An Unexpected DNF: Vox by Christina Dalcher (Linguist’s Perspective)

I was excited about Vox for one reason — the main character is a neurolinguist. What’s more, she is an accurately written neurolinguist, since the author has a PhD in linguistics herself. I studied linguistics in college, so having accurate representation of my field out there is important to me. Then why didn’t I finish it?

Time constraints. At my library, new books are lent on a two-week basis, no renewals. I had to give it back. To be honest, though, I had the appropriate amount of time to read this book, but it didn’t excite me enough to finish it before the deadline. It’s a decent book, based on the 75 pages I did read of it. I would have finished it eventually if not for the due date. Still, I’d like to talk about why, as a linguist, I didn’t really get the book I was expecting.

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Vox is set in a dystopian future where women are allotted 100 words per day. For every word after that, a wrist cuff administers a shock that increases in intensity as the woman continues to speak. It’s all very The Handmaid’s Tale. In fact, it’s a bit too The Handmaid’s Tale. Every single blurb and review of the book latches on to this easy comparison. Dalcher seems determined to impress upon us that something like this, if not exactly this, could happen if we don’t stop Trump and the fundamentalist right. The main character has failed to heed the warnings of her activist classmate from grad school, and now she’s stuck in a world where women can’t speak.

I mean, that’s one way to motivate people to action, I suppose.

There’s a strange disconnect between two segments of the U.S. population, in my observation. There are people who have firsthand experience with fundamentalist right-wing Christianity, and there are people who have only looked upon it from the outside. I’ve attended churches across the spectrum and known Christians of many different political shades. I find that books like Vox and The Handmaid’s Tale cater to an audience that has never been involved in “that” part of the church and that often has little experience with religion at all. That’s not to say that these books are necessarily wrong in their portrayals, but they lack nuance and a real understanding of how the religious right thinks. Religious characters seem like caricatures.

Margaret Atwood has given enough interviews about her work that we can understand how she formulated Gilead, but there is much less to go on with Dalcher. While she names her inspiration as the Cult of Domesticity, this doesn’t tell us about her own religious background and how it informs her writing. I don’t think readers are entitled to know her beliefs or her upbringing unless she chooses to share it, but I do think it’s a relevant point to consider on my end when analyzing a book that criticizes religion and politics.

With regard to linguistics, Vox is factual, or at least it is up to the point I read. And that’s great, but in terms of science fiction, it’s a bit of a snooze. Arrival might not have accurate linguistics, but at least it’s creative with linguistic concepts. Dalcher writes about Wernicke’s aphasia in layman’s terms, paragraphs I skimmed with a yawn. It’s a decent introduction to the topic, but from what I gather, she doesn’t take this aspect of the storyline anywhere particularly speculative.

The more interesting linguistic question she raises is about speech development in children. The main character’s daughter Sonia seems to receive an appropriate amount of linguistic input, but she isn’t allowed to put it into practice by speaking herself. The women of this society begin to invent sign languages, but the authorities cotton on quickly and shut them down. Any linguist can tell you that with such stunted language use in childhood, a girl like Sonia would end up with permanent linguistic disabilities. I hope that Dalcher explores this idea with imagination, since she’s creating a generation of test subjects for the most unethical of linguistic studies: what happens when you raise a child without speech? Only a small handful of abused, neglected, or “wild” children have been observed by researchers to this end.

The thing is, I could be wrong, but I don’t see room in the narrative she sets up to properly explore the ramifications of the 100-word policy. Its consequences would be on a generational scale, and her plot seems to be fairly real-time.

I want to highlight again that I only read the first 75 pages of this book. Many of my qualms could easily be wiped away in the rest of the story. I just wanted to give some of my thoughts as a linguist, even though I wasn’t able to read the entire thing. Maybe when the initial library rush has died down I’ll pick it up again and do a follow-up.

One thing’s for sure: Vox has ignited in me an appetite for more linguistic science fiction. Send the recommendations my way if you have them!

You can buy Vox here.

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Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

A female astronaut heads into outer space on the first moon mission. That’s it; that’s the premise. But what does it take to get her there? The Calculating Stars is an alternate history that explores how women might have made it as early astronauts if circumstances were different. While the upcoming sequel promises to tell of their adventures in space, this first book is focused on the who, what, where, when, and why.

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It’s a disastrous meteorite collision with Earth that sets into motion an accelerated space race, but it’s the ambition of Dr. Elma York that enters women into the program. Far from being a flight of fancy, the story takes more from nonfiction books like Hidden Figures and Code Girls than from other science fiction. York is a former WASP and a computer, an expert in the fields that make spaceflight possible.

