**I was sent an advanced reader’s copy of Vox by Christina Dalcher by Berkley Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, with a request for a review and rating.**
Vox is set in a dystopian, near future America, with all the trappings of a feminist cautionary tale. The country has been taken over by religious fundamentalists: an egomaniacal puppet president, a villainous “reverend” VP, and a mandatory “Pure” movement that separates the faithful from the suspect. Women are confined to the home and stripped of passports and credit cards. LGBTQ people are put into re-education camps and single women are given the choice to marry or live in brothels. It’s Handmaid’s Tale without the environmental disaster (and resulting infertility that leads to institutionalized sex slavery).
Instead, the distinguishing characteristic of Dalcher’s anti-feminist dystopia is how it controls women’s speech. Women of all ages, including babies, are fitted with word-counting devices on their wrists. The “bracelet” counts the wearer’s words up to a limit of 100 per day, violently shocking her for anything she says afterwards. Women are not just prevented from speaking words, however. Husbands are directed to lock away books, board games, pens, and paper.
By the third chapter or so I was crawling out of my skin at the very idea of living under these restrictions (especially the part about no reading or writing). It’s hard to read these types of books as a woman and not feel emotionally attacked. But I imagine that’s the point.
The protagonist of Vox is at the center of the action
While Offred of the Handmaid’s Tale is a normal woman caught up as a pawn in the dismal system, Vox’s protagonist is power-adjacent. Jean McClellan, a doctor of neurolinguistics, was just about to present new research on a cure for a language processing disorder when they slapped a bracelet on her wrist. When we first meet her, she’s flailing as she tries to parent three sons and a daughter without the power of words.
Just as the frustration becomes unbearable, Jean is offered an opportunity to put her counter aside and resume her research and save the president’s brother from a brain injury. It would mean bringing her research team back together and would give her the opportunity to teach her six year old daughter what their society is trying to repress.
While the misogyny throughout the book is infuriating (the worst of it coming from her own 17 year old son), a thrilling adventure plot keeps Vox from becoming a demoralizing slog. Complications abound including romantic and sexual intrigue, hidden identities, and sinister, high-level government plots and biological weapons.
A linguistic love fest
Linguists and writers (both of which tend to be avid readers) will love how language is the core of Vox‘s story from overarching plot points to everyday communication. Dr. McClellan never lets go of the conviction that words have nuanced meaning, dammit! Her area of research, aphasia Wernicke’s area, is a real-world language processing disorder in which people speak fluently, but the words they string together are completely nonsensical. She refuses to comply with the Orwellian double-talk that totalitarian governments demand.
Things in Vox that made me go “hm”
While the linguistic theme sets this book apart, it also seems a little too good to be true in a few cases. Jean knows someone secondhand who has fluent aphasia, and later someone else close to her is stricken with it. Add that the government is asking her to find a cure for the disorder, and it seems like this rare brain injury is suddenly everywhere. I suppose such coincidences happen—like in the case of the brain scientist who studied strokes and then had one herself—but it still seems like a lot.
I also felt like the “near-future-dystopia” was a little bit heavy-handed. The current president that has effectively silenced women took “the white house keys” from “the first black president.” We see many characters warning Jean throughout her adulthood that a dangerous political tide is coming and she should be protesting it. By the time she begins to protest after the president is elected, however, it appears to be too late. This almost seems like a direct and acute reproach of the reader for not preventing Trump’s rise. In that case, this isn’t really a cautionary tale, it’s just a scare tactic.
Also, there are multiple contemporary references to things like South Park, MP3 players, and the Dixie Chicks. It seems like someone could have said, “Margaret Atwood was right!” or (as many of us book people are saying now) “We should have listened to Octavia Butler!”
Who is first against the wall?
This last comment is less of a critique of the writing and more my own thoughts on the way the dystopia itself is constructed. I can see that the author was conscious of diversity when she wrote this book, and that she casts women of color in some of the most heroic roles in the book. That’s great, but it does make me wonder about the premise itself.
One of the resistance members, a black woman, talks about getting her mixed-race family out of the country asap because the government will be coming after them next. Looking at American history and its original sin of racism, the highest ranking underclass has tended to be white women. While I have no doubt that all women would eventually be targeted under this regime, white women have always been a useful tool to help slap chains on everyone else. It seems to me that this totalitarian government would choose a different silencing tactic, but maybe this is how the “Pure” movement is different from this version of America.
Ultimately, that’s Dalcher’s creative choice. Having to pack a political thriller, a meditation on the importance of language, and an on-the-nose dystopian warning into 300-ish pages requires a simpler premise. Especially if you’re going to really drive home a fear of the word-counters and dread of an entire generation of girl children never learning to speak.
If you like a political thriller with a dose of righteous anger, pre-order Vox from Penguin Random House. It’s out on August 21.
Also, go read the Parable of the Talents if you want a more complicated dystopia with a similar type of antagonistic government. And a president imagined in the 90s whose slogan is “Make America Great Again” (for real).