“Lexicon” by Max Barry – innovative, clever, exciting, violent, science fiction

lexiconMax Barry is now one of my “I think I’ll read everything he’s written” authors.

I’ve been reading science fiction for decades, so I know how rare it is to come across a book like “Lexicon” which has not just a new ideas, but a clever, well-thought through plot, written by someone who is skilled at dialogue, characterisation and action scenes and  who can unfold the story in a way that engages the reader’s intellect and emotions.

The basic premise of “Lexicon”  is that words have the power to control how we think and behave and that this power can be shaped into a weapon by those with the right skills.

The characters constantly explain how influence and manipulation work: get someone to pay attention to the wrong thing, play on their emotions to shape their perception of good and evil, understand their personality and then pry their psyche apart. Despite this, it took me several chapters to realize that Max Barry had been manipulating me from the first page onwards.He did it by controlling the order in which I received information, who I received it from and the emotional terms used to convey it. At least twice in the novel I had to reset what I thought I knew to be true. Barry didn’t cheat. All the information correctly to understand what is going on is there but my own assumptions make me see one thing and read another.

A book that is about weaponising  words is likely to appeal to those of us with a recreational addiction to fiction. We KNOW words have power, so we are ripe for the ideas in this novel. If, like me, you’ve been trained in NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming), public speaking, influencing skills, psychometric assessment and you read tarot cards and palms as a party trick, then the early parts of this book are frighteningly familiar. The book takes what I know I can do and then asks me to imagine what a motivated person, with REAL talent, no social ties, no inhibitions and the support of an organization with generations of research at their disposal, could achieve.

“Lexicon” is filled with coercion, violence and killing from the first page. Max Barry doesn’t pull his punches but he doesn’t turn the violence into pornography either. He makes it too real and too repulsive for that.

His main evil-incarnate character is suitably chilling but I could write that off as stereo-type. Elliot and Emily I got to know and like and care about, so what they did, to others, to each other and to themselves had much more impact.

My only niggle with the book is the last chapter. It’s not where I would have gone with this. It felt like the kind of thing Hollywood might have changed in the movie version to ensure they stayed firmly in the summer blockbuster segment. But then, I’d never have thought up something as clever and powerful as “Lexicon” in the first place, so I’ll go with Barry’s judgement.

I listened to “Lexicon” as an audiobook, which, I think, made the book even more exciting. Zach Appleman did a splendid job as the rugged, world-weary, Elliot. His American accents are perfect and he at least managed to sound like he’d been to Australia.  Heather Corrigan was marvellous at evoking Emily’s vulnerability and her strength but her attempts at Australian accents ranged from unconvincing to inappropriately hilarious. Nevertheless, both narrators kept me listening, often on the edge of my seat.

If you’d like to hear an extract from “Lexicon”, click on the SoundCloud link below.

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