The plot of this thriller is spun from an elaborate (and perhaps sometimes overdrawn) metaphor for the ways in which people are being ever-more manipulated by the filtering of information and erosion of privacy.
The story concerns an unnamed and barely identified global “Organization” that studies linguistics and neurochemistry, using this knowledge to control people and outcomes. Members of this group are known as “poets” and take noms de guerre from names of famous poets of the past, such as Yeats, Eliot, Plath, and Woolf. As various characters explain, the practice of using signs and symbols to elicit desired responses is nothing new; rather, they are just taking what is already being done (examples from Facebook and partisan news shows are provided) to a different level.
The Organization has tested a great many people in order to come up with a numerical schematic by which the poets can categorize people into “psychographic segments” indicating which verbalizations will allow for their manipulation. [Psycholinguists would go along with the plot this far, but the author attributes a bit more magical power to signs and symbols than our current state of knowledge warrants.] To learn what a person’s “segment” is, a standard list of questions elicits the basic characteristics of the “mark,” but the most important thing to know about that person is what they most desire:
“It defines them. Tell me what a person wants, truly wants, and I’ll tell you who they are, and how to persuade them.”
The poets then can quickly come up with the appropriate word string “recipe” to create a particular neurochemical reaction. This breaks down a person’s defenses and induces a hypnotic like state after which any command can be given to the person and it will be obeyed.
[Social scientists point to many words and phrases, freighted with stereotype, oversimplication, and reassurance of a particular view of the world that have the same effect as posited in this story – words such as “communism” “tyranny” “terrorism” “democracy” and “welfare” and – we might add now – “hoodie.” “Language,” as Murray Edelman wrote, “becomes a sequence of Pavlovian cues rather than an instrument of reasoning and analysis if situation and appropriate cue occur together.” (The Symbolic Uses of Politics, Murray Edelman, p. 116.]
Emily is a student of the Organization who has somehow managed to resist efforts to control her reactions completely, and she is thus a “loose cannon” leaders of the Organization cannot trust. They banish her to Broken Hill, Australia for several years, ostensibly to get herself under control. In Australia, however, she falls in love. (This is taboo for poets, because it gives an outsider leverage over them.) Moreover, Harry, her lover, is an “outlier,” i.e., he is resistant to verbal trickery, this actually being part of his appeal for Emily. He can love her without her “making” him do so.
But Emily has been compromised (i.e., manipulated) without her knowledge by the psychotic head of the Organization, Yeats, in order to achieve his own nefarious ends. One of these ends is to discover and test the ultimate “bare word” – a word that is so powerful, it need only be uttered to topple empires and control the world. Yeats thinks he has found it, and he has made Emily into a ticking time bomb.
Discussion: This is a thought-provoking novel along the lines of 1984, Animal Farm, and more recently, Dave Egger’s The Circle, that serves up a metaphoric tale about the abuse of privacy, filtering of information, and the lack of critical analysis about what one hears and reads. In particular, the author suggests (as have many before him) that the internet, with its over-abundance of information, ironically creates a situation of information narrowing. That is, people cope with information overload by gravitating only to those sources that agree with their preconceived ideas. Dynamic programming now aids this process by suggesting sites to readers based on previous browsing history, Facebook, twitter posts, and so on. As one of the many articles on this issue points out, “… most users take special delight not in learning new things but in hearing their own beliefs echoed back at them. This incentivizes Google and other Internet actors to customize search results to confirm, rather than challenge, user biases.” (“The Web Is Turning Us Into Narrow-Minded Drones” by Katy Waldman in Slate.com) Such filters may in fact be in part responsible for the political polarization of American society today. This book is a scary cautionary tale about taking these modern “advances” in language and coercion to what may be their logical conclusion.
…Or maybe it’s actually a history. In an interview shortly before his death about his new novel about the Holocaust, Peter Matthiessen mused about the human capacity for genocide:
“We are all capable if you press the right series of buttons. Your grandmother can turn into a genocidaire. Most of us, we’re lucky enough to never hit that combination of circumstances. But if we’re pressed hard enough and we think our children are getting not enough food or whatever the triggers may be, then it’s his people, it’s their fault. … You get behind that, you get the state behind it and propaganda machines, and then you demonize the people, that’s the first step — you demonize them and pretty soon they’re not people anymore, they’re meant to be despised. It’s exactly what happened in Nazi Germany. The Holocaust was simply a very big manifestation of it. And a very efficient one.”
Evaluation: This intelligent thriller brings up many pressing issues that would suggest it as a great choice for book clubs.
Published by The Penguin Press, 2013