A review of the atheist, humanist and secularist themes in the 2018 theocratic dystopian novel Vox, written by Christina Dalcher.
Set in an undefined near future in which the USA has become a Christian theocracy, it is clear from the front cover onwards that Vox is startling and high concept. Women have been relegated to second class status, their passports, jobs and bank accounts removed. Most shockingly all women and girls have been fitted with a counter which delivers powerful electric shocks if they go over a permitted 100 words a day.
This symbolism for the religious right’s obsession with controlling female expression is as subtle as a sledgehammer. The sanitised language of ‘modesty’ and ‘purity’ seen in real world theocratic movements is on full display as is the disturbing fashion accessorisation of oppression. Dr Jean McClellan, our viewpoint character, resists attempts by others to sanitise these instruments of control; rebuking her husband describing the electric shockers as “bracelets” and refusing a pink model for her daughter.
The inciting incident begins when the president’s brother develops a brain aneurysm leaving him unable to speak. Jean’s expertise as a neurologist studying exactly this sort of aneurysm is needed and, though the regime may preach that women are not suited to the workplace, arrangements are made.
An easy criticism of Vox would be that it is derivative. The front cover even carries a promotional quote calling it a “Reimagining of the Handmaid’s Tale”, and I am strongly reminded of Frederic C. Rich’s Christian Nation. But I also own around a dozen paint-by-numbers zombie apocalypse stories so I am clearly not averse to repetitions on a theme. What matters is the execution and what it adds to the genre.
Jean’s interactions with her son Steven, seen contemporaneously and through flashbacks, are the novel’s most unique and stand out contribution to the genre. We see him as a young man (15 during the story’s main events) finding a sense of identity in the right-wing Christianity seeping into society. Jean fights her growing temptation to hate her son, and so do we, as we are left wondering at what point he stops being a victim of and when he starts being a perpetrator of this radicalisation.
Jean’s interactions with her son do a lot of the heavy lifting in the otherwise limited worldbuilding department. Extra-curricular religious lessons start being offered at Steven’s school and while uncomfortable at their overtones of Christian conservatism and toxic masculinity, Jean doesn’t feel able to complain or intervene. Bit by bit this radicalisation becomes more explicit. I know lots of parents in a similar position, fearing looking unreasonable or ‘hysterical’ if they object to some religious intrusion into their supposedly secular school.
Overall, the worldbuilding is high concept rather than detailed. Most of the structures of the state and society in Vox seem familiar, and it is implied that the Christian Nationalists seizing of power has been through at least partially democratic means.
Vox is scathing in its critique of men’s weaknesses; the insecurity which lies at the heart of misogyny and susceptibility to toxic peer pressure. It is a great pity that, outside of the son, the male characters are so two dimensional. Though this is largely a product of the first-person narrative framing.
Other tropes are hit through the novel. I’m really fascinated by how this genre handles what I call the canary character; a character we normally meet through flashback (in the case of Vox, her name is Jackie), often related to the protagonist or an old college friend. This character is often presented as a slightly loopy activist who warns about the coming theocracy but is dismissed as hysterical – they are the canary in the coal mine of the story.
Particularly through the Ray family, led by Del the mailman (Del-iver-ray), Vox explores the intersection between Christian Nationalism, race and class in a way largely overlooked by similar books in the genre. Working class families and those of colour, alongside other minorities, would suffer most if Christian Nationalist dreams were to come true.
It’s a good debut novel, but Christina Dalcher’s background as a short fiction writer is evident in the novel’s biggest weakness… its pacing. The short chapters are intended to give a sense of constant momentum drawing you in. This effect is enhanced in what I’ve heard of the audio version. Where this works well, it builds the tension in a way which strangely reminded me of the first part of Dracula. The sense of unease and fear builds up and you can imagine each small chapter is being secretly scribbled down by our protagonist when they can.
Elsewhere the pacing falls flat; the momentum seems to peter out and events leap forward based on contrivances. I assumed that the author was aiming for 100 chapters to match the 100 word limit, meaning the ending felt even more rushed.
If you’re genre savvy, you’ll see the twists coming. But that shouldn’t detract from a good story. If you’re looking for an accessible but thought provoking look at theocratic fiction, then I’d recommend giving this a read.
Thanks for reading
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