Led by a government of fundamentalists and bigots, America enforces a one-hundred-word quota on women’s speech — by way of putting a counter on every woman’s wrist and punishing them with electric shocks if they exceed the limit. With dissenting voices effectively silenced, what follows is a systematic devaluation of women in society: cutting them out of the workforce, subordinating them to their nearest male relative, and televised public shaming for anyone who tries to resist.
This is how America is made great again in Vox, linguist Christina Dalcher’s debut novel. We see this new society unfold through the eyes of Dr. Jean McClellan — formerly one of the country’s top cognitive linguists, but now voiceless and relegated solely to serving her husband and children at home. Jean struggles to raise four children and maintain her identity in this world without words. One year in, the president’s brother suffers a brain injury. Suddenly, the same government that shunned her talent and consigned her to the kitchen is now at her doorstep, seeking her expertise.
This opportunity puts words back in Jean’s mouth and power back in her hands. The question is what she’s going to do with them.
What to say about Vox
Now, your first impression might be that such extreme segregation is unrealistic. But given the era we live in, who are we to say what injustices are impossible anymore? Besides, all dystopia is a mental exercise – it requires you to suspend disbelief to explore a possibility. While the execution in Vox might seem far-fetched, the possibility of finding underhanded, systemic ways to silence women certainly isn’t far-off in 2018’s political climate.
Don’t expect heart-pounding suspense, though. Vox is a dystopia waged in laboratories and over dinner conversations, not with guns and bombs in war-torn landscapes. Our protagonist is a middle-aged mother with a PhD, not a feisty teenager spoiling for a fight. As such, much of the story is driven by talk rather than action. Fans of high stakes and hot-blooded drama might not be thrilled.
Speaking of talk, the story’s relatability is also hampered by scientific jargon that may feel alienating to readers. As a medical professional, I thought the use of Wernicke’s area (the part of the brain that comprehends spoken and written language) as a hook was poetic. However, as the book lacks patient explanation, this poeticism is lost on a layperson, as are the elements of the plot that depend on it. Which happen to be a lot.
What Vox has to say
Despite its flaws, Vox is still a relevant read if only for the value of the aforesaid mental exercise. Christina Dalcher explicitly requests that we parse the story in two ways: as a speculative political novel and a thought piece exploring the value of language.
On language: the average person says approximately 16,000 words a day. Vox’s hundred-word limit for women is less than 1% of that! Here’s a concrete example: this paragraph is exactly one hundred words. Imagine how unfair it is to have every day’s speech be limited to only this paragraph. Further, a vital thing that sets humans apart from animals is the gene for organized language. To remove communication is to remove what makes us human – the ability to interact with others, express ourselves, and document our existence. The cage Vox’s world puts women into isn’t only unfair, it’s dehumanizing.
As for politics: on the surface, the easy thing to be infuriated about is women holding a hard-won place in society and having it abruptly taken away. But the deeper implications of the book are more chillingly seen through the perspectives of the oldest and youngest of Jean’s children.
Five-year-old Sonia is growing up silent. In our current reality, it’s hard enough for women to use their voice. It takes women a lifetime to learn how to say no, stop, listen to me, that’s enough. With no words to educate little girls and no words for them to express their boundaries, how are girls going to grow into women who know their worth as human beings?
This is in contrast with Jean’s teenage son, Steven, who buys into fundamentalist ideals despite his parents’ efforts to shake him out of it. Our generation has sworn to raise our boys right and correct the patriarchal ideals internalized in our society for generations, but how can you do that in a world where women are voiceless and the roar of men desperate to dominate them is deafening?
What Vox wants us to say – and do
We might recognize someone we know – or even ourselves – in Jean. For as long as she was insulated from injustice, she was content to be wrapped up in her personal concerns. Though she was clearly disgusted by fundamentalism, her rebukes to Steven’s enthusiasm were lukewarm at best. Even when she could speak, Jean couldn’t find the words to set her son’s values back on the right track.
No one pops out of the womb 100% enlightened; each one of us needs time and education to polish our politics at our own pace. A major point here is that Jean is only learning to refine hers at 44, after the discrimination had become inescapable. Vox cautions us that hatred waits for no one, and the longer we delay taking action against it, the more lives it destroys.
The true horror of Vox and the society it suggests isn’t the outrage when you think of the way things used to be, or the hopelessness of being unable to speak up and change anything. It’s the concept of a future generation who will experience neither hopelessness nor outrage because they’ve accepted voicelessness, inequality, and oppression as normal.
Vox is worth a read if only to ensure that we guard vigilantly against this future, and — as one of the book’s best characters put it — that we think about what we need to do to stay free.