Sunday 16 December 2018

Dystopian nightmare is urgent warning to always beware of complacency

Fiction: Vox, Christina Dalcher, Harper Collins

Vox by Christina Dalcher
Vox by Christina Dalcher

Sophie White

Nietzsche knew the power of words when he said "All I need is a sheet of paper and something to write with, and then I can turn the world upside down". Linguist and short story writer Christina Dalcher's first novel, Vox, depicts a world turned upside down not with words but the removal of them.

Women have been fitted with a counting device that administers electric shocks of increasing severity to any who utter more than their allocated 100 words a day. Wives' days are spent serving their families and eking out their words on only the most essential communication. An even worse fate awaits gay women and any who refuse to comply.

There's been a resurgence of the feminist dystopian novel. The screen adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale has given us a vivid feminist uniform of sorts, donned by groups at many women's rights demonstrations. Naomi Alderman's 2016 instant sci-fi classic The Power scooped awards and attention for her bold novel purporting to be 'historical fiction' published generations after women had become the dominant sex.

Unlike Alderman's klaxon-call to readers to examine the uncomfortable truths buried in her scenes of harrowing sexual violence perpetrated by women, Vox is an altogether quieter affair but no less effective. Its hushed pages detail the early days of a new world order, Pure, and its captive almost-silent women.

Fittingly, Vox is told in sparse, precise language, playing out in 80 chapters, each one brief and tense giving a sense of urgency to the whole. Our protagonist, former research scientist Dr Jean McClellan, is reeling and silently seething. "I've often wondered... 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 unrecognisable." Considering the Taliban government was formed less than 25 years ago, it's not such a bombastic scenario but one terrifyingly close to reality.

There are undeniable parallels in Vox's America and the current state of affairs across the Atlantic. A president of questionable qualifications is in power after no one in the liberal, centrist bubble believed he would win. Women's reproductive rights were the first to go in the early days of the Pure movement. Feminists were pilloried as hysterics, even by our educated, liberal protagonist who now goes about her silent days damning her previous complacency. Every page seems to beg the question "How could we let this happen?" and the answer is not believing it could.

Speculative fiction illuminates truths about our culture that are often knotty when explained in the abstract. Dalcher references gender politics, white feminism and privilege, but her manifesto doesn't impede the narrative which speeds along as Dr McClellan finds herself unexpectedly embroiled in the Pure plan to silence women permanently. Driven by fears for herself and her daughter, she must decide how far she will go to stop the movement.

With #MeToo, Waking The Feminists and Repeal the Eighth, we are making strides in terms of hearing women's voices but Vox is an urgent call to beware of complacency and a fascinating insight into the gift of language.

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