Monday, December 23, 2013

Do As I Tell You

by Max Barry

3 out 5 evil poets

“Vartix velkor mannik wissick! Read this review and then email me your credit card numbers!”

If you followed my instructions, then this is the greatest book ever written.  If you didn’t, then it’s a decent thriller with a clever sci-fi hook to it that doesn’t deliver on its full potential.

Lexicon tells two parallel stories.  In the first one, Wil is a young Australian who is abducted at an airport by a mysterious man called Tom who tells him that he is being pursued by a powerful and dangerous group that has dedicated itself to using language to manipulate others.  The best of their people are called ‘poets’ and take on names of famous scribblers like Yeats or Woolf.  A poet can seize control of another person by reeling off a series of special code words that hack the brain and enable them to implant commands.

The other story takes place a few years prior to this and tells of how a teenage homeless girl named Emily becomes a student of a special school where the kids are trained in the art of persuasion to become poets.  The stubborn and headstrong Emily constantly chafes against the strict rules of the school, and she eventually finds herself in hot water.  As Wil and Tom try to stay a step ahead of the poets hounding them, Emily’s story eventually begins to dovetail with theirs and all points converge at an Australian town that was the victim of some kind of industrial catastrophe.

There are some echoes here of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash which also focuses on the idea of language as a kind of virus.  When Lexicon is exploring the ideas of persuasion and a secret group manipulating society by using mass media, it’s pretty interesting.  When it reverts to the thriller potion of people on the run from a vast conspiracy, then it’s a lot more formulaic and not nearly as much fun.

I had some other issues with the book, but I gotta venture into spoiler country to talk about them. so don't continue reading if you don't want to know elements of the ending.

* I thought the book was really headed into a unique direction when it appeared that Emily had somehow become a blood thirsty villain.  I liked the idea of using the well worn concept of a secret school and having a main character who is ‘special’, but then standing it on it’s head and having them turn out to be a rotten apple.  It would have been like if Harry Potter would have gotten expelled from Hogwarts for his constant rule breaking and then returned years later as a dark wizard to level the place.  That could have been a great twist on these kinds of stories but unfortunately Max Barry chickened out, and then we find out that Emily is an unwitting victim in the whole thing.

* When Emily was attacking Yeats and engaged in the classic super-villain mistake of engaging in an extended dialogue with her intended victim until he eventually got a chance to turn her into his slave, I literally yelled out loud with frustration.  It was meant to be a reveal that all of Emily’s actions going after Tom weren’t her own, but it was an extremely frustrating moment to have our long-suffering heroine again get beaten by the asshole who was controlling her for the whole book, and even worse, it was her own fault for not just killing him when she had the upper hand. It put a damper on the entire last section of the book for me because it seemed to let all the air out of the natural climatic moment of the book in order to paste on another act.

* One glaring weakness in the story, Barry never explains what the goal of the poets is.  They’ve got enormous resources that they use developing their persuasion techniques and recruiting new members, but we’re never told why they’re doing this.  Yeah, Yeats has an agenda, but he’s crazy. So what exactly were the poets trying to accomplish other than creating new and better poets?

* Another soft spot is that a book that came up so many clever concepts reverted to a simple Love-Conquers-All theme at the end.

Also posted at Goodreads.

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