The story takes on not only sexism, but also racism, religious discrimination, and mental health stigma. Our protagonist, a Jewish woman who struggles with anxiety, works hand in hand with men and women of different ethnicities to achieve her goal. It’s a refreshing reminder that all sorts of people have existed in the USA throughout its history, and that despite barriers, many marginalized people have accomplished great things, even when they weren’t recognized for it.

And while I love that, it’s also attached to my biggest quibble with the book: the lens through which we see the story is too modern. The dialogues and attitudes of the more progressive characters align with extremely current perspectives and analyses of race, gender, and religion. I’m not saying that there weren’t forward-thinking people in the 1950s. There absolutely were. I’m saying that the specifics of their forward-thinking thoughts seem streamlined and overly consistent with the politics of 2018. While this makes it a digestible read in the moment, I doubt that this aspect will hold up well over time.

My other quibble is relatively minor, but it has to be said. Elma and her husband engage in lots of science-related flirting and innuendo. It’s unnecessary, and to me, kind of cringey. Yes, it’s great that Nathaniel is a loving and supportive husband… but do we really need those kinds of details?! I don’t think we do.

That being said, Elma is a sympathetic protagonist, and her nemesis is equally as hate-able, being the embodiment of petty sexism. The pacing is dynamic and full of action. Overall, it’s a well-written book that does what it came here to do: no frills, just an exciting, empowering read.

I recommend The Calculating Stars to fans of Hidden Figures, or to anyone who wants to see a more diverse range of faces in science fiction.

Rating: 4/5 (calculating) stars.

You can buy it here!

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Sci-Fi Favorites

Right now I’m reading The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, an alternate history wherein an asteroid hitting Earth accelerates the space race, including the appearance of the world’s first female astronaut. I’m loving it so far, but I haven’t finished it yet, so I thought I’d recommend some other sci-fi favorites in the meantime!

1. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

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Since I read this book around when it came out, it’s spawned a popular series now on its third installment. To be honest, I haven’t read either of the sequels yet, but I really want to. This first book features a quirky ensemble cast of humans and aliens. They form an interstellar construction crew for wormholes, and their biggest assignment yet is to connect an isolated planet with the universe at large. The planet is so isolated that they can’t use typical shortcuts to get there, and so it’s a long way to that small, angry planet. It’s a fun, low-pressure space adventure that focuses on the relationships between characters on what is essentially a really long road trip. And the characters are so endearing!

You can buy it here!

2. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

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Le Guin is, of course, the queen of sci-fi, but I hadn’t read any of her books until this year after my brother gave me a copy of The Dispossessed for Christmas. It centers around Shevek, a renowned physicist from Anarres, an anarcho-communist splinter colony on the moon of the planet Urras (or is Urras the moon of Anarres?). He’s the first visitor between the two worlds in hundreds of years, becoming entrenched in diplomatic intrigue in the much more complex politics of Urras. There’s a strong focus on world-building, comparing and contrasting the political systems of the two worlds. Le Guin uses this novel as a way to explore what anarchism might look like when put into practice, both the upsides and downsides. It’s a nuanced and fascinating read.

You can buy it here!

3. Extras by Scott Westerfeld

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This might sound a bit unusual, but I’m recommending the fourth book in a series. The Uglies series made a splash with its exploration of beauty standards, environmentalism, and dystopian government in a post-apocalyptic Earth. I’ve loved it ever since middle school. Most people, though, don’t even know that there’s a fourth book, since it was originally billed as a trilogy. Extras is something of a spin-off featuring a new main character, Aya Fuse, who lives in a future Japan. The book came out in the early years of YouTube and social media, and I find that it predicted the impact of these websites on our world with unnerving precision. In a city where popularity is an industry, Aya is desperate to be famous. Her character is a fictional prelude to the social media stars and wannabes of today.

You can buy it here! Or start with the first book here.

4. The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer

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This series is an enjoyable and well-crafted sci-fi/fantasy mashup that brings together the stories of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Snow White in a futuristic setting. Cinder kicks off with the title character as a cyborg who loses her entire prosthetic foot, not just her shoe. It’s also fittingly set in future China, home to one of the earliest versions of the Cinderella myth. The Lunar Chronicles is not merely a retelling, but rather a total reinvention of fairy tales, and Meyer deftly weaves them together to form a cohesive, creative world. I’m asking you to give it a shot even if you usually steer clear of YA books. It’s worth it.

You can buy the first book here!

Have you read any of these? What are your favorite sci-fi novels? Tell me in the comments!

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