The title of this very good thriller is a little misleading: the word ‘Vox’ (Latin for the voice of, as in ‘vox populi’, the voice of the people), doesn’t appear anywhere in the novel. I was hoping for some time that it would be revealed as the name of the resistance to the fundamentalist US administration under whose rule women are restricted to 100 words a day, and are forced to police their own daughters. You may want to rebel, but you have to stop your 5-year old daughter from using language if she’s going to electrocute herself when she goes over her daily hundred. So there is no Vox, but the novel is about voices: using them, not being able to use them, how to use them, and how the right to use them is so easily taken away. Comparisons with present-day political and religious regimes are also apposite: women in Saudi Arabia today cannot hold a job, or leave their own homes without male permission (though a recent relaxation in the law has allowed some women, who can afford it, to drive a car on their own).
Dystopian novels about the ideological oppression of women by modern male-led governments inevitably face comparison with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985). Vox (2018) follows Atwood’s path of illustrating the insidious creep of legal restrictions spawned from pseudo-religious propaganda, that rapidly creates a viciously oppressive state. But Dalcher’s variant on the parable keeps women in their own homes under male guardianship, and they can have all the children they want with their husbands. In fact, as the national work force struggles to keep the country and the economy going, having relegated half of its adult citizens to the kitchen, teenagers are offered cash bonuses for early marriage and babies. The regime’s inherent brutality is also applied in a slightly more subtle way. Women are in charge of their own punishment for transgressing the laws: their 101st word will apply the electric shock through their wrist counters. In the new model of the counter, swear words use up 10 words at a time, and women also have to recite the new creed several times a day, a bastardisation of the Ten Comandments, ensuring psychological subjugation.
The nightmare is compounded by seeing (some) boys happily adapting to the new system of a mother servant always in the house for them, and girls only taught arithmetic (for their shopping roles) and domestic training. Small girls compete to say the fewest words in a day at school to get the reward of an ice-cream. It’s horribly plausible, and it takes an effort to step back and ask whether it could all work, here and now. Are we already on the way? Recent anti-abortion legislation by the more conservative, least progressive of the US’s state goverments would seem to indicate yes. We are on the way, or some clever politicians are actively working to get us there.
The novel opens a year into this oppressive regime. Dr Jean McClellan has been forced to stop her ground-breaking research into reversing aphasia through brain stroke, and she’s frustated and enraged, stuck at home. Her elder son is turning into an advocate for the Pure Movement, and her little daughter is worryingly close to losing any chance of normal speech development. Her husband, a goverment science advisor, is passive, weak and perpetually tired; and she is tormented by memories of her feminist room-mate Jackie warning her that all this would come to pass, and Jean has done too little, too late.
But then the President’s chief advisor receives a brain injury that removes his speech, and Jean is called on to help produce a cure. Will she do this? And if she does, why is there so much top of the range equipment instantly available?
I was swallowed by the novel within the first few pages, and gobbled it up in an afternoon. During this frenzy of reading I was barely able to remain polite to my husband when he interrupted me briefly with a perfectly reasonable question: such was the emotional power and persuasion of the plot. I didn’t actually believe that I was in that time and situation, but it felt as if I could have been: with Jean tormented by seeing her son’s indoctrination, and Julia, who is publicly shamed for sleeping with her boyfriend, or Olivia who – and there I will stop. The characters are strong, well-developed and wholly believable. There are some plot points that I could argue about, for over-complicating things, for throwing around too many red herrings, but overall the plot is horribly plausible, and the wider ramifications of the settings are just terrifying. This isn’t a dystopia: it’s scarily close to a near future. Read it now and do something about it.
Vox, Christina Dalcher (2018, HQ / Harper Collins), 978-0-008-30067-8, £8.99