Sunday, October 21, 2018

Vox by Christina Dalcher

I'm very upset about all the people who read this book and walked away thinking, "Not all Christians! Not all men!" If that was the only thing you took from this admittedly flawed novel, then you are part of the reason that this book was written. I'm not saying that to be mean. I honestly believe that as a fact. History is full of people who have covered their ears when people say things that they don't want to listen to. Look at all the people who continue to furiously support Trump, despite the fact that he's proved time and time again that he is not only a bad politician, but also a bad human being, with his efforts to use his station to alienate our allies and twist the laws for his own personal gain. It's a perversion of both justice and democracy, and yet the people who support him really seem to believe that they have the moral high ground. How does this work? Is it that cognitive dissonance grows stronger as the evidence mounts, because it's easier to believe a lie than that you've made an egregious lapse in moral judgment? I wonder.

With VOX, Christina Dalcher explores a concept that has explored many times: what happens if a bunch of radical extremists seize control of a nation and oppress them with brutal savagery in the name of a greater good? In this regard, it is very similar to THE HANDMAID'S TALE, especially since the victims in both books are largely (but not only women). The heroine is a woman named Jean who used to be a neurologist, and now she is a housewife. She feels the rub of her imprisonment every day, from men who actively oppress her (like the president), to men who passively and cowardly support the status quo (like her husband), to men who embrace the new laws in blithe ignorance because it tells them what they want to hear (like her son). I have never wanted to punch as many people as I did while reading this book and actually had to step back for a week because it was making me so upset.

VOX starts out more strongly than it ends (which I'll be getting to later), but the premise is a striking one: Christian fundamentalists have taken control of the country with something called the Pure Movement. Men are the glory of God; and women are the glory of man, subservient and secondary in every way. Those in power have managed to achieve this by affixing counters to every woman's wrist that monitor how many words they speak a day. The limit is 100, less than a Tweet, and speaking more than the limit delivers a painful electric shock that becomes more powerful with every word spoken past the limit, eventually becoming lethal. This seems a little silly, the idea of a word counter that looks like a FitBit. But certain types of men are always trying to silence or discredit women. Just last week, for example, I answered a question about science that someone asked, and one of the men reflexively said, "No, that's wrong!" without even thinking about it, as if it had become habit. Someone at the table looked up the answer, and, of course, I was right. Did this person apologize to me? No. They just shrugged, as if to say, "Well, even a broken clock is right at least twice a day." Look at the proceedings with Kavanaugh, and how everyone rushed to discredit the woman who claimed that he had tried to rape her, and how many disgusting excuses of men literally toasted the successful discrediting of this witness with the "Beers for Brett" or "Bubbly for Brett" hashtag. The universe created in this novel doesn't really feel like such a stretch if you think of how many people in the world long for an idealistic version of the 1950s when women weren't allowed to express themselves or push the boundaries of gender norms, and minorities were kept safely out of sight.

The second half of this novel deals with some interesting science. Interesting in the fact that it does kind of feel like one of those cheesy, less popular Michal Crichton novels, or a Dan Brown novel, in that you find yourself suspending more disbelief than you'd like while also pondering the realism of the literary equivalent of a cackling mad scientist looming against a lightning-strewn backdrop. At the same time, there's a historical precedent of performing unspeakable medical practices against the oppressed, so this isn't as comfortably fantastical as some might like to believe, either. And sometimes, taking the reductio ad absurdum approach works in literature because it forces us to realize that our reality is almost absurd as the satires that are created to rebuke it. What does that say about us, I wonder?

Reading VOX is almost guaranteed to upset the reader, but if you find yourself growing angry at the women - or the author - of the story, you should probably ask yourself why.

3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars

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