Author: Christina Dalcher
Publication: August 21, 2018
Hardcover: 336 pages
The last few years have seen a resurgence of feminist dystopias in media, with Christina Dalcher’s Vox as one of the latest additions to the genre. Dalcher’s near-future America centers around a simple, yet horrifying concept – what if women were only allowed to speak 100 words a day?
We meet Jean, a former cognitive linguist, a year into the Pure regime that slapped word counters onto every woman’s wrist. The bracelets track the number of words spoken, and once they hit 100, deliver shocks of increasing potency. Cameras installed in homes and businesses flush out anyone using sign language to circumvent the restraint, and though Jean chafes at the restrictions, she’s seen how swiftly dissent is silenced and doesn’t want to be taken from her four children.
Jean’s family serves as a microcosm for society, showing us the variety of perspectives playing out nationwide, though the scope of Vox is rather limited in terms of setting and characters. Six-year-old Sonia is not the babbling child one would expect. She has deeply internalized the need to avoid speech, and her naïve excitement over being rewarded with ice cream for speaking the fewest words at school illustrates how swiftly the younger generation adapted to the new normal.
Jean’s teenage son, Steven, represents the heart of the male perspective of the Pure Movement. Too old for childlike innocence, we see his mindset consciously decide to accept new curriculum that preaches male authority, female submission, traditional gender roles and heterosexuality. Academic curiosity morphs into enthusiastic participation, leaving Jean feeling like the enemy has infiltrated her home at a previously unmatched, deeply personal level.
When an accident befalls the president’s brother, resulting in aphasia (a brain condition that garbles a person’s speech processes), Jean is called to return to her ground-breaking neurolinguistics work. She reluctantly agrees after bargaining for the removal of her and Sonia’s word counters, and is reunited with her old research team to try and cure one of the central pillars of the Pure Movement.
If it sounds like the plot has taken a sudden sharp turn, that’s because it has.
Unfortunately, Vox fails in the same way that many dystopians do – it excels at chilling, haunting exposition, but fails to sufficiently bookend the brave new world with well-thought answers to “How did we get here?” and “Where do we go from here?”
The expository elements are vague at best, and rely heavily on taking cheap, predictable shots. There are references to Supreme Court nominations and an unnamed president who takes office after the first black president. Subtlety, thy name is not Vox. In addition, the primary voice of opposition is a brazen black lesbian who is seemingly competing for who can come across as the most stereotypical against a cast that is otherwise overwhelmingly bland and white.
But where the setup really fails is in explaining how the Pure Movement gained a nationwide foothold: “Somewhere along the line, what was known as the Bible Belt, that swath of Southern states where religion ruled, started expanding.” Expanded like…The Blob? If you’re expecting that sentence to be expounded upon, brace yourself for disappointment.
The story begins to fall apart when Vox leaves the eerie worldbuilding of the first half for a research-based plotline that brings Jean’s former life to the forefront, including a smoldering Italian coworker she thought long gone. The larger conflict takes a back burner in favor of Jean’s personal drama and marital dissatisfaction. Removing Jean and Sonia’s counters, while believable as a bargaining chip for her cooperation, ultimately lessens the tension that made the first half so gripping.
Unfortunately, Vox fails to come out of its nosedive. The ending is swift, abrupt and unbelievably convenient. Moral dilemmas solved by the process of elimination. Characters receive unfounded redemption arcs. The climax isn’t even seen in first-person, as if the author were so unsure of what was actually happening that it had to be reduced to a sketchy secondhand retelling. Quite frankly, I’m not even sure exactly what happened, but I was so uninvested by this point that I didn’t care to puzzle it out.
While a disappointing ending doesn’t always ruin a book for me, Vox crashes and burns so hard that I’d almost say the first half is the only part worth reading. But even then, this book offers little beyond the initial shock value, and while that sensationalist element is done exceptionally well, it fails to add anything new to the conversation about the state of America or women’s rights.
To quote Vox’s opening line,
“If anyone told me I could bring down the president, and the Pure Movement, and that incompetent little s*** Morgan LeBron in a week’s time, I wouldn’t believe them.”
You’re right, Jackie. I don’t believe you.