'Vox' Author Christina Dalcher Reveals How She Created the Dystopian World and 100 Word Limit

Vox Cover
Above is the cover for "Vox" by Christina Dalcher. The author imagined a world in which women were limited to 100 words a day. Penguin Random House

What if women's speech was limited to 100 words a day and kept track of by wrist counters? That's the world of Christina Dalcher's Vox. (Light spoilers for the book follow.)

Dalcher first created this dystopian setting in shorter pieces of fiction of 750 and 3500 words. The first was for a contest with a doomsday theme. "That's where I initially got this idea about taking language away," she told Newsweek. "I imagined a situation in which a bio-agent had run rampant and effectively left all humans without language."

For the second piece, she expanded that idea to something that induced Wernicke's aphasia, in which an individual can speak, but not in a way that makes sense. "I wanted more character development instead of just some dark sketch of what the world might look like," she explained. "The bare bones of [Vox], about women being limited to 100 words a day and about Jean having been a cognitive linguist who was working towards a cure for a certain type of aphasia, were all present."

With the average human using 16,000 words a day "100 compared to that is effectively zero" and the wrist counters were a "constant reminder" for women, Dalcher said of the "horror" in that number. "I think that's much more terrifying, much more emotionally charged than simply, 'you're not to speak at all," she added.

Partway through the book, the main character, Jean, and her 6-year-old daughter, Sonia, have their counters removed in exchange for Jean's work on a project to help the president's brother. Knowing the freedom wouldn't last was almost worse than never being free at all.

Vox Cover
Above is the cover of Christina Dalcher's "Vox." The author found it more terrifying to have women limited to 100 words instead of not having them able to speak at all. Penguin Random House

Some of the most heartbreaking moments involve Jean's children, including Sonia, who wins prizes for not talking at school. "[She] is still probably going to absorb language from what she's hearing around her," Dalcher said. "But we could project some generations forward … the wrist counters [would] no longer [be] needed because females' acquisition of language would be so compromised that it wouldn't matter whether they were speaking 100 or 200 words a day. They just wouldn't have the same rich lexicon that the people [without constrictions] do. There's a risk of their humanity being taken away."

Jean's son, Steven, embraces the Pure Movement. "He's a bit of a poster child for the Hitler Youth, showing us how easily young minds can be manipulated and molded into what others would like them to be," she explained. "As much as I wanted to punch him sometimes when I was writing, I have to step back and go, 'Oh my God, he's a teenager.'"

Jean also has twins, whose characters aren't nearly as developed as Steven and Sonia. "It's possible if I'd gone back and thought about this, I might have taken [them] out," the author admitted, but added, "I'm glad they're in there because I think they're in a sort of limbo. They're too young to really know what's going on. … They're being indoctrinated and they just don't know it yet."

Dalcher didn't want her world in Vox to be like that of classical dystopian works. "There is often a sense of hopelessness in [those]," whereas young adult works in the genre have storylines that do "eventually end well."

That's why her book doesn't fit into one genre. "It's a little bit women's fiction, it's a little bit political, it's a lot thriller, it's a little bit dystopia and a little science fiction," she explained. "I wanted to write a thriller that had dystopian elements and was still a book where a hero or a heroine could actually succeed. …[Jean] succeeds and she changes something."

Some people tell her, "'this book makes me want to go out and punch a man,'" but not all the male characters are bad people. "It's not the case that all the men are buying into this new Pure Movement scheme and it's not the case that all the women in the book are resisting it," she said. "There are women, like the neighbor, who are, in fact, embracing this culture."

There's one line that's really resonated with readers. Soon after Jean's wrist counter is removed, she's fighting with her husband, Patrick, who says, "I wonder if it was better when you didn't talk."

"I'm not defending him but people who love each other say rotten things to one another, particularly when you're living with someone constantly," Dalcher said. "I wanted to cause some anger there, but … it was a way of showing this marriage that was a little bit on the rocks."

"This is a very normal world … except it's not," she added.

The way Jean interacts with men depends on who she's talking to. "Look at how she talks back to that little jerk Morgan, who usurped her job. Then look at how fearful Patrick is compared to [her lover] Lorenzo, who is scrambling to do anything he can to get [her] out of this situation," Dalcher said. "Sometimes the closer we are to people, the more complicated that intimate relationship can get."

Vox is available now.