Everyone’s making pages for themselves. Imagine a hundred million people clicking polls and typing in their favorite TV shows and products and political leanings, day after day. It’s the biggest data profile ever. And it’s voluntary. That’s the funny part. People resist a census, but give them a profile page and they’ll spend all day telling you who they are.
Back in 2002, I stumbled across the Australian author, Max Barry’s book Syrup. It was out of print at the time, but I snatched up several used copies and sent them to people who needed a good laugh. The feedback was unanimous, and Max made a few more fans. In 2003, he published Jennifer Government, a dystopian novel in which the planet has corporatized rather than globalized. Then came Company in 2006–a novel that returned to the humour to be found in skewering corporate culture. Machine Man in 2011 took us into science-fiction territory with a scientist who begins replacing his body parts with better, factory-made replacements. Max Barry’s novels mine society’s paranoias and the issue of individualism within a society/corporate structure that endorses, encourages and rewards conformity. And this brings me to 2103’s Lexicon, Max Barry’s fifth novel.
You’d have to be deliberately avoiding the news not to hear/read recent stories about privacy. The battle for ‘Privacy’ is over, so we can shed a tear and feel a bit nostalgic. Privacy is a nebulous term, and anyone suspected of a crime loses that thin veil that kept their private life out of the public eye. Ok, so you’re not a criminal; these days with terrorism as the argument, we are all suspects. I’m thinking here about data mining and data collection: our phone conversations, our e-mails, anti-war protests, even our routines and habits: Carnivore, Prism, NasrusInsight, Magic Lantern, the MQ-9Reaper (great name btw). We live in fantastic times; it’s the sort of world imagined by Philip Dick. Trust Max Barry to mine this rich field and produce a prescient, brilliant, intelligent, dystopian novel: Lexicon: a nightmarish look at the ultimate privacy invasion–a book that pushes the boundaries of reality, and yet is so close, too close to an uncomfortable truth that the last frontier of privacy, the brain, is under assault. But we still have free will, don’t we?
The fact was, if you paid attention, people tried to persuade each other all the time. It was all they did.
And what if those persuaders had an unfair advantage, an incredible ability into the insights of your personality and decision making. What would happen if you could be persuaded to do anything?
Emily is a homeless 16 year old, hustling with cards on the street of San Francisco when she’s approached by a stranger who poses as a market researcher who claims he’s looking for “people who are persuasive and intransigent.” Emily accepts an offer to do “a round of tests,” and if she passes, she’ll attend a private school that teaches “persuasion.” The school, run by a shadowy organization, is a vetting ground for those with an exceptional talent for persuading others, and Emily is told this isn’t a regular school, the usual “government-run child farms” with a predictable curriculum. But neither is this school for salespeople; it’s something much more sinister:
She learned Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which was the order in which people optimally satisfied different types of desires (food-safety-love-status-enlightenment). She learned that leverage over people’s desire for knowledge was called informational social influence, while leverage over people’s desire to be liked was normative social influence. She learned that you could classify a person’s personality into one of 228 psychographic categories with a small number of well-directed questions plus observation, and this was called segmentation.
During Emily’s second year, she learns how to categorize people into types and identify which “persuasion techniques are more likely to work” on the various personalities. While learning how to identify types and manipulate other people, Emily is taught not to reveal anything about herself to others as personal information can open you to ‘persuasion.’ Graduates of the school are renamed and become “poets,” the most talented, gifted persuaders with an incredible ability to identity people by segmentation, and they are given a set of words that can ‘unlock’ the brain of any identified personality type. Naturally, for poets, desire is seen as a weakness and relationships are forbidden, and this is where Emily makes a mistake….
Alternating with Emily’s story is the story of Wil, an Australian who enters a bathroom and is sucked up in a battle for power between rival poet factions. Kidnapped by a poet named Eliot, Will is told that “eighteen months ago you survived something you shouldn’t have,” and that because he survived the incident at Broken Hill, a town declared a toxic disaster zone, he is an “outlier“–someone who is “immune” to segmentation and persuasion. Eliot believes that Wil, who has no memory of Broken Hill, holds essential, key information that will stop the power-grab of the much-feared rogue poet, Virginia Woolf.
Throughout the novel, Barry introduces conspiracy theories and various paranoias to fuel the tale, and the narrative is interspersed with forum comments, news articles, and various incidents that make the headlines
“I’m not saying that there’s something here with this specific incident, but I see this ALL THE TIME. If you watch TV news, every story is like this: ‘There was a fire and the owner was in financial trouble.’ They’re not saying he burned down his own place. But that’s what they’re trying to tell you.
That bothers me because we think we’re being clever, putting the pieces together, but it’s a set-up. We’ve only been given pieces that fit together one way…..”
While I miss the humour of Company and Syrup, Lexicon is the most original book I’ve read this year. The novel is a brilliantly conceived novel of ideas that are fresh, bold and just imaginative enough to feed our concerns regarding the invasion of privacy. Towards the end, when the novel became pure chase & kill thriller, the plot seemed to lose control, but this may be an issue with my kindle version more than anything else as I was unsure of the timelines for some of the chapters.
It’s been interesting to watch Max Barry’s career over the years, and Lexicon is a fascinating entry in this unique writer’s oeuvre. Max Barry always surprises and he always delivers. Well done, Max.