I requested this audiobook by Christina Dalcher from my library on a whim. I had seen it around, and although I hadn’t heard much about it, the concept seemed interesting enough for me to want to check it out.
This audiobook initially gave me a bit of whiplash because the narrator is Julia Whelan, who also narrated Catwoman: Soulstealer, which I listened to right before listening to this one, so that required some adjusting because I had come to think of her voice as belonging to Selina Kyle, but suddenly she was speaking for this other, very different character. Julia Whelan is a fantastic narrator and I highly recommend her, it’s just that it feels weird when you get two audiobooks in a row narrated by the same person.
The main character is Dr. Jean McClellan, a former scientist with a degree in neurolinguistic researcher who used to study Wernicke’s aphasia. According to Jean, Wernicke’s aphasia is when people lose the ability to communicate because it involves the destruction of the part of the brain that processes language.
In reality, Wernicke’s area is just one of two parts of the brain that deal with speech: Wernicke’s area is responsible only for the comprehension of speech, meaning people afflicted with Wernicke’s aphasia can’t comprehend what’s said to them, but they can communicate their own thoughts and feelings just fine.
Broca’s area is the part of the brain that deals with production of speech. Destruction of this part of the brain results in people losing the ability to communicate with language. They can speak, but it will be random words that don’t form coherent sentences – but they have no problem understanding what’s said to them.
Dalcher combined these two into one awful disease in which people can neither understand what’s said to them nor form coherent sentences. As someone with a degree in psychology, it always bugs me when authors get these things wrong because they didn’t bother to do a simple Google search.
Anyway, so in this dystopia where there’s only one part of the brain that regulates both comprehension and production of speech, Jean had been working on a cure for her version of Wernicke’s aphasia, and they were really close when a new administration was elected to the White House that promptly stripped women of all their rights – including their right to hold a job, to have a bank account, to live alone without a husband or male relative, to read or write, to access the internet, or even speak more than 100 words a day. They’re all required to wear counters on their wrists that count each word they speak and provide shocks for every word they speak after 100. The shocks get worse the more words they speak after 100.
If you’re thinking people can mouth words or use sign language, think again. One of the first things the administration did was install cameras everywhere and any women caught communicating nonverbally are quickly made to disappear.
Jean’s husband works in the current administration and they have four kids: a teenage son named Steven, a pair of twin boys, and a six-year-old girl named Sonia. Sonia is the one Jean worries about the most because she already has to wear a counter. She’s too young to have fully developed her language skills, and because of the counter, she never will.
The new administration has also brought changes to every school’s curriculum – requiring that girls be taught housekeeping skills like cooking and cleaning, no reading or writing, and only enough basic math to count time and make change. Although the changes are relatively new (only about a year old) Sophie is young enough that it’s the only world she remembers living in and she embraces it – which scares Jean more than anything.
Her oldest, Steven, also embraces it and that just infuriates Jean when he argues that men and women were designed to perform different jobs, which somehow leads to the conclusion that men are designed to be the breadwinners while women should stay at home – even though Jean used to work in neurolinguistics, which did not require her to be physically stronger than anyone else.
Jean and Steven continue to butt heads over the new policies throughout the book as he gets more entrenched in the new system, saying obnoxious things like “Not my job” when she asks him to get more milk from the store.
Being limited to 100 words doesn’t make it easy to discipline your teenager or explain all the ways he’s wrong when he goes off on his misogynistic bullshit, and of course he takes the silence to mean he’s won the argument. Jean’s husband isn’t as helpful in dealing with Steven as he could be – or with any part of the new rules of oppression.
The story goes back and forth between Jean’s current reality and when she was a grad student living with her roommate Jackie, an activist who was constantly out on the streets fighting for justice while Jean stayed home to study, claiming she was too busy even to vote. Dalcher pushed that storyline so hard it was clear she’s trying to get women to act now, with the implication that if we wait it will be too late.
The story is fun, but not great. It reads more like a thriller than a dystopia, which makes for a quick read. I wouldn’t call this a must-read for anyone, but it certainly provides some food for thought.
What did you read/listen to this week? Any other new feminist books I should know about?