Voxby Christina Dalcher Published 21 Aug 2018
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Set in an America where half the population has been silenced, VOX is the harrowing, unforgettable story of what one woman will do to protect herself and her daughter.
On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed more than 100 words daily, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial--this can't happen here. Not in America. Not to her.
This is just the beginning.
Soon women can no longer hold jobs. Girls are no longer taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words a day, but now women only have one hundred to make themselves heard.
But this is not the end.
For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice.
Controversial review time! Grab the popcorn and settle in . . .
First of all, many thanks to the Berkley Publishing Group for an advanced reading copy in exchange for an honest review. I am just sorry that my review does not end up being more positive!
I think this book is dangerous. I think the ideas in it are inflammatory and will unnecessarily pit good people against each other. If the book has only moderate success, then maybe crisis will be averted. But, if it is embraced, I think there are a lot of misconceptions in it that could be destructive to our society. And, goodness knows that society doesn’t need any help with that right now! I am seeing some positive pre-release reviews, many of which praise the cautionary tale within, and that scares me. It scares me a lot!
I love dystopian fiction. This book really made me think about why I love dystopian fiction. The “what-ifs” that drive this genre and the potential evils haunting our current society that could lead to its downfall are fascinating. Corrupt politicians, radical ideals, oppression, crazy religious zealots, diseases, zombies – all are interesting to think about. Sometimes the books are tongue-in-cheek about the cause with caricatures of current leaders or allegories of dangerous political ideals. Also, we frequently see books where the dystopian isn’t even fully explained (I am trying to remember if they even ever tell us why everything happened in the world of the Hunger Games – we know the end result, but I don’t think they ever give us the specifics).
So, the fact that this book made me think about why I love dystopian fiction made me realize why I did not like this book and its dangerous message. Usually the causes are hinted at or left to be guessed about (Hunger Games), represented in a thought provoking way (allegories like Animal Farm), or just downright out of our control (disease and zombies). This book just straight up says that Christians and Christianity are to blame. I would like to say that it is just hinted at, or at least it is a combination of events in addition to crazy religious leaders that leads to the horribly oppressive society within. But, the author straight up comes out a blames Christianity, quotes scripture, and repeatedly brings it back to the forefront. And, throughout she does not say it is some Christians, or a few wacko Christians, it is ALL CHRISTIANS and they are more than happy to take over the country and silence Women and send non-straight people to camps where they are forced into heterosexual relationships. At one point she even hints the next step is that anyone who is not white will be oppressed and sent to the camps as well.
Whew . . . I need a moment to re-wrap my brain around that and explain a few things . . .
I have known a lot of you for several years here on Goodreads and I believe I represent myself as open and fair. I like to read almost any type of book. I have friends on here and in real life who are women, men, gay, straight, black, Asian, Hispanic, etc. I have befriended many people who are agnostic, atheist, Christian, Muslim, etc. I believe all my conversations with everyone are pleasant and I do not try and force who I am on any one – I just share who I am and let others decide how they feel about me.
Well, I am a Christian. I do my best to go to church every week and I enjoy reading the bible. I have never met a Christian who wants to oppress people the way they do in this book. We have a variety of races of people who attend our church. I am not sure that I know any gay people who are Christian, and I can see why that might be, but I hold no ill will towards anyone because of their sexual preference or gender status. If anyone wanted to talk to me about Christianity, I would do so with an open and friendly heart and not desire them to be oppressed in any way for not being just like me.
I truly believe that 99% of all Christians are like me. In this day and age, it is the controversial Christians who get all the publicity. It’s the keyboard warriors who feel like they should post nasty comments on every internet article and tweet that they consider “Unchristian”. It’s the awful people with hateful signs protesting the funerals of our servicemen. It’s the white supremacist rallies where the “men” hide behind the cross like God agrees with the hate they spew. The internet and media love to focus on hate and people treating each other poorly. If one crazy Christian kills someone it will be remembered much more than a church that raises money and takes donations to feed and clothe 5000 people.
