I am a big fan of dystopian fiction. The distress of unimaginable near-future situations and contemplating how they might actually mirror our own society or how we could possibly evolve in that direction if we aren't careful is something that I find really fascinating.
What I become wary of is a type of book that is becoming trendy—a fad genre, you could say. The feminist dystopian narrative is becoming a bit of a fad, based on a lot of factors.
And this is a really good thing, for the most part. I love the revitalization of The Handmaid's Tale with the adaptation to television, the broadening of that horrific world into something far beyond what the original book envisioned but a broadening toward themes that are echoing loudly in our world today. And there are other recent books that I've enjoyed--Red Clocks will probably be in my top ten list of the year.
Perhaps "fad" is a bit too flippant of a term, because I really do think that literature reflects the times that we live in. Authors write—even fiction and perhaps especially fiction—about what is influencing their lives, what they feel strongly about, what they think others feel strongly about, how they see the world around them changing. And even if they aren't directly addressing these things in their writing, it still might come out. So it is more than a fad, really. It is a reflection of the times we live in. It is authors holding up a mirror to our society and saying, take a look.
Vox is meant to be more than just a subtle mirroring. It is very up front about its ideas: in the near-future, a fundamentalist Christian government has taken the reins and only allows women to speak one hundred words per day. In a world that replies so heavily on language for communication, this makes it hard for them to have a job or really handle anything, so they are relegated back to their houses with husbands in total control.
My main issue with this book is that it really isn't about what it purports to be about. This isn't a revolutionary and uplifting story about women's struggle to rise up against this oppression. It is instead the story of one woman, who is extremely selfish, self-centered, and lucky, and how everything lines up for her without her having to try very hard at all.
The main character, Jean, is a cognitive linguist who used to be searching for a cure to Wernicke's aphasia, where the ability to grasp the meaning of spoken words or sentences is impaired. And that ends up playing a huge (and I mean major) part of the plot. I'm not saying it isn't interesting, I'm just saying once you know what's going on, it is sort of a letdown. The story becomes very insular and all about Jean, rather than about the issues at large.
Jean doesn't seem to care about her family all that much. She has four children, but don't expect to hear about two of them at all. The older boy she has a strained relationship with (understandable) but she acts very childish and doesn't try to see things from his perspective or talk to him about what's going on (once she has a chance to do so). The last child is her daughter, who is really the only one she seems to have any affection for, but there are still moments where it seems like she would abandon her too.
There is a strong emphasis on purity by the ruling regime, though of course it is really only a problem if women are the ones who are messing around. But because everything about the government is bad, the decisions that Jean makes about her own romantic life are shown in a positive light, and are even justified in the end. It isn't that black and white, though and I found it a poor narrative tactic.
You could argue that she is mistrustful of those around her for good reason as men hold all the power and even her son seems to be buying into the new power structure, but I wasn't convinced.
There are also some fairly unbelievable coincidences with this Wernicke's aphasia. I found myself thinking, how common is this type of aphasia? And Jean must have taken some Felix Felicis because she makes some crazy intuitive leaps in the last third of the book and everything she guesses is correct and everywhere she goes is the right place to be. All these little gripes and grievances are mostly to say, I found the plot strung together and the main character unbearable.
I think what would have made this book more interesting would be to begin from the same premise, but give us different narrators from all walks of life. Give us someone like Jean's friend, who was a liberal feminist protester, fighting the whole thing tooth and nail. Give us a transgender narrator, maybe a young boy who identifies as female but knows he'll have no power that way, give us a deaf woman (I really wondered about deaf women—how do they get their hundred words?). Give us a true believer, one of the women who believe this is the way it should be. Jean is so white-bread boring. I would have liked to see beyond her privileged perspective.
The good news is, this isn't the end of the feminist dystopian narrative. If you are interested in these, I expect there will be more on the way.
My thanks to Berkley for sending me an advance copy of this book to review.
Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.