So many mixed feelings about this one! The cover caught my eye while at Chapters shopping for books for my Dad. I read the first few pages and, honestly, was kind of hooked by Christina Dalcher’s writing. So I bought it and kept reading. Vox asks us to consider what it would be like if we used technology to literally silence women (at least in the United States).
Dr. Jean McClellan is our first person narrator. It’s about two years after the word counters were introduced and women were kicked out of the workforce—Jean is just “Mrs. McClellan” now. With only 100 words a day allowed to her and her young daughter, Jean must be judicious with her speech. This affects how she relates to everyone, particularly the men of her family—her husband, Patrick; her children, including an older boy, Stephen. And Jean worries how this will affect her daughter Sonia’s development, since Sonia is young enough that she may grow up never knowing a world without the word counters. When an injury to the President’s brother offers Jean an opportunity to revive her skills as a neural linguist working on a treatment for a particular kind of aphasia, Jean decides to spin the opportunity into something much more potent. The question, though, is if she has the gumption to take her actions as far as they need to go—and if there are enough allies around her to help her succeed.
My initial reaction while reading the first few chapters? “This book is hella white”—and I am not referring to the cover. Everything about the situation, Jean’s narration, and the characters themselves screamed “white feminist dystopia.” At the beginning of chapter 2, Jean explains how the U.S. has faced ridicule for its actions:
They laughed at us. They told us we needed to relax before we ended up wearing kerchiefs and long, shapeless skirts.
This is a not-so-subtle allusion to the fact that, in some countries, women wear headscarves of various types and longer items, for reasons sometimes religious and sometimes oppressive. And this is why Vox makes me, as a white person in the West, uncomfortable: this story of oppression is not Dalcher’s to tell.
Let’s unpack that for in a moment, because this is complicated. Before we do that, though, a few more general thoughts on the thriller plot of the book….
I don’t want to get into spoilers here, but the antagonists’ actual plot is both obvious and unwise in a comic-book sense of unwisdom. Their plan would almost certainly blow up in their faces and cause incredible, global chaos. Even if it didn’t, or even if that’s their intention, the way that Dalcher develops this plot is pretty basic. It takes a long time to set up, then everything rushes towards a conclusion. Jean isn’t even really involved in the denouement; she just summarizes stuff very rapidly for us. Very little about the actual plot interested me that much. I was here for the worldbuilding and the themes it represents.
And that, of course, is where we run into lots more problems than pedestrian plotting. I’m probably going to get a lot wrong, because I’m a white dude, but here are a few thoughts.
First, women are definitely oppressed the world over—but that oppression often takes different forms and is affected by intersections of other identities, such as class, racism, etc. So it’s true that American women experience types of oppression—for example, American women’s rights to bodily autonomy are under assault frequently in the United States. But not every American woman’s experience is identical. White American women don’t experience the same types of oppression that Black American women do, or Native American women, or Hispanic American women. A rich woman’s experiences with misogyny may not align with a poor woman’s experiences.
Yet in Vox, Dalcher flattens and simplifies the oppression of women. She really only focuses on the common denominator of monitored, repressed speech (along with a few side helpings of regression in rights like employment and suffrage). This overly reductive approach means it is difficult to comment on the complexity of oppression faced by women in the United States and other parts of the world. The Puritan-like Pure movement, the wholesale rounding up of queer people to be sent to concentration or re-education camps … yeah, it’s terrifying and awful, but it’s a white person’s view of terrifying and awful. It totally erases the fact that for many marginalized people, the United States is already and has always been an oppressive regime.
Which brings me into the second point, the idea that Dalcher has to dial up the terrorizing nature of the U.S. government’s policy. I guess so white women will finally care? Vox is not quite an example of persecution flip (TVTropes) but that’s what I was thinking of—you know, the kinds of stories where white people are the ones who are slaves, as if that would better demonstrate how evil slavery is? I’m just struggling to understand what Dalcher adds to the conversation with these newer, more overt forms of oppression. Everything in this book is heavy-handed. Jean makes a big deal out of how Reverend Carl Corbin is a “true believer” of his ideology, not merely an opportunist. I agree that such distinctions are interesting, but Dalcher basically turns him into a stereotypical ideologically narrow-minded bigot. The same goes for Morgan LeBron. And the men who aren’t over-the-top dickheads turn out, conveniently, to be members of the resistance. There’s basically zero subtlety in how any of this is handled. It’s true that there are a few really nice moments between Jean and Sonia where we understand the subtle ways in which these new restrictions are affecting young girls. But Dalcher abandons that exploration in favour of a more traditional thriller narrative. (To be fair, that is a valid decision. I just don’t think it’s as interesting.)
Thirdly, Vox appropriates certain trappings of oppression experienced by women in other parts of the world. With the literal comparisons to the wearing of “kerchiefs” (ugh), it’s clear Dalcher is basically asking, What if things got so bad in the U.S. that we were like a [generic oppressive country in the Middle East]? On a certain level this is problematic to the point of being gross. Now, given Dalcher’s own background it seems clear she is trying to write what she knows, in terms of the protagonist’s occupation and status, and I’m not trying to invalidate Dalcher’s experiences of sexism and misogyny. It’s true that the patriarchal systems of America try to silence women, albeit not so literally in most cases. That doesn’t mean, however, that you get to take other women’s stories and co-opt them to build your own dystopia. For one thing, that distorts what is actually happening in those countries. The dynamics around the wearing of headscarves and other items, whether or not these things constitute oppression, are complex. And those of us who don’t grow up in these cultures don’t get a say in whether or not it’s oppression. We should listen instead.
You might be thinking at this point: wow, Ben, you really didn’t like this book, why are you giving it two stars instead of one? Valid question, hypothetical review reader! Vox is making an honest effort here to do some social commentary and, indeed, call the reader to action. This is mired in the problems I’ve outlined above, as well as the mediocre thriller everything is wrapped into … but at the end of the day, there are still compelling things about this story. There was enough in Dalcher’s writing to keep me reading, and that is worth something. I do think this is a worthwhile book. I just wish that we would stop celebrating OKish books from white women and pretty much ignore the so many far more creative, original, compelling narratives from queer authors, non-binary authors, authors of colour. (Moreover, there are also many original works from white women authors who dive deeply into experiences of oppression that they are equipped to discuss rather than appropriating other forms of oppression.) You might find Vox entertaining, stimulating, even eye-opening. It is, at times, all of those things. As you read, though, think not only about who has a voice in our society, but whose voices we amplify with ours—and the stories those people are choosing to tell.