Vox by Christina Dalcher

What with the television adaptation of Margaret Atwood's peerless The Handmaid's Tale gripping viewers and Naomi Alderman's The Power winning the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, while a far-right president occupies the White House and the American Bible Belt and anti-feminist activists gain political traction, dystopian fiction with a feminist slant feels very zeitgeisty at the moment.

Christina Dalcher's Vox is a speculative novel set in the near future, in which a totalitarian US president bolstered by ultra-conservative Christians and the alt-right has banned women from working. Women are severely punished for any perceived sexual immorality; gay people are sent to labour camps. Most notably, all women and girls wear a counter on their wrist to monitor how many words they speak each day. If they exceed 100 words, either in our out of the home, the counter delivers electric shocks of increasing severity.

Jean, our narrator, is a scientist who, ironically, was forced to give up her job just as she was on the verge of discovering a way to restore the power of speech to the victims of brain injuries. Now, like every other woman in America, she's a housewife, while her husband Patrick works for the government in Washington DC. One day, the brother of the President, who also happens to be one of his most important advisors, suffers a head injury in an accident that leaves him unable to talk, and a deal is struck: Jean will return to her research in order find a cure for his condition, and while she does so, she'll have her word counter - and that of her six-year-old daughter Sonia - removed.

The premise of Vox is an interesting one and at the beginning, I was fascinated by the family dynamic at Jean's home, in which her husband and three sons can speak freely but she and her daughter must remain silent. Jean's 17-year-old son Steven has alt-right misogynist written all over him, and the degree to which Steven is receptive to the brainwashing of the right-wing regime could have been a fascinating plot strand, but unfortunately I just found so much wrong with this book.

Firstly, it hammers home every point with a very heavy hand. If only Jean had bothered to vote. If only she'd gone on those protests with her feminist college room-mate Jackie ... I have no problem with the message, and clarity is a good thing, but this is almost painfully unsubtle. Everything is spelled out, nothing implied and the clunkiness is very much apparent from the start.

There's also so much that actually seems to undermine the feminist message. Ultimately, most of the heroics in the book's action-packed helter-skelter climax come from men who rush to the rescue. Jean turns into a gibbering wreck in the presence of Lorenzo, the Italian scientist with whom she's been having an affair and it's embarrassingly cliched. When Jean discovers that there is a resistance against the government - incredibly, it hasn't occurred to her until now that this might be the case - she learns that the women of the resistance don't have word counters because someone's husband, not one of the women, has found out a way to remove them.

And in any case, everything we're told about the counters suggests they'd be pretty easy to remove anyway, and that's another problem I have with this book: the innumerable plot holes. I don't need gritty realism from a speculative dystopia but this story isn't set far into the future and we shouldn't need to ask 'But why don't they just...' in every chapter. How does each counter distinguish individual words? How does it know when someone is speaking one word with five syllables rather than five words with one? Why can't the sensor be muffled with something? Given that they can be easily removed by government agents with a tiny key, why aren't more people just making copies of said keys or just using, say, a paperclip? Women are also apparently barred from using sign language in public, monitored by security cameras in public places. But who actually watches all this footage 24 hours a day? Given that women are no longer able to work, the workforce must be pretty depleted as it is without paying people to stare for 24 hours a day at CCTV of literally every public place in America.  Neither is it ever explained why, in the home, women don't write things down. It's implied they're not allowed to read or write, but who is actually going to know if they jot down a message for their husband or kids in the privacy of the home? The work Jean is involved in is a national secret, her boss says; the aphasia cure she's developed absolutely cannot be allowed out the USA at a time when its relationship with Europe is tense ... but Lorenzo, who knows exactly how to formulate the serum, is an Italian national who lives in Italy and can travel back there any time he likes, so why on earth is he allowed to work on the project?

Finally, Jean herself simply didn't feel credible. Terrible things happen to almost everyone close to her and she barely seems to register them, while at the same time manages to find time - in a totalitarian surveillance state in which women who have sex outside marriage are publicly vilified on television and then sent to labour camps - to run off for sex at a not-very-secret location with hunky, utterly two-dimensional Lorenzo. Along with the incredibly convenient and neatly wrapped up ending, it's all pretty laughable.

The frustrating thing is that there are some serious and interesting points that could be made here, but the opportunity is completely wasted. Robbing people of their power by robbing them of their language is a fascinating idea that could have been the basis of a brilliant story. Unfortunately, that isn't what Vox is. It's poorly plotted and poorly written: read Margaret Atwood instead.