Comparisons between Christina Dalcher’s Vox and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are nearly unavoidable. Both women are writing speculative dystopian Americas that oppress women by relying on a skewed, ultraconservative Christianity. Atwood wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985, but Hulu has recently brought the novel back to the zeitgeist with a streaming video series. I haven’t read it more recently than 2007 or seen any of Hulu’s series.
The chill of Dalcher’s speculative novel is in the near-past and contemporary, concrete news stories and (sub)culture that build the background of her horrific America. I remember reading about Supreme Court seats being filled with ultraconservative Justices during the extremely contentious Kavanaugh hearings in which a potential Justice’s emotional testimony was pitted against a woman’s even-keeled testimony of an assault allegedly committed by that nominee against her (and the man’s testimony was given more credence) and having to put the book down. It is too easy to see the building of this dystopia by tuning into the news—as is also true of Atwood’s book, but the details are not as immediate coming as they do from events from the 1980s.
In Dalcher’s America, a charismatic, ultraconservative, women-hating, mega-church televangelist has taken power, using the American president as a puppet. Women’s passports have been destroyed. Schools have been divided by gender, women relegated to an education that is glorified home economics. Women’s Bibles have been edited. Extramarital sex is punishable by public, televised humiliation, relocation to a work camp, and enforced silence. Dissidents and lesbians are sent to these camps too with the same imposed silence. (Dalcher to my recollection never really addresses whether two men having sex is punished in the same way.) Women of any age have been forced into monitors that count the words that they speak. Each day every word after 100 causes a shock, and the voltage increases in intervals after 100, one woman at one point discovering how to commit suicide using the monitor.
The protagonist, Jean McClellan, is a former Wernicke’s area specialist, seeking a way to reverse the effects of damage to that area, a cure for Wernicke aphasia, a condition that results in fluent speech devoid of meaning. Her husband works for the president.
In college, despite her roommate being an activist for women’s rights, Jean didn’t pay much attention to politics. She didn’t participate in any of the protests or rallies. Now it’s too late.
When she is given the chance to be released from the monitor and to win her young daughter’s freedom too, she reluctantly accepts and works for the president to complete the research and create the serum on which she was working before the changes in policy barred her from work.
But she begins to suspect a larger plan to further curtail women’s and dissidents’ voices and advance the pastor’s cause. The end hurries into a race to uncover the government’s true intentions for McClellan’s research, thwart the government, and escape punishment.
The chapters are short, and I was for a long while reading the book only for 5-15 minutes at a time as I got ready to go somewhere a little more quickly than I thought that I might. It was really only being laid up with a sprained ankle that sped me through the last ¾ of the book.
Dalcher’s seems to be a warning to those who say “it can’t happen here” and to those who choose the sidelines over the frontlines. Her heroes are as much the ones who acted and called out the slippery slope before the government physically curtailed women’s voices as Jean, who acted to impede further curtailment. Ultimately it is one of those early criers who continues the fight to overturn the oppression, not Jean, who escapes after helping to end the tyrannical administration.
Science is weaponized by both parties in this fight.
Violence is justified by both.
I read an ARC of this book.
The trade paperback of this novel comes out July 16, 2019.
Dalcher, Christina. Vox. New York: Berkley-Penguin Random, 2018.
This review is not endorsed by Christina Dalcher, Berkley, or Penguin Random House LLC. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.