Reflections on VOX by Christina Dalcher

I came across VOX while I was walking through the bookshop at one of the many campuses on which I teach. I had been talking with friends/colleagues/research collective about the aesthetics of paratexts (ie: pretty book covers) and we had recently been discussion the push towards the black/white/red tricolour in feminist dystopias. So this was perhaps one of the least subtle incarnations of that aesthetic I’ve seen recently. And, unsurprisingly, there is nothing about this book that is subtle.Set in either a very near future or a parallel now in the United States of America, Vox follows Dr Jean “Gianna” McClellan, a neuro-linguist who is trapped in silence. In this American Christian theocracy women and girls are forced to wear a counter (euphemised as a “bracelet”) that monitors their word use. Women and girls are allocated 100 words per day, and exceeding that amount leads to a violent electric shock. This is done in an effort to render women domestic automatons who are unable to communicate beyond the most rudimentary needs. They are also prohibited from signing (this is a panopticonic nightmare state), reading and writing.

It took me roughly 15 minutes of reading for my angry feminist to Hulk out. I am so ok with that. The book is clearly a product of a very particular socio-historical juncture, and although it has been likened to Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale the similarity is more structural than anything else (all feminist dystopias look the same, right? Actually. Yes. They are all disconcertingly white. There’s decent critique of that here though.) However, VOX touches on a number of different concerns, and these include: the call to activism, the tensions between individual and collective action, and what I like to call the Cassandra complex (the failure to take women and their concerns seriously).

While the book opens discussion of these concerns, it is ultimately a character driven story, which means that the dramatic impact of individual action is more narratologically engaging than speculation on affective and effective resistance to regressive politics. As such, the book is engaging, it’s emotive, it’s easy to read, and it left me asking questions about politics under neo-fascist regimes, but with no guidance on where to look for answers. In this, I feel it operates with a slightly different imperative than other recent feminist dystopias, such as Naomi Alderman’s The Power. Although both use the symbol of electricity as a metaphor for both vertical and horizantal exercise of power, Dalcher has tried to determine What Would I Do? and has subsequently narrowed the locus of action to one, instead of many, paths. In contrast, Alderman more clearly sets out What Not To Do in her text, thereby leading readers towards a myriad of alternatives.

The question of alternatives and experimentation is increasingly urgent. VOX‘s strength is its reminder that communication is fundamental to any attempt at political reconciliation. Firstly, to paraphrase Judith Butler (I know, but her arguments about this are valid even if I’m disappointed in some of her recent choices) complex ideas require complex language: the ability to recognise and understand the significance of actions and performances of power requires that people are trained in the language that helps them to understand and identify it. Secondly, communication is a two way street: being able to say things, to articulate thoughts and ideas is only half the battle. Without mutual understanding the urgency of our concerns is mis-dentified as scaremongering.  Those of us who have been searching to progressive alternatives to public discursive practices have been failing to make ourselves understood. What VOX offers to readers is an invitation to think about ways of making ourselves understood to people who have not had the same opportunities, freedoms and support. Thoughtful and critical engagement in the public sphere is not a natural or comfortable way of engaging with other people and VOX demonstrates the discomforting urgency that is at stake.

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