Books

The Ends of Men

Why do writers love to invent worlds where only the women survive? And does this familiar plot have anything left to offer us?

Fading silhouette of a man on a pink background
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Khosrow Rajab Kordi/EyeEm.

“When the men disappeared, it felt like nothing,” reflects Jane Pearson in the first line of Sandra Newman’s new novel The Men. But more than a hundred years of literary history tell us that what follows will not be nothing. The Men was the subject of online debate earlier this year when Newman announced its premise on Twitter: “everyone with a Y chromosome suddenly, mysteriously disappears.” Indeed, Newman’s characters walk through all the familiar beats of the “all men vanish or die” plot: the disaster in workplaces dominated by males, like operating rooms and oil refineries; the grief and fear and occasional guilty excitement of the women who are left over; the emergence of factions; the interesting adjustments such remnants might make in their sexual relationships in a post-hetero world. Newman’s not pretending she’s new to this territory; in her acknowledgments, she thanks Joanna Russ, Alice Sheldon (who wrote as James Tiptree Jr.), Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and Sheri Tepper, lauding them as writers who explored the idea that “there should be no men.” But there have been so many more. Recently, I read more than 20 of these books—thousands of pages of worlds erased of the unfairer sex. Often, the theme felt exhausted and repetitive, though sometimes, when I found myself immersed in a book that did something new with this idea and my husband interrupted me to ask where he put his wallet, I got it. Why is this plot so durable? And, after all these years, has it finally lost its bite?

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Perhaps surprisingly, many of the first writers to imagine the end of men were themselves men. British novelist J.D. Beresford’s A World of Women (1913), reissued this year as part of MIT Press’ Radium Age series of early science fiction, is an experiment in social critique. Jasper Thrale, the book’s deeply misogynistic hero, calls women “sheep,” addicted to “frippery” like “machine lace, ribbons, yokes, cheap blouses, feathers, insertions, belts, fifty thousand different kinds of bits and rags.” Thrale is one of the surviving men, resistant to the plague that kills more than 9 out of 10 in England. He’s forced to endure a world in which, Beresford seems to be saying, generations of confinement in proscribed roles have made women incapable of taking the reins. The end result is a novel packed with hilariously useless women. The story features Mrs. Gosling, a homemaker whose refusal to adjust to the new conditions of the post-male world turns her effectively comatose, and Mrs. Isaacson, a “Jewess” (oof) who works her way into the only functioning small community of women to become a parasite on their largesse. A few women try their hardest to learn male trades like butchering and engineering, but only the deus ex machina of the arrival of a ship full of men from the United States, where the evolving bacillus has taken less of a toll, saves these fools from their fate.

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Beresford’s early entry in this genre was typical in its scorn for the way women would function if they were left alone. (Gilman’s Herland, a utopian story of a women-only paradise in a pocket of the world isolated by a natural disaster, was first published in serialized form in 1915, but remained largely unread until it was republished as a book starting in 1979.) For much of the 20th century, as the author Joanna Russ pointed out in a 1980 essay, male science fiction authors told stories of worlds where women dominated, but men still lived, ready to take the upper hand. These matriarchies, created by mostly forgotten writers (Wallace G. West? Edmund Cooper? Bruce McAllister?), were purposefully unnatural: The women in them are messed up, indulgent of excesses of authoritarianism (men being the only true individuals), and sexually unsatisfied—until the men come back to set them straight.

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Philip Wylie’s very thoughtful The Disappearance (1951) is an outlier to this paternalistic plot. Wylie is probably remembered best now for his Generation of Vipers (1943), a polemic that, in its most famous chapter, took American mothers to task for being overbearing, demanding, vapid, and useless. I’d always perceived Wylie as a Grade A midcentury woman-hater, but reading The Disappearance made me think of him quite differently. Wylie finds (some) women in his novel ridiculous and thinks they would be lost without men, but he doesn’t have much of a better opinion of men—and he blames American culture for everyone’s folly.

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Most stories in the gendercide genre employ a virus or a bacillus to dispense with half the population, but Wylie’s men and women simply lose one another in the middle of a random afternoon, as if they had stepped into alternate timelines. The parallel structure of Wylie’s novel—he intersperses chapters following Bill Gaunt, a philosopher, with chapters devoted to Paula, Bill’s wife—means that we get to see the men fall apart without the women (Americans and Russians nuke one another’s cities; the remnant descends into banditry) and the women fall apart without the men (the wives of congressmen take over government, then waste time arguing over the details of their uniforms; cities burn for lack of firefighters).

