The Word is the gripping story of a horribly plausible dystopia in the near future
JL George has put himself on the shoulders of giants to give us this exciting start. His dystopia in the near future and horribly plausible echoes texts as diverse as Alderson’s. The power, the room Carhullan’s army and, inevitably, 1984. His vision is only clearer and deeper.
It offers us an âEngland and Walesâ with closed borders, closed communications and food shortages. It’s cold and dark and you can’t get tomatoes in the winter. âBritain,â as it still likes to call itself, has locked itself into a cold war with its closest geographic neighbors, but it harbors a powerful innovation. A small number of each generation are born with the power to compel obedience using a specific tone of voice. If one of them tells you to sit down, stop, or die, that’s what you will do.
The Word must be made into a weapon or worshiped. The prayer of a powerful priest to “give us the strength to spread the Word, O Lord, and to protect those whom you have gifted”, takes on a different resonance in this strange new world.
Four children gifted with the Word are the subject of study and research. The book opens with two of them on the run, knowing what they are fleeing but without a clear plan to escape the country’s largest prison. As the story unfolds, the four of us learn about their young lives, and how they face the choices the Word imposes on them.
The notion of power that changes the world and its impact on its holders is always a fertile subject. In giving the power of the Word to children who can only have partial knowledge of truth or lies, George has found a fascinating new twist. What can you know, she asks, when you can’t assess who to trust and how far? And of course, children, like child soldiers anywhere, are unlikely to learn regardless of the cult into which they have been – whether consciously or not – enlisted. They have few tools to question the creed transmitted by the adults around them.
The story of Rhydian, Jonno and the others turns the page, and I want to avoid spoilers. We see, however, the wickedness of closed cults. Whether it is religion or patriotism, the strategies described by George to punish dissent and drive out unbelievers are all too recognizable. The extreme behavior practiced in the name of the âWord, whether for God or for the homeland, is both insidious and credible; adherents carefully plan their unscrupulous betrayals, always believing in the greater good.
Such personalities, whatever flag they fly for their cause, are the non-commissioned officers of the armies of authoritarianism. They are too familiar with 2020 Trumpian America and Britain to be considered caricatures. George pinches their deadly certainty, even if it allows for a bit of compassion for the sadness or loss of those involved. Her dystopia may be gray, but it’s not black and white.
Yet we do know that some in George’s Britain “stoop to hide” seek these alternatives, based on bursts of remembrance or terror at what they are forced to become. Nevertheless, we quickly learn that escaping the country, resisting the state of mind of authority, is not done alone. Just as few people have crossed the Iron Curtain without special opportunities and outside help, it is almost impossible to cross the borders of this new Britain just by running. Success will depend on solidarity and luck, on the collective refusal to accept the common illusions that fuel the mechanisms of control.
And just as the Berlin Wall fell almost by accident, so the structure based on the Word can only begin to fail by chance. The end of such regimes, like their beginning, only appears inevitable with hindsight. Going through such times, even the smallest contingencies carry a great weight of opportunity and loss. Children and the adults around them learn only slowly and perhaps too late.
The twin geniuses of memory and the glimmers of contact with other lifestyles are enough to motivate people to seek options other than giving up. This novel not only relies on the unusual imagination or bravery of its characters (although these attributes can be found), but is a salutary reminder of the need to work with others, not all of whom will be lovable, to rescue and change.
Word is a smart and compassionate story despite its considerable and necessary violence. It would make a great radio, or a dark movie with cyber-punk overtones. While waiting for such staging, enjoy this first novel. I look forward to more to come.
The Word is published by New Welsh Review and you can purchase a copy here.