In my non-fiction reading life I’ve been slowly working through David Crystal’s A Little Book of Language and I picked up Vox in the library because a dystopia about women being punished for speaking seemed a serendipitous find. And initially, Dalcher was building up a pretty good picture of an oppressive future world in which families could be blown apart 1984-style by the new regime. Then everything went to pieces …
Dystopian fiction often removes or adds one simple thing that tips the balance of society toward the bad. In Vox that simple thing is women’s freedom of speech. Every woman in Dalcher’s near-future America has been fitted with an electronic word-counter and has a quota of only one hundred words per day. Books, paper and pens are denied them, as is work outside the home. Female children are educated separately to males, and only in the skills needed to run a household and keep a husband happy. Women can no longer hold passports. We learn all of this from the POV of Jean McClellan a former doctor of neurolinguistics, now a reluctantly quiet housewife who laments how quickly all this happened and how little she did to protest against it.
If the book had continued to explore how this new world came about (there’s a lot of heavy hinting that Trump’s election was the first step down this path), and the dreadful consequences it has within Jean’s reduced and domestic sphere it could have been a really uncomfortable, thought-provoking experience. I mean, I was positively squirming as Jean watched her eldest son Steven fall hook, line and sinker for the new ideology and became truly hateful towards her, spouting crap about who should buy the milk and wearing his little self-righteous ‘P’ pin (‘P’ for Pure, don’t cha know), while her six-year-old daughter Sonia willingly, happily became silent, not using even one of her hundred-word daily quota. Instead, after a pretty tense set-up that I was starting to get into, this book went all kinds of wrong. Firstly, it became a thriller, which is a very different beast to a dystopian thought-experiment. Thrillers are all about getting to the end, but they don’t worry so much about the hows and whys of things, and while Dalcher proved very capable at writing pacey, race-against-time action, it meant that any thoughtfulness, detail and plausibility had to be left behind. Secondly, none of the characters developed any kind of dimension. Jean had a fairly distinctive voice (although I’m afraid I never warmed to her and just couldn’t picture her in my mind’s eye), but her husband Patrick remained a bland paper person, her twin sons Sam and Leo were nothing more than names throughout the book, and her lover (bleurgh!) Lorenzo was a blatant stereotype: the passionate Italian hunk who makes Jean weak at the knees with just a look (yep, I kid you not). Thirdly, the ending removed all the complexity, moral ambiguity and interest from Jean’s situation. It was a wave-a-magic-wand ending in which one act completely overturned both the political and the personal stories of the novel in the most irritatingly heavy-handed way.
That said, I found it interesting that Mira Grant’s scary, face-eating mermaids having language made them far more terrifying than if they’d been uncommunicative in another of my recent reads Into the Drowning Deep because somehow it meant they were more intelligent in a way we could understand; interesting that taking language and literacy away from anyone is almost immediately reductive, closing that person/people off from ideas, expression and connection (there’s a pretty interesting article by Ryan Britt at Tor.com about illiteracy in the Star Wars universe that is kind of floating around in my mind as I write this – worth a read if you’re interested); interesting too that David Crystal talks in his book about just how early on children start to learn language, how we are predisposed to do so, and just how complex the mechanics of talking are; interesting that in Vox Jean remembers a discussion with a younger Steven about dancing bees and Koko the gorilla and whether these examples of communication are proof of intelligence on a level with our own. I might not have enjoyed Vox as much as I’d hoped to, but it’s left me with a lot to think about nonetheless.
Why is it called Vox? I thought maybe it was a portmanteau word – Voice + box = vox. Suggestive of a voice being put into a box, thus contained and controlled. I didn’t really know. Now a quick Google search has informed me that ‘vox’ is a music journalism term for vocals, or voice. I liked my reasoning better, but still, that’s me a little more educated, and maybe you too.
Knowledge is power! Woo!