Sixteen-thousand words. That's how many words, on average, most people speak in a day. Sixteen-thousand chances to say "I love you," "I'm sorry," or "Make your own damn sandwich." Language, the ability to express oneself, is agency. So what do we become when language, our most human of characteristics, is taken away?
Such are the questions posed by the linguist and author Christine Dalcher, whose first novel, Vox (Penguin Random House), is set in a near-future America governed by the few for the few. In Vox's America, women have lost most of their rights. They can't vote or carry passports, and they can speak no more than 100 words a day. All American women and girls have been fitted with a counter worn around the wrist, not unlike a Fitbit, that keeps track of the words they speak in a day. The counter resets at midnight. And if a woman uses more than her allotted 100 words, the counter administers a small electric shock. If she continues to speak, the shocks intensify.
The new measures were put into play as a part of the "Pure Movement," a religious movement that advocates a return to a time when the country was "untroubled" by the political and social turmoil of recent years. That such a reading of history is dramatically flawed doesn't stop the Pure Movement from gaining followers, primarily from the middle section of the country, mostly from people who feel overlooked and forgotten by an increasingly globalized economy and diversified workforce.
The narrative follows Dr. Jean McClellan, a scientist who was working on a cure for fluent aphasia, a condition leading to the deterioration of the speech centers in the brain. That is, she used to be called "Dr." and she used to be working on a cure for fluent aphasia. She used to have her own lab. But that was before Reverend Carl Corbin and his Pure Movement began to gain ground. Before Corbin gave his blessing to presidential hopeful Sam Meyers, who won the presidency. Now Jean spends time at home, trying to occupy a mind used to wrestling with complex chemical equations. Now she doesn't speak during the day, just turns over her thoughts, trying to dull the edge of her worry about her family. How can she teach her daughter to be strong and independent when she must also teach her to be silent at all costs? How can she teach her son fairness in a country that has chosen to hobble half its population?
That moral dilemma is at the center of Vox. It's clear that, though the Pure Movement is buttressed by return-to-morals rhetoric, the movement is eroding whatever morality there is left in the country. Neighbors spy on neighbors, like something out of a Red Scare-era sci-fi flick. And Jean's son, Steven, is being steadily seduced by the movement. What worries Jean even more, though, is her daughter Sonia, who hasn't spoken in days and is proud to be a frontrunner in a Silent Game competition among the girls at her elementary school.
Patrick, Jean's husband, is little help. He works in government, in D.C., and he's got his hands full trying to scale back the extremity of new legislation. Alone in a bubble of silence, Jean thinks back to her undergraduate years, when she would decline her friend Jackie Juarez's attempts to drag her to protests, when she first gave up her voice by choosing not to use it. Jackie warned Jean that history has a way of repeating itself — especially when your nose is buried too deeply in your own business to smell change on the wind.
And things may change, for the worse or the better, when President Meyers' brother and trusted advisor takes a brutal fall while skiing, fracturing his skull and hurting his brain. Jean is offered a chance to get the counter off her wrist — and her daughter's — if she will finish her work on her aphasia cure. Jean is torn, unsure whether the good she might do Sonia justifies any help she could give to a legitimately evil regime.
With a dash of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and a pinch of Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives, Vox sits well among the ranks of feminist speculative fiction. It's a literary contemplation of an America hijacked by fundamentalists who want to turn back the clock by 60 years. More than anything, Vox is a novel about the price of staying silent.