By Christina Dalcher
Berkley, $26, 336 pages
Dystopian novels spin off a current reality to show it leading to a hateful life down the road, when its abuses will have established a stranglehold.
Typically, most people in dystopias have lost their rights to some oligarchy. Think of Jonathan Swift’s Yahoos’ subjection to the Houyhnyms in “Gulliver’s Travels”; of Winston Smith and everyone else to Big Brother in George Orwell’s “1984”; and anyone older than 68 to euthanasia in Anthony Trollope’s “The Fixed Period.”
American women are the victims in Christina Dalcher’s “Vox.” They are allowed to utter no more than 100 words a day. Any more and a wrist strap fitted with a counter zaps its wearer with an electric shock — relatively mild for first-time infractions, but intense enough to cause serious injury later on. Women who campaign against this situation or commit other offenses against the gender-based laws become slave laborers in sparsely populated states.
Apart from this enforced work, women have lost their jobs. Among them is Dr. Jean McClellan, previously a researcher in neurolinguistics. She had been within a hair’s breadth of developing a serum to reverse Wernicke’s aphasia — a trauma-induced condition whose sufferers speak only random words in nonsensical order. Now Jean must be a stay-at-home wife without access to computers or books or even the mail.
Obviously, Jean hates this situation. She partly blames herself, recalling that she had often been “too busy” to vote, and that when she was a student and her best friend Jackie was campaigning on women’s issues, she stayed home studying.
More immediately she worries about her family. Like all females, her 6-year-old daughter Sonia also wears a counter. She is too young to have fully developed language skills, and with only 100 words a day, she will never do so.
At school she learns sewing, cooking and “A bit of addition and subtraction, telling time, making change. Counting, of course. They would learn counting first. All the way up to one hundred.” Elementary arithmetic is useful for running a home; reading is not. Jean also has teen-age Steven, who is a hardliner. “Not my job,” he says when asked to pick up milk at the store. Encouraged to alert the authorities of any infringements he sees, he points out next-door neighbor Julia — with disastrous effects.
Any woman who has been interrupted mid-sentence by a man, or sat in a meeting where male colleagues ignore her views, will respond to the 100-word-a-day hypothesis. But while women are its initial victims, “Vox” shows that everyone quickly becomes a secondary victim, pushed into cruelties, increasingly afraid of the totalitarian regime, and therefore self-censoring. Jean feels that her husband, though sympathetic to her plight, is not speaking up because he needs to keep his job. Without words everyone — not just women — is limited.
These issues and the startling premise of “Vox” will keep readers engaged for at least the first hundred pages. They will quickly note that neither the limits on speech nor the government’s other repressive actions require any technology that we do not already possess — and use.
Readers will also be intrigued by how the novel will end when Jean is sent back to work and allowed to speak so she can actually produce her serum, apparently because the president’s brother has developed Wernicke’s aphasia after a skiing accident. Will she be able to use her reprieve to advantage? Can she resolve the issues affecting Sonia and Steven? To answer these and other questions about the fate of Jean and her family, Christina Dalcher develops a fast-moving plot, complete with revelations about who is secretly doing what — for both good and for ill.
This plot shifts the focus from the political implications of the attack on speech., not least because it requires the introduction of characters, such as Jean’s Italian colleague Lorenzo, who have little to do with the 100-words-day premise. As the novel progresses it reads more like a thriller than a dystopia. That’s a loss — the more so as the plot resolution is not really convincing given the earlier portrayal of entrenched repression.
One source of this problem is that there is no back-story about how the president achieved power, why the attack focused on women and words, what happened to the opposition party and newspapers and broadcasters, and how this American dystopia has affected, or been affected by, the rest of the world.
Nonetheless, “Vox” has much to intrigue. It should certainly prompt thoughts about how language and truth can be distorted, and how that imperils everyone. Those familiar with “1984,” which is referenced in “Vox,” will be interested in Ms. Dalcher’s treatment of some similar themes. They will also appreciate her skill at portraying many relationships among its characters — Jean and her husband and son for example, or the dynamics of the neighboring family. It is a novel to conjure with.
• Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.
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