Guy Debord) in your speculative fiction, The Word Exchange is for you. As Ryan Britt of Tor.com notes at the blog of the same name, The Word Exchange passes for “genre in the mainstream,” i.e., science fiction masquerading as mainstream lit. Following a young woman, Ana, who has put off grad school (while trying to perfect her portfolio) to take a job with her father at the Dictionary, The Word Exchange explores themes from the power of language (written, spoken, and remembered) to potential impact of technocracy. The novel follows Ana’s search for her father after he goes missing, the influence of technology on everyday life (including technological dependence), and the spread of the “word flu.” Ana is also in the wake of a breakup from a long relationship, and Gradeon deftly handles post-breakup characterization and the feelings that come with moving on and discovering affection again throughout the novel. Graedon drops in tastes of potential ethical debates by weaving concepts (albeit in a heavy-handed manner occasionally) like accelerated obsolescence (gadgets being replaced by newer, flashier ones) throughout the novel. While not highlighted explicitly by Graedon, this theme challenges us to not only think about our dependence on technology but also from a broader impacts perspective on thinking about the waste we generate in pursuit of the latest technologies. Discussions of moral/cognitive enhancement are also touched upon in conjunction with technology, and the near-future setting of this book makes it easy for the reader to make the leap from their reliance on their smart phones to the reliance of the characters in the book on their Meme devices.
The Word Exchange also takes some heavy cues from Snow Crash, from ideas of implantable chips and devices to the plot theme of neurolinguistic/word flu style diseases. Released in April 2014, I fully expect to see The Word Exchange on several Best of 2014 lists at the end of the year, so if you’re the kind of person who enjoys being into something before it was cool or mainstream, make sure to check this one out this summer. I will, however, also note that I was often torn (like many readers over at GoodReads) between finishing this book and giving up at several points due to the pacing and the way that that those infected with the “word flu” are portrayed in the text.
Let me know in the comments if you have taken a chance on these books this summer and what you thought!