I wanted to ask ‘What if we lost the faculty that singularly makes us human?’
I’ve had a forty-five-year love affair with language, and I’m talking about language with a capital L: that amazing faculty common to all humans in all places. Our ability to acquire language from a faded blueprint of instructions, our subconscious knowledge of complicated rules, and our constant reliance on words to express ourselves, to think rationally, to create—all of this fascinates me.
The central question in VOX might look like this: What if we, as a society, took a giant step backwards, relegating women to traditional roles as mothers, wives, and homemakers? But this, as haunting a question as it is, a political backlash resulting in gender inequality has never been the theme in my mind. No, I wanted to examine a scenario even more terrifying. I wanted to ask What if we lost the faculty that singularly makes us human?
I don’t doubt Jean’s plight as a silenced woman, as a successful scientist now relegated to housewife, will stir anger and fear in readers. And it should; it certainly angered and frightened me when I was writing her. But the genesis of VOX was never political. In fact, its seedling was a 700-word piece of flash fiction I dreamt up for a doomsday-themed contest in early 2017. That little story, “Wernicke 27X,” laid the groundwork for a world in which humans lost their linguistic capacity—completely.
Though we never see the potential outcome of language denial in VOX, that threat looms. A six-year-old child faces constant conditioning; a large swath of the world (and not just the female half of that swath!) becomes a target. My doomsday flash piece started with a gorilla who lost her ability to use sign language. It ended with this sentence:
“Smiles take the place of coherent sentences in this new, languageless world, and all the people, before their final days of hunger and pain, are as content as a great ape with a ripe banana and no words to describe it.”
Even with a limit on her words, Jean continues to be free to think, perhaps even to act. There’s hope. Such hope, however, would vanish in future generations. Now that, in my linguist’s mind, is a haunting prospect.
Out 23rd August 2018