Australian science fiction author Max Barry is creative and a little bit twisted. In his fifth novel, “Lexicon,” trained “poets” wield words to compromise and manipulate others.
Like novelists, only more insidious.
Barry will be in Southern California on Thursday, signing and reading from “Lexicon” at Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in Redondo Beach on Thursday at 7 p.m.
The plot of “Lexicon” revolves around Wil Parke, who is assaulted by a pair of men who tell him they are trying to save him from the “poets” while asking him for information about a catastrophe he doesn't recall, and Emily, an orphan from San Francisco with poetic potential.
In a phone interview with Jacket Copy, Barry answered questions about the power of words, privacy and the newly released film based on his first novel, “Syrup.”
In the novel you ask, “What is a word? What power do words have?” What led you to tackle these questions?
Obviously as a writer I am fascinated by exactly what is happening when I am getting words to people.... Two people will read the same book -- the same sentences -- and come up with very different opinions. One person is saying what you’ve written is fantastic, and someone else is saying it’s terrible even though it’s the same sentence.
What became more obvious to me as I wrote more books … is that the story is very different for different people because it happens inside the brain. The story is what happens inside the brain when you feed the words into it.
I’m a hobbyist programmer, and it seems fairly similar to … when I write a program and I use particular key words to provoke a particular reaction from the computer.
That combined with what I’ve learned from marketing, how we’re always trying to persuade people and use coded language to provoke particular purchase decisions, all that came together.... There’s a lot of science behind persuasion that wasn’t there 50 years ago, or even 10 years ago and people are getting quite skilled at it. We’re learning more about how we can directly influence the brain. So it seemed like a natural progression of those trends to end up in a place where there are words that can code directly into parts of your brain.
In the book you show that in order to defend against persuasion, you need to hide parts about yourself. Can you talk a little bit about that and how that contrasts with the cultural impulse now to share everything on the Internet?
I find it an interesting issue, privacy, because we say we care about it, but we act like we don’t. We get very upset when it is discovered that people have been snooping on what we’ve been doing, but very few of us take any steps to actually avoid giving out information about ourselves.
We’ll take the store card, and we’ll let the store track us and track our purchases in exchange for loyalty points. We’ll store apps on our phone that will be able to access our email. We all give away a lot of information about ourselves on Facebook and through our profile pages. Yet we’re very worried about our privacy.
I think … that for the most part we’re not really concerned about hiding any particular piece of information about ourselves. What we are concerned about is when someone gets to know so much of these little pieces of information that they can actually build an overall picture of who we are as a person....
You don’t really feel it as a threat until it gets to that point where you know you are completely exposed as a person, and that’s not really a threat for most of us. Because the people that are tracking our data are not interested in us exactly as individuals. They’re just … trying to segment us into groups.
I thought maybe there is a way to … talk about privacy in a way that isn’t just logical and [how] in theory we can end up in an oppressive police state but, rather, getting to the real roots about what concerns us about other people knowing us.
So is the blank state the ideal state? Do we not want to be persuaded at all?
The people [in the book] who are the poets ... they wouldn’t want to be open to persuasion themselves. They become privacy nuts. They shut themselves off from everyone, and they’ll never risk giving their true selves away. Of course there’s a cost to that. It’s terribly isolating if you are so concerned about your own privacy that you don’t let anyone else in.
We’ve talked about privacy as a social issue where you don’t want some anonymous stranger knowing who you are, but it’s a very personal thing as well. It’s a decision we all make of whether to expose ourselves to another person.... You’re taking a risk when you do that, and the risk is that you’re giving them not just the power to approve of who you are or reject you but you’re giving them a kind of power over you as well.