Christina Dalcher: Queen of Dystopia

In Christina Dalcher’s Vox (2019), women are limited to one hundred words per day. Exceeding this will trigger a powerful electric shock from the bracelets they are forced to wear. This is the work of the Pure Movement; a faith-fuelled collective that has infiltrated the government. Jean McClellan is a mother and wife who resentfully tackles daily life under this new regime. She watches helplessly as her young daughter falls silent and her eldest son is indoctrinated. But she is given a chance to change things when the president’s brother endures a head injury and her skills as a former neuroscientist are requested by the president himself. All is not as it seems, however, and she soon uncovers even more sinister things at play.

Vox is a disturbing yet refreshing addition to the speculative fiction genre. The nature of the female oppression, although extreme, is unnervingly realistic alongside the otherwise standard suburban setting. Parallels can be drawn between this and the holy grail of dystopian fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), but this modern take, though slightly familiar, makes for a thrilling read.

Dalcher’s second and recent novel, Q (2021), is perhaps more inspired in how it finds new ground. Dalcher employs her more seasoned voice to build a new society with new oppressions. The world of Q is one in which life is dependent upon regular grading and testing. Your score is your livelihood. Quotients monitor performance at work or school, attendance, promptness and much more. Children are tested relentlessly from an unthinkably young age. If their scores drop, they are demoted to the next school down. The lowest-scoring students are taken to new, distant government schools.

One of the most delicious notes to the novel is that the protagonist, Elena Fairchild, once believed in this system and helped to bring it into fruition with her husband Malcolm. But when one of her daughters scores lower than expected and is sent to a school hundreds of miles away, Elena intentionally bombs her own test to go after her. As the story progresses, the layers of mystery around the government’s new education scheme peel away, with haunting similarities to twentieth-century regimes. Q takes our performance-obsessed society to extremes to ponder just how horrifying it could become. Could we cross the line into a eugenics-based system? Could we repeat our mistakes? Dalcher observes sharply, with a more subtle terror than that of Vox, that segregation of any leads to disaster.

By Chloe McNeill and Rory McNeill.