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Despite the stresses of this new reality, Paula, formerly a housewife, and Edwina, the Gaunts’ once-spoiled daughter, truly flourish in their alternate timeline. Paula immediately becomes a leader, organizing local women into committees to keep the city’s infrastructure up and running. Falling back on her college education in languages, she acts as envoy to Russia, successfully negotiating a peace between the two all-female countries. Edwina roams through the Everglades, hunting meat for the women’s meals. “If she had told the truth to herself Paula would have admitted that at times and in certain ways the absence of Bill had compensations,” Wylie writes. “She enjoyed management free of criticism and safe from arbitrary change. … She had put to good use the good brain she owned.” At the end of the book, after four years, the male and female timelines come back together, and there’s the possibility of a new gender utopia.

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That potential was nowhere to be found in the “men gone” stories written by authors influenced by second-wave feminism. Joanna Russ’ short story “When It Changed” (1972) takes the plot into space, to the colony of Whileaway, made up only of women; they lost their men 30 generations before, and they have figured out how to reproduce by combining their own genetic material. Male astronauts from Earth land, and announce they plan to stay. One colonist thinks the men should be killed; another stays her hand, later to regret it. This tragic ending was a major step forward. As the Australian academic Justine Larbalestier points out in her criticism of the genre, the sci-fi versions of this plot published earlier in the century always assumed that the manless worlds needed saving.

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Russ wasn’t having it. Her manless worlds are, definitively, better off that way. Her 1975 novel The Female Man weaves together four stories of women in parallel universes, one of which is another “Whileaway,” this time an Earth society 900 years out from a man-killing plague. These worlds merge and cross, and Janet, of Whileaway, comes to a more familiar version of Earth, where her self-assurance and confidence stuns her equivalents from alternate timelines. She’s interviewed on a television show by a male talking head, in a very funny sequence in which he works his way clumsily through her explanation of how her people combine ova to make babies, clearly hoping to pose a more prurient question. “There is more, much, much more—I am talking about sexual love,” he finally says. “Oh! You mean copulation,” says Janet. “You say we don’t have that? How foolish of you. Of course we do. With each other. Allow me to explain.” She is cut off “instantly by a commercial poetically describing the joys of unsliced bread.”

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In Alice Sheldon’s 1976 novella “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (published under her pen name, James Tiptree Jr.), three male astronauts experience a time jump after their ship is damaged by a solar flare, and when they return to Earth, they realize that they are hundreds of years in the future. A plague has eliminated all men, and women, who clone themselves, live happily in a distributed network of settlements. They retain some ability to travel to space, but their tech is old and odd-looking to the men’s eyes, incorporating plants and animals into its design. “We live a lot simpler than you did, I think. We see your things all over, we’re very grateful to you,” one woman tells the time travelers. The women don’t have governments or professions, instead rotating workers through jobs in five-year hitches. “Things are basically far more stable now,” says the woman. “We change slowly.”

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In the end, the men, who had thought they would go down to Earth and take charge, betray themselves by their masculinity. Sheldon contributed another story in this genre, “The Screwfly Solution,” in 1977 (this time under the pen name “Raccoona Sheldon”). In that story, male violence and female passivity are amplified (thanks, we find out at the end, to aliens bent on human destruction), and male violence toward women becomes an extinction-level event. You see the same concern in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” when the three interloping men, given a truth serum by the women who have discovered them, likewise can’t help themselves. Asked “Why do there have to be men?” the first of the three astronauts, a brutish, alpha type, responds, “Why, you stupid bitch. Because, dummy, otherwise nothing counts, that’s why.” He tries to rape one of the women. Another in the crew, a patriarchy-minded Christian, complains of the women, “Nobody has given them any guidance for three hundred years.” The third, a slight and shy scientist, voices fantasies of domination, which he fruitlessly promises not to pursue. The women see that the men can’t reintegrate into their society, and poison all three.

