Why are feminist dystopias so hot right now? An author sheds light
Christina Dalcher's 'Vox,' eliciting comparisons to 'The Handmaid's Tale,' imagines a world in which women are limited to speaking only a few words away.
It’s fair to say that Christina Dalcher’s new novel Vox is landing in the midst of a trend.
Alongside fellow recent feminist dystopias like Siobhan Adcock’s The Completionist and Leni Zumas’ Red Clocks, Vox reflects ongoing conversations around the mistreatment of women through a near-apocalyptic lens. In this case, Dalcher imagines a near-future U.S. in which women have been banned from speaking more than 100 words per day, with some not permitted to hold jobs and girls not taught to read or write. So begins a timely thriller centered on Dr. Jean McClellan, a silenced professional determined to reclaim her voice.
The novel has elicited comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, the Hulu phenomenon based on Margaret Atwood’s novel which has arguably galvanized the literary world’s turn toward dark, foreboding tales of oppression and discrimination. Indeed, Vox is among the most prominent to be published so far this year.
EW caught up with Dalcher about the trend, why her book speaks to the political moment in ways most would not expect, and the power of telling urgent, dystopian stories. Read on below, and buy your copy of Vox here.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did you conceive this story, and this idea, specifically, about women having restrictions on the amount they can speak?
CHRISTINA DALCHER: I think many readers will conclude that I wrote Vox as a thought-piece about silencing women, but, frankly, that wasn’t the case at all. It came afterwards. The original idea was to work with the concept of language scrambling, of humans finding themselves unable to do something that’s so normal and ubiquitous and essential to our species, we rarely even think about it. In a way, Vox is an experiment born from Ray Bradbury’s advice. It celebrates something I love [language] and tears down something I hate [the stifling of language]. It was a terrifying theme to explore, given that language is the single element that defines us as human, and what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom.
How closely do you believe the book speaks to our current political moment?
It speaks very closely, but perhaps in a different way than people believe. One of my greatest fears, and the fear that almost all dystopian fiction addresses, is the overextension of governmental power. I’m particularly concerned about what might happen if (or when) too much control falls into the hands of anyone with an agenda. In Vox, this agenda is a return to the culture of domesticity, a religious-motivated separation of gender roles that we saw in the 19th and part of the 20th centuries. Ironically, history has shown us that most of the times we take a step backwards, it feeds the fire of a more forward-thinking movement.
Did you find writing about such heavy, relevant material difficult at times? What was your process?
My process is the same as it always is — to get words on a page, tell a story, and either scare the pants off of readers or push them to think about the world in a different way. There were heavy moments, certainly, mostly when I wrote scenes involving Jean’s six-year-old daughter, Sonia. At six, Sonia is at that critical “use it, or lose it” stage of learning. When I began studying linguistics, I read about Genie. Almost fourteen years of social isolation and abuse left her without language, and beyond any hope of acquiring it. I’ve never forgotten her story, and my own fear and anger about poor Genie stayed in my mind from the first word of Vox to the last.
What in your view is the value of bringing timely dystopian fiction such as this out into the world?
Those of us fortunate enough to be living in democracies need reminders every so often that those democracies are extremely fragile. In that sense, dystopian fiction — whatever its specific take on culture and politics — will always be timely and necessary.
Any writers or books who inspired you for this story?
Most people close to me know that I’m a habitual re-reader of favorite books. I’ve been a steadfast Stephen King fan since I was fourteen years old, and his stories are the ones I return to most frequently. That man can weave a tale, get under my skin, and still make me turn every light in the house on when I wake up in the middle of the night. Also, I love his writing style: plain and no frills and powerful. I also make it a point to re-read Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 every few years.