It is a worthy book and you should read it (or listen); the others lauding it are fairly correct. It has succinct prose and an engaging story examining the meaning of words, what power they have, and what’s important in the grand scheme of free will and convincing other people to do one’s will.
Myself a student of words and symbols, a padawan of semiotics, it still irks me a little bit as writers get lost in the aggrandizement of words as magic and power. True, Barry and others are right to reference the word in its historical and magical underpinnings, and that does work to a fair extent. However, it is, I feel, too easy to fall prey to the fallacy that words contain the meaning, and by result, can have such blatant and overreaching power.
Barry conjures the greatest of power words in his story. True, words have a power. People might not be willing to give them power, may continue to give them subconscious reactions even, but as has always been, fundamentally, words have only as much power as society and people willingly give them. Words have a very recent origination, and, as in Lexicon, I find it a mistake to ignore that rather important point. Words and utterances postdate human consciousness, though inform it to such a degree as to surely propel it, and are now confoundingly intertwined.
The trap that this novel falls into then is that there might exist words and utterances that can affect people so deeply as to compel them completely to do whatever is bid. A fundamental linguistic machine code to consciousness, while wonderful in theory, holds less weight in my understanding (emphasis on the linguistic). As any competent psychonaut and student of mystical experience will tell you, experience of perception and consciousness, other worldly or not, is often un-verifiable and un-utterable, and therefore words can no longer penetrate to many (arguably any) corners of the void actually worth going to. This is what new lexicons are for as the inward and outer cosmos is mapped further. And yet, the void remains.
Why, and importantly how, would so-called power-words exist? The novel argues them, and work well as merely a fictional underpinning, but falls short of competently explaining them in the context of further holonic dependencies, networks, and the deeper points of neurology without inciting true mystical powers and the ineffable, inscrutable. It does touch on some important and relevant neurolinguistics, but the story there is far from done.
Joyce and Campbell talk of the aesthetic arrest that high-art, indeed words, could have, but that arrest is still dependent on one’s understanding of and execution of perception, awareness, and consciousness. I find it difficult to imagine the possibility of any word, even if it is exquisitely depicted as Barry has, to be compelling enough for almost everyone—and indeed, that is what we find in the story (though I would argue that even a small town would be less likely to suffer it so violently as Broken Hill).
I suspect Barry knows most of this meta-linguistic problem well enough himself. He’s a writer and must employ words to get his story across. He continues to point at the power-words with other words, as one mystically describes the depths of the void with what few map points we have. And, in that, he executes, with the brevity of a single novel for what he tries to accomplish: a meaningful and thrilling story, believable characters, clandestine illuminated organizations, and food for thought that rival some of the greats of Stephenson, et. al.