The Cambridge Geek

Vox - Christina Dalcher

This is one that I've been aware of for some time, with no small amount of praise being heaped on it. Frequently described as "the next Handmaid's Tale" and so on. Thought I'd best give it a go.

It's the nearish future, and the United States has only got more mental, first under Donald Trump and then under a string of presidents, some of whom have come under increasing pressure from the religious right. The long simmering idea of the pro-life, anti-woman fundamentalist has sprung into life, and women are now second class citizens.

Every woman has been given a "counter". This bracelet-like device, clamped around their wrist and only removable by the government, keeps track of how many words they speak each day. For every word over 100, they get an electric shock, with increasing power the more they say. It eventually becomes fatal.

This is intended to keep women "in their place", as obedient little house wives, prepared to obey their husband in every thought, word and deed. It's no small form of brainwashing, with (female) children being fitted with the exact same device, the aim being to eliminate female speech in a couple of generations.

Of course, we need a protagonist, and this is Jean's story. She has spent the last year trying not to break her word count, dealing with her newly indoctrinated son (he's joined the "Pure" movement), and wishing she'd listened to Jackie, an old college friend who'd seen where things were going and protested constantly. Her life, as she had thought of it, was more or less over, leaving her living a half existence.

Until the President's brother has a skiing accident, and develops aphasia, a rare brain disorder that in a thematically appropriate manner, leaves him unable to speak. This is the specific medical scenario that Jean is a world expert in, meaning that she can trade her knowledge for freedom of speech, for both her and her daughter. The book is therefore a tale of her medical investigations and the deeper problems in a society that decides to silence all women. (And her romantic troubles with a certain Italian she can't get out of her mind, always a problem when they've criminalised infidelity.)

I think it's not unreasonable to consider the book a scream of defiance against the current US political situation. The idea it contains that the Bible belt, that swathe of red states, could expand and take over all of the US, pulls from the existing populist movement that tries to "other" large sections of the population.

My instinctual response to the plot is "this is a bit silly", which the book tries to forestall by a rather cheap trick. One of its major characters pulls a fictional book off a shelf in a flashback, and Jean responds with "oh that would never happen", and of course in her own time it has. I can't say I was entirely convinced by this fictional argument, mostly because it was fictional, (it's very easy to win an argument when you're writing both sides), and it pointed out some of the weaknesses in writing a book so closely linked to topical politics.

At the end of 2016, beginning of 2017, a true fear of a MAGA era with sweeping societal regression was possible. But as time has moved on, the weakness of that unbending position has only grown more prominent. In the last few days of 2018, Trump once again managed to shut down his government, bring about one of the greatest stock falls since the Depression, and tell a child that Santa doesn't exist. His control of women's ability to talk is not looking great.

As such, the fact that the overall plot of the book is wound up so quickly feels more like a confirmation that anything like this could never happen, rather than an extraordinary success for a plucky team of Democrats against a great Orwellian machine. Jean at least is a powerful protagonist, however, and was emotionally complex enough that I kept reading just to see where she'd end up.

It's an interesting thought experiment, but I can't say it really grabbed me as a thriller, which parts of it feel like, or convinced me of the stability of its worldbuilding. Stop all women talking, and things go wrong in twenty minutes, not a year. Too many systems rely on too many different people to cope with losing half the workforce.

Score 3

Tagged: Book Science fiction Horrible humans Novel Print