I could have been behind this book if it was blamed on a few religious extremists who managed to take over the government; there are definitely religious extremists out there that would love to do that and oppress lots of people – I do not argue that! But, it really isn’t presented as a few bad apples. There are mentions of expanding Christian communities taking over and forcing people to follow their ways. I will say that I can definitely see people having that fear with the way Christians are presented: debates on TV – Creation vs Science, protesters claiming they know who “God Hates”, bad people hiding behind prayers and crosses. But with this book saying it is all Christians and getting reviews from people thinking that it is a cautionary tale worth considering, again, it scares me.
I ask you this, and you might say that I am being too extreme here, but how would you respond if the plot of a dystopian book was identical to this but it was an extreme-Christian blaming homosexuals or a extreme-right-winger blaming people who are not white? It would be panned! It would be destroyed by critics and the author trashed on Twitter! As a Christian, this is how this book makes me feel. I mentioned earlier that I have tried my best to be a good person, a reasonable thinker, and a supportive friend to all people I meet – so, should I be okay with it when a book attacks an important part of me and blames it for the potential downfall of society?
As a book, it was okay. I probably would have gone 3 stars if it was not for my concerns above. The end felt kind of rushed and convenient – sort of Deus ex Machina (which is ironic since Deus means God!). Up until the last 50 pages or so, the plot development seemed somewhat reasonable and then it just got kind of crazy. Also, I found all the main characters to be unlikable throughout. Sometimes unlikable works when that is the point, but I don't think they were supposed to be unlikable in this context.
Maybe the author will read my review and think, “That was not my intention at all”. And, if she does and contacts me I will be happy to discuss it with an open mind and an open heart. I hold her no ill will and I think doing so would be un-Christian of me. If anything, I would like to show her that Christians are reasonable and friendly people – don’t let the few bad apples who get all the screen time cause you to group us together with them.
Maybe this is how it happened in Germany with the Nazis, in Bosnia, with the Serbs, in Rwanda with the Hutus. I’ve often wondered about that, how kids can turn into monsters, how they can learn that killing is right and oppression is just, how in one single generation the world can change on its axis into a place that is unrecognizable. Easily, I think, and push out of my chair.Words matter.
If your ideal of womanhood tends toward the Stepford-ish, Vox will present an image of paradise. For the rest of us, it offers a dark vision of a possible future in which the lines between religion of the extremist, fundamentalist sort, and government are not just blurred, but erased. (See Taliban, ISIS, or any of many Christian sects that insist that civil law should be based on the Bible) God knows there are plenty of places in the USA where a large number of folks would be just fine with that, as long as it is the proper religion. Well, probably not the majority of the women. Instead of the saying “Children should be seen but not heard,” substitute females of almost any age for children, and you have the core of this dystopian novel.
Christina Dalcher - image is from her site
Woody Allen’s 1971 film, Bananas, satirized Central American (and American) politics. A deranged leader had let power go to his head and decided to shake things up.
From this day on, the official language of San Marcos will be Swedish. Silence! In addition to that, all citizens will be required to change their underwear every half-hour. Underwear will be worn on the outside so we can check.There are different lunatics in charge in Vox, but the restrictions are just as insane, if much less amusing. Females are allowed only one hundred words per day. (The official language of American women is silence?) And they will have to wear wrist-band counters that keep track. Exceeding the daily quota results in a painful electrical shock. Run off at the mouth and the punishment becomes deadly. Girls at school are given rewards for speaking the fewest words in a day.