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Tiptree’s women are not—the necessary killing of these astronauts aside—aggressive. Russ’ Whileawayans duel one another but generally cooperate; further back, the women of Beresford’s and Wylie’s manless worlds are far too hapless to wage war. The question of whether women, left to their own devices, might be as violent toward one another as men can be came later in the development of the genre. Nicola Griffith’s gorgeous 1992 novel Ammonite, another story set on a distant planet, features women from a long-lost Earth colony who live in seminomadic tribes, reproducing via the gift of parthenogenesis given them by the same virus that killed the colony’s men. This is no utopia, or not totally: Some tribes practice slavery, there are feuds between them, and one of their leaders seems bent on destruction, instigating conflict with visiting soldiers. As did the creators of Y: The Last Man, the comic book series by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, which published between 2002 and 2008 and featured bad leaders and violent sects, Griffith takes care not to assume that women in an all-women world would do the right thing. “A woman-only world, it seems to me, would shine with the entire spectrum of human behavior,” wrote Griffith in an afterword to Ammonite. “There would be capitalists and collectivists, hermits and clan members, sailors and cooks, idealists and tyrants.”

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But would they all be cis? Until recently, “men gone” books largely assumed so. The book that explores in greatest depth the ramifications the “men gone” plot might have for trans people is Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt, which came out earlier this year. The novel is a bloody, gory story of a virus that works on anybody whose body has higher levels of testosterone, transforming them into ravening monsters. Central to the tale is a friend group of two trans women, one trans man, and one cis, queer doctor who helps the women transform the estrogen in the testicles of man-monsters they kill into something their bodies can assimilate. The quartet faces down the monsters, but, as the cliché goes, the real danger is humans—in this case, a group of militant TERFs who have seized upon the situation to scapegoat and murder trans women.

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In style, inventiveness, and ambition, Felker-Martin’s book is miles beyond the other recent entries in this genre, which sleepwalk through the logistical implications of male absence—the understaffed hospitals, the airlines with no pilots, the women learning how to maintain plumbing and electrical wiring—without much inquiry into the ways that life in the “regular” world might deliver us to a “men gone” world with particular gender-related baggage to be interestingly, and movingly, unpacked. Felker-Martin’s book does that, and so does Sandra Newman’s. This is somewhat ironic, given that Felker-Martin was among those who, back in March when Newman announced her new novel on Twitter, publicly criticized the book. Most seemed to be responding solely to the premise—the idea that a book called The Men would be about the disappearance of people with a Y chromosome. (Felker-Martin, to her great credit, did not condemn unseen—she gave an advance copy of The Men a very deep reading. I ultimately disagree with her argument; I think the objectionable moments and themes she identifies in the book are things Newman consciously included, to serve as points of inquiry.)

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In The Men, the two central women have reason to welcome the new world: Both were deeply harmed as teenagers by the world that was. Jane Pearson, a white woman, was groomed and manipulated by a male ballet teacher into having sex with young boys, then socially rejected as a convicted sex offender. Evangelyne Moreau, a Black woman, shot two police officers when they came to her family’s home with guns drawn. “Did you ever have something happen that’s so exactly what you wanted to happen, it feels as if you had to have made it up?” Moreau asks Pearson, explaining how the vanishing occurred just as another set of police, called by a racist white neighbor, approached her home—but also, how the event seems to have opened the way for her to finally build the world she’s been working toward.

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And, indeed, things seem to be going well: The Commensalist Party of America, the movement Moreau leads, organizes socialized housing, trash pickup, and distribution of resources, to demonstrate to those left behind that they will provide. The ComPa position on the loss of those who’ve vanished is that “a girl world” might be able to dispense with domination: “Even erotic love might lose its tone of upward worship. Trans men could be masculine without making sex into a two-tier system, as cis men always had.” Pearson, Moreau’s onetime friend, is swept along in this revolution, falling into the role of Moreau’s lover and second-in-command—though she, unlike Moreau and most of the other ComPas, is not sure that she wants the world to stay this way. She had her problems with her husband, but she also had a young son.

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The major plot innovation of Newman’s book is a grim reality show, also called The Men. While the women in most other “men gone” stories don’t have much reason to hope (or fear) that their vanished counterparts will return, the survivors of The Men can see their world’s men (and trans women) on screen. They have been banished to a burned-down, broken world, walking endlessly across a landscape that the viewers eventually realize is meant to represent the way the Earth would have looked if things had continued as they were. Some of the remnant watch obsessively, becoming something like a fandom: forming theories, detailing their ideas online. In the end, their—and especially Jane’s—inability to stop looking back betrays them all.

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If Evangelyne’s reaction to the event represents the Russ vision—the world would be a better place, if still not a perfect place, after this reset—Jane’s mind, smaller and (despite her relative privilege) much more scared of change, proves Griffith’s point. If such an event were to occur, some of the remnant would, inevitably, find themselves unable to get free. It’s a fascinating and grim thought. Before reading Felker-Martin and Newman, I would have said the long life of this kind of story had run its course. Now, I’m not so sure.

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