There has definitely been a trend in recent literature for speculative stories about dystopian futures (especially in the US and especially for women). This isn’t really a surprise, I don’t think, considering some of the leadership we’re currently experiencing. And it definitely adds a realistically frightening edge to the speculative-ness of the stories. Obviously, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was published well before all this current political backwardness, though the tv show adaptation is timely. But, I’ve also read and reviewed others much like it more recently published, including Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God, Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks, and, a personal favorite of mine, though in a slightly different speculative-message-vein, The Power by Naomi Alderman. I enjoy the sub-genre, but I have to say, these types of books can be pretty stressful and anxiety-inducing to read…I have to remember to keep them spread out.
Vox is based on a speculative future in which women in the United States have been relegated back in time – to when they only cared for the home and children and didn’t learn to read or write. But it’s taken even further with a limitation on how many words they can speak – 100 per day, no more. And this applies to all girls, even those not old enough for words. Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial that this is possible in her own country, coming to terms with how she should have done more to prevent it and, as a leading scientist in a very specific field, is given a chance to, maybe, step up and reclaim her voice, for herself, her daughter and all the women whose words have been stolen from them.
I had seen a number of mixed reviews for this novel, but as I tend to like this genre and because I was fascinated by the premise (silencing voices is form of oppression that I’ve seen as part of other plots, but never as the full focus before), I wanted to read it and see for myself. I can officially and confidently say that I am on team “mixed feelings” with so many others. There were some aspects of this novel that were spectacular, I thought, and I still really like the concept. But there also were a number of logistical holes that I struggled to overlook (usually I am better at this, but like, there were just so many). My notes while reading were so clearly split down the middle and I feel like this is a case where the best review I can write will take the form of bullet points and lists, so that’s what I’m going to do.
First, the good/great:
- Completely surface level, but the cover is perfect – stark and arresting.
- The vibe is spot on. From the very first page, the sense of angry helplessness I had while reading was intense and uncomfortable, which is exactly what I wanted from this book.
- Great plot build. I’ll talk about the plot holes in my “the bad” list below, but I have to be honest and say that the pacing and tension building in the plot were nicely developed.
- I absolutely LOVED the message about how silence/lack of action equals acquiescence, in no uncertain terms. This novel is a strong and necessary indictment of those who look away and prefer not to notice: those who get “annoyed” by protesters/agitators, those who don’t vote, those who choose not to notice until something affects them, those living in a “bubble,” etc.
- The narrator did a great job (I listened to the audiobook).
- Thorough look at how limited speech can be harmful, past the obvious and horrifying loss of the right to free speech in a general sense, like the inability to correctly develop speech for small children, pregnant/sick women with complications who cannot voice the problem, etc. Similarly, looking at other “complications,” like what to do with single women, queer women and other social “non-conformers.”
- The neuro-linguistics science – it’s not something I’ve read a book about before, or seen featured in a book, and it was really interesting in a general sense.
- Nice illustration of the complete hypocrisy and disconnect between the theoretical honorable and holy “role” of women and the very un-honorable and un-holy resulting treatment they end up facing as a result of that belief.
- The one big detail at the end that we never find out (no spoilers). But I really, really liked that the author did that because it’s a wonderfully symbolic way to show large-scale changes on a personal level, because that detail doesn’t matter anymore.
And now, the “meh”/bad:
- This concept is awful, and no mistake, but I don’t understand why reading and writing are not an option for women. Like, it’s not a replacement for speaking, and this is a “it should never have happened” thing, and I can kinda see how they could track sign-language and punish people for using that so it’s safer not to, but I don’t understand why reading and writing weren’t available to Jean and how that could have been tracked monitored (especially since her husband, the man in the home, wasn’t a crazy follower/believer and would have let her). Seems like a big thing to not explain more thoroughly.
- The plot holes. Ugh. This was the part that really frustrated me because the book had so much potential. But like, I just had so many questions. (I accept that a number of these can be explained away, and kind of are at times, by Jean’s limited perspective and acquaintance group, plus her husband’s position in the government…but still.)
- The timeline(s). This all happened in a year? Come on. What about hard to reach populations, homeschooling, those who go underground to avoid being “caught,” and just the general manpower (no pun intended) it would take to produce and distribute the “bracelets” to that many people that quickly? And then, the ending – I don’t care how close Jean was to “knowing” things and having the answers before all this happened, science never moves that fast. It just doesn’t.
- Bracelets can just be removed, right? You can’t tell me a large portion of the population didn’t immediately figure out how to get them off.
- The “big plan” from the government to mis-use Jean’s research. It’s nefarious and I understand it as an end goal and it’s not a terrible “big bad.” However, I feel like I did not get enough info at all. Like, how was the government planning to make sure only women were affected?? Once something gets into water, it’s a free-flow (this pun I did intend) situation. And also, like, what good does that do them? I “get” wanting to subdue/subjugate women, but like, even if you figure out how to run an entire workforce without them, they still, under this outlook, need to be capable enough to run a home, which requires some level of communication and awareness.
- In general, the science was interesting, but in practice, Jean’s “aha” moments were often too vague for me to follow or feel like I had a grasp on, which got frustrating.
- The ending seemed too easy. Like, all the roles and jobs everyone had from the beginning made it line up that way, and it fell out reasonably with that taken into account. But it seemed a bit predictable and, like I said, too simple an out/too forgiving for Jean and perhaps too quick of a rebound on the country level.
- There was an attempt, though minimal/nominal, at intersectionally addressing this potential situation. The narrow view could be realistic based on the narrator, and it’s definitely refreshing that Jean admits her failings and lack of consideration on that front, but even still the time/effort given to/spent on that perspective was still lacking.
Conceptually, this was a frightening cautionary tale (especially with the US’s current political state of affairs and support for the MAGA ideals). And the anger and frustration and dread I felt while reading was palpable. I love when a book makes me feel that strongly. Plus, the moral, to get involved in social issues and politics before it gets to this point, to help prevent these kinds of extremes, is so important. However, I really struggled with the overall execution of the story. The many plot holes and unanswered questions I had kept pulling me out of the story. If you are a fan of this speculative women’s rights sub-genre, and you’ve wanted to read this, I think you should still go for it. It makes you think a bit and gets your feels up. But it just wasn’t what I was hoping for and it wasn’t what it could have been.
Some quotes that struck me as I read:
“‘You’re getting hysterical about it.’ […] ‘Well, someone needs to be hysterical around here.’”
“…you can’t protest what you don’t see coming.”
“You can take a lot away from a person – money, job, intellectual stimulation, whatever. You can take her words, even, without changing the essence of her. Take away camaraderie, though, and we’re talking about something different.”
“Memory is a damnable faculty.”
“I suppose, if things ever return to normal, they’ll use that old chestnut of a line: I was only following orders. Where have we heard that before?”
“The follies of men have always been tolerated.”
“Monsters aren’t born, ever. They’re made, piece by piece and limb by limb, artificial creations by madmen who, like the misguided Frankenstein, always think they know better.”