Image from HuffPo
Jean McLellan is a cognitive linguist. She is as shocked as most are by the imposition of outrageous strictures on her, and on all females. Makes it tough not only to do the work for which she was trained, (or, maybe not, as women have been relegated to homemaking, so don’t worry your pretty little head about that whole job thing) but makes it a challenge even to carry on normal human conversations within her family. Her husband, Patrick, is the science advisor to the president, surely a jokey position in a country where science is silenced and faith of a certain sort is given all the bullhorns. But then Jean is approached by representatives of El Presidente. Her professional services are required. It seems the dear leader’s brother had an oopsy while skiing and now has a particularly nasty brain injury, one that impacts his abillty to use language. Jean negotiates a deal, and goes to work. Complications ensue, not least is the presence on the research team of the incompetent rectum who stepped up to leadership when the women were kicked out, and someone from her past. Will they be able to use their scientific super powers for the forces of good, or be bested by the forces of evil?
Image from MissMuslim.com
Yes, it is not a realistic projection of things to come. If millions of women marched in response to the election of Swamp Thing, I seriously doubt that a program like the one presented here would have been instituted as quickly as this one was, or at all. (well, in most states, anyway) The response would, I expect, have been less Lysistrata and more Wonder Woman, with maybe a dose of Medea tossed in. Despite the excesses of our current administration, there are limits beyond which people actually would respond, and actively resist. But the point of the novel is not, clearly, to present a real potential future, but to highlight the importance of speech, of language in personal and political freedom, particularly for women.
Image from Betanews.com
These are notions that merit consideration. Schools in Vox are made to offer AP Religious Studies classes that not only crowd out class time for Biology and History, but omit the comparative element of the study of religions in favor of promoting the religious track favored by those in charge. So, propaganda. This is hardly a huge leap from school systems that insist on teaching that lovely oxymoron, creation science, alongside actual, reality-based, testable science, and pretending equivalence. Similar to the approach of some news providers who seem to think that balance consists of offering equal time to truth-tellers and liars. Linguistics. Language. Call bullshit a rose often enough and weak-minded people will begin to enjoy the scent. (Fake news?) We live in a NewSpeakian world, so looking at the power of language, or words and how they are used and controlled offers considerable insight into the non-science-fiction reality we currently inhabit. It is also of note how those words and notions are so often internalized. (I’d been fighting to keep the weight down ever since my last pregnancy.) It seems the norm, sadly, for those in power to want to silence those who object, whatever their gender. Colin Kaepernick knows, and I remember well the cries of Vietnam war supporters who regarded opposition as treason. America, love it or leave it!
Image from Yomyomf.com
Dalcher offers examples of how language denigrates women in common parlance, without getting all, you know, hormonal about it. Jean’s husband refers to her outings with friends as “hen parties.” Her son, Steven, sees an activist on television protesting the demise of freedom and suggests “She needs to pop a chill pill.” Familiar, no? The religious nuts running this show incorporate anti-gay bias into their new world order as well, making what they consider aberrant behavior a criminal act. (stifling half the population would not be considered aberrant here) Back in the real world, as of 2014 there were still 17 states in which laws against certain sorts of sex by consenting adults were still on the books, so this is not even a small stretch. The chastity movement in the book is based on real-world insanity as well. There was
…a late 19th-century/early 20th-century movement in America called the Cult of Domesticity, “The idea was to go back to Biblical roles, to separate men and women,” [Dalcher] says, explaining that women were expected to conform in four ways; piety, purity, submission and domesticity. She adds that there is a modern version of the Cult of Domesticity active in the US right now; the True Woman movement, part of a larger religious campaign called Revive Our Hearts. - From the Bookseller interviewVox is very much in line with the current boom in feminist dystopia novels and with those of the past as well. What pops to mind are The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, wonderfully realized in the Netflix series, Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, Hillary Jordan’s When She Woke, and, of course, Ira Levin’s The Stepford Wives. There are plenty more, but these are the ones I have read.
image from Wikimedia
Dalcher brings to her novel a background in science. She is a theoretical linguist, with a strong concern with how language affects development. What would women become after a few generations of bearing the yoke of silence? Is it ok to train your daughters to become, essentially, pets that double as sexual vessels? Dalcher’s love of things Italian is given a voice here, as Jean’s parents are living in Italy, where Jean has spent considerable time, and a major character is Italian.
The story moves along at a nice pace, making this a pretty fast read. It is engaging and stress-inducing, in a good way. But I found the resolution even more unlikely than the underlying notion. If tight plotting is your thing, you will probably be disappointed. But then this is not, IMHO, about the action-adventure element, as entertaining as that is. It is a warning about the cost of silence, and how not speaking up now can shut you up later, to the detriment, not only of yourself, but of generations to come.
Image from HappyGeek.com
Before the craziness becomes implemented policy, Jean is warned by her erstwhile bff, a prescient activist, about the coming madness, particularly the massive importance of voting, and participating in political action like calling one’s representatives, or showing up for marches. ”Think about what you need to do to stay free,” she says. It’s good advice.
Use your words.
Review posted – June 1 ,2018
Publication – August 21, 2018
Berkley provided an advance review copy, but shhhhh, don’t tell anyone.
Links to the author’s personal, Twitter, Instagram, and FB pages
Other work by the author
-----The Things I Learned About Swans
There are scads more on her site
-----May 11, 2018 - Bookseller
-----from Time magazine
-----Language Log – on the truth about the difference between how many words men and women speak per day - An Invented Statistic Returns
3.5 The Scarlet letter for the near future, but instead of s Puritan society and the red letter A, we have a society where the Christian right has prevailed. Women, even babies are fitted with a leather wristband that limits the words spoken in a day to a hundred. The first time you go over, one receives a small shock, strength of shock is increased with each transgression. 1984, only it is now, cameras are fitted in each house, front door, back door. Books are locked up, only able to be accessed by men. No jobs, home in their new responsibility, duties of a wife and mother. The LGBT community fares even worse. This is the pure movement in the US and no one who transgresses is spared.
I found this chilling because I can actually see this happening, have seen men on TV who I can imagine loving just such a scenario. The importance of language, speech to snow individuals we'll bring, forming personalities. How can you watch your young daughter not able to vocalize, tell you about her day? For Jesn, it is torture, but a situation arises, and unwillingly Jean is temporarily repreived, because the men in charge want something from her. Can she take advantage, make a difference? Well, that is the story, a quick moving one I was fascinated with. History has proven that with the wrong people in charge, anything and everything can happen. Can it happen here?
ARC from Netgalley.
What do they study now, our girls? 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.
as a thought-piece, i would give this a high four stars, but as a novel, it’s got some structural flaws. it would be a very good book club choice, however - plenty of food for thought and discussion. it just needs some conceptual tightening; it’s missing that extra spark that would bring it all up into “amazing debut” territory.
the basic premise is straightforward: it’s a near-future dystopia in which white christian conservative male fundies have come to power and figured out how to keep all of us hysterical, mouthy women down - a metal “word counter” shackled around the female wrist that delivers an electric shock, of increasing intensity, for every word spoken that exceeds a woman’s daily allotment of 100. along with that, all typical dysto-rules apply: homosexuals are imprisoned until they come around and choose heterosexuality, premarital and extramarital sex has heavy consequences (for women), women aren’t allowed to read or write or work or use birth control or even collect the mail from their own mailboxes, and cameras are everywhere making sure these rules are followed.
this book is two things - it’s a cautionary tale about noninvolvement/nonparticipation, about ignoring the signs and the trends until it’s too late, and it’s also an author with a doctorate in theoretical linguistics having herself a “what if” party about excising language from 1/2 of the population.
it’s telling the story it wants to tell, and that’s not the story of “how this happens.” that’s touched upon, sure, it’s not altogether absent, but it’s not a priority. this takes place about a year after the laws go into effect, and things have happened quickly. there are lots of questions left unanswered because again - the hows and the details are not the concern here. i’m not sure what rules apply to deaf women, but i know that hearing women are not allowed to use any sign language to supplement their daily word-allotment. i’m also not sure what is determining or tabulating these word counts - at one point, the main character has one word left in her quota, and she speaks it to her daughter, “Goodnight,” which i would have counted as two words. and what about hyphenates? acronyms? there must be workarounds. but those are my concerns and what i would address if i were writing this book, but i am too lazy so i don’t get to bitch about an author not answering every question i have as a reader.
what i found most interesting was the effect upon the children. (former) cognitive linguist/wife/mother/first person narrator jean mclellan has four children: eleven-year-old twin boys, a son about to graduate from high school, and a six-year-old daughter. the twins are barely present, but the youngest and oldest are better-developed, in how they respond to these regulations, how they are changed. it’s very effective and horrifying to see a little girl adjust and apply herself enthusiastically to the rules, as though it were a game, and to see a young man embrace his role of privileged enforcer.
the weaknesses are mostly in the conflict resolutions. many of them are overcome too easily, too neatly. personal ones, like what i will call ‘patrick’s acquiescence’ and scientific ones like what i will call, ummm ‘look at the science i did just now.’ oh, and ‘final face-off,’ too. the blocking on that is still a bit muddled to me.
it’s a solid debut definitely worth reading, it’s just not a big shiny five-star MUST READ!
an interesting aside - although this was written before the second season of The Handmaid’s Tale aired, there are more than a few details that pop up in both. neither of them make the future look super-rosy. for anyone.
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These days my country consists of states united in hate. At its helm is a man-child. A bully consumed by power, lacking intellect, as well as being morally and ethically deficient. So while the premise of Vox is extreme it doesn’t seem far-fetched. The severe subjugation of women by the angry, white patriarchy is portrayed at its most monstrous. A counter worn by women allows them to speak when spoken to and then only minimally. Once the allotted one hundred words per day are spent, negative reinforcement is administered to the offending female in the form of a painful shock. Other than these few words, women are not allowed any other form of communication: no email, snail mail, books, pens, or internet access. And, nonverbal communication is not permitted which is monitored by surveillance cameras. The gay community is relegated to working farms (concentration camps), a teenage son is indoctrinated into the tenets of male supremacy and a six year old daughter’s words vanish. This thriller deftly handles politics of all stripes; gender, sexual, domestic and, to a lesser degree, racial and international. Gone are the days of inclusion, tolerance and attempts at harmony. Oh wait! We’re sort of there, aren’t we?
According to my lazy Google search, the average woman speaks around 20,000 words/day. In this frightening precautionary tale, women are restricted to speaking less than 100 words a day. Overage? Painful electrical shocks will be dealt from the Fitbit style wrist counter you're wearing.
The premise is strong and all too real in this alternative reality where women's rights are slowly chipped away by a strong tide of religious fundamentalism until finally, we quite literally lose the language needed to speak up for ourselves.
After the Pure Movement takes hold in political offices nationwide, women lose their rights to hold jobs or bank accounts. Girls are not allowed to study science in school. Females are effectively shut out of society by taking away our words. SHUDDER SHUDDER SHUDDER.
What happens when the country's leading linguist happens to be a woman and is called out of her forced retirement by the President himself? What does he want from Dr. Jean McClellan, a mother of four and our fearless narrator? Well, that my friends is the story.
I desperately wanted to love this book. As VOX begins, I got definite The Handmaid's Tale vibes and I was thrilled with the idea of this timely narrative (#metoo). I had almost too much hope that it would be more powerful or meaningful than it ultimately is.
The execution of the story gets so bogged down with technical, boring details that the whole plot feels, ironically, mansplained. Artemis left that same taste in my mouth.
About 50% into the book, I felt disconnected from the characters and story, and it became a slow-going slog to finish. I really can't offer much explanation for it either. The good news: I seem to be in the minority and if you are intrigued by VOX, I would not dissuade you from going for it.
VOX is initially eye-opening, but for me, it just doesn't sustain the suspense or believability factor.
VOX is scheduled to hit the shelves on August 21, 2018. Thanks to NetGalley for my early copy. All opinions are my own.