All the men are gone. Usually this is conceived as the result of a plague. Less often, the cause is violence. Occasionally, the men don’t die and the sexes are just segregated in different geographical regions. Or men miraculously vanish without explanation.
Left to themselves, the women create a better society, without inequality or war. All goods are shared. All children are safe. The economy is sustainable and Earth is cherished. Without male biology standing in the way, utopia builds itself.
I’m describing a subgenre of science fiction, mostly written in the 1970s-90s. It was once so popular it was almost synonymous with feminist SF. In 1995, when the Otherwise Award, a literary prize for “works of science fiction or fantasy that expand or explore one’s understanding of gender”, gave five retrospective awards, four of the works were set in such worlds: Suzy McKee Charnas’s Motherlines and Walk to the End of the World, and Joanna Russ’s The Female Man and When It Changed. The fifth was Ursula K Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, about a world whose inhabitants are all of the same sex.
Recently there has been a revival of the genre in radically different form, with titles including Lauren Beukes’s 2020 novel Afterland, Christina Sweeney-Baird’s 2021 thriller The End of Men, and my own new release, The Men. I think the way that these contemporary novels diverge from their earlier counterparts tells us something useful about gender politics in the 21st century. Part of the story, too, is a growing opposition to the basic premise, a conflict in which my novel has been recently embroiled.
The women-only utopia has a modest prehistory, going back to the myth of the Amazons and early feminist works such as Christine de Pizan’s 1405 The Book of the City of Ladies. But in its strict form as a single-sex utopia, it begins with Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland of 1915. Here, in an uncharted and unspecified wilderness, three male explorers stumble on a plateau the local “savages” fear as a realm from which no man returns. With their aeroplane, they are able to land there, and are instantly taken prisoner by the all-female inhabitants. The book then becomes a tour of the features of the women’s ideal society.
Women excel in all occupations. Older women gain prestige instead of losing it; the women are physically formidable and easily subdue their male captives. Charmingly, the narrator says of the national costume: “I see that I have not remarked that these women had pockets in surprising number and variety.” Their babies never cry.
Much less charmingly, we’re assured the Herland women are Aryans, and their society is focused on the perfection of their race. In fact, many of the hallmarks of fascism are here: the paganism, the obsession with cleanliness, the emphasis on gymnastics, the eugenics. The Herlanders also have no erotic or even romantic feelings for each other; they have bred those dirty things out.
The golden age of the genre, roughly coinciding with the era of second wave feminism, could scarcely be more different. Here the keynote is freedom, and lesbian polyamory is the order of the day. Solo travel features prominently: the authors are captivated by the idea of women hiking alone into the wilderness without the threat of rape. No regret is expressed about the loss of men, which is always in the distant past. Indeed, the topic is often treated with a bracing gallows humour.
Alice Sheldon’s 1976 novella, Houston, Houston, Do You Read? (published under her pen name, James Tiptree Jr) gives the idea in its most trenchant form. Three male astronauts return to Earth after several hundred years in space. Learning that all human men have died centuries ago, they assume they will be masters of the helpless women who remain. Instead, the women test them by giving them disinhibiting drugs, watch them flail around blurting out rape fantasies and assaulting girls, then politely inform them they will be euthanised: “We simply have no facilities for people with your emotional problems.” However, they do thank the doomed men, saying: “You have brought history alive for us.”
Joanna Russ’s novel The Female Man (written in 1970 but first published in 1975) is considered the masterpiece of the genre. Here, four versions of the author inhabit four parallel worlds. One is ours, where the protagonist is Joanna. The second is a more conservative New York, where the anxiously conventional Jeannine works to catch a husband she doesn’t truly want.
The third world is Whileaway, Russ’s utopia, where all men died of a plague 800 years earlier. Here, Janet fights duels, roams the wilderness, and is cheerfully promiscuous while adoring her wife, Vittoria, who, she boasts repeatedly, is much admired by Whileawayans for her big ass. Whileaway is a joyous, irreverent creation. Russ makes no apologies for stocking it with her own predilections (we’re left in no doubt of her opinion of big asses). Its people grumble all the time and are often jerks; it is above all things free – though it does have capital punishment for people who don’t do their share of the work. Even if it’s not your idea of paradise, you never doubt Russ would be happy there, which is more than you can say for most utopias and their creators.
In almost all these stories, at least one man is saved
Only towards the end of the novel are we introduced to the fourth world, a gender-apartheid society where men and women are locked in perpetual war. Here, Jael is fixated on revenge against men because of the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. After tearing a would-be rapist apart with the steel claws implanted in her fingers, she comments: “I don’t give a damn whether it was necessary or not … I liked it.” In an aside, she announces that this world is the past of Whileaway; its men didn’t die of plague, but were exterminated. She approves: “In my opinion, questions that are based on something real ought to be settled by something real without all this damned lazy miserable drifting. I’m a fanatic. I want to see this thing settled … Gone. Dead.”
The 21st-century revival is a very different animal. First, instead of being a dimly remembered political event, the mass death comes now. It has no good aspects. Men die horribly in front of us. Women are plunged into collective grief. Technological society falls apart for lack of skilled workers, and the world goes into decline. Women, meanwhile, are just as violent as men, and no more cooperative or empathic. The only result of generations of indoctrination into female roles is that girls are crap at engineering.
Another difference is that, in almost all these stories, at least one man is saved. The best known example is the comic Y: The Last Man, by Brian K Vaughan and Pia Guerra, published from 2002 to 2008. Here, all male mammals die from plague except our hero, Yorick, and his pet monkey. Only yesterday an unsuccessful stage magician, Yorick is suddenly the most important person in the world, as his DNA holds the key to the survival of humanity. He’s hunted across post-apocalyptic America by various groups, notably a cult of rabid feminists intent on exterminating every last man. Of course, he is also desired by randy women wherever he goes.
In Lauren Beukes’s 2020 novel Afterland, a threatened male is again the focus, after 99% of all male humans are killed by a flu that triggers prostate cancer. Survivors are incarcerated by the government and prevented from reproducing until a cure is found. The few free men are pursued by baby-hungry women and hunted by profiteers who want to harvest their sperm. The main character has broken her son out of a research facility and is fleeing with him through a post-apocalyptic world.
Christina Sweeney-Baird’s The End of Men (2021) shows the male plague through a kaleidoscope of viewpoints. None, however, find the new world an improvement. As in Afterland, there’s an intense focus on sperm: though only 90% of men die of plague, there is somehow a critical shortage. The government enacts a form of eugenics, restricting the precious substance to mothers it deems fit. This move may be uncomfortably reminiscent of the politics of Herland, but the impression is not that Sweeney-Baird is a fan of eugenics; she is imagining things she thinks would happen if there were a male plague, not suggesting what should happen.
All three of these works are apolitical. In their different ways, they are thrillers, and the reception of these works in most quarters has correspondingly been about their success as such, not their politics, and has been mostly positive.
The exception is the reaction of a group of critics who are hostile to the genre. You might think this would be about the fantasy of male genocide. In fact, it’s the erasure of trans identities. The line between male and female in these books is always based on traditional notions of biological sex; trans women share the fate of cis men. In the old utopian versions, female societies are always better; this is seen as implying that gender traits are biological. In some second wave works, trans characters are described with open bigotry; Joanna Russ later apologised for the (mercifully brief) depiction of trans women in The Female Man. But this is not the main point: the premise itself is seen as bioessentialist and harmful to trans and non-binary people.
Even a recent book by a trans author, Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt (2022), has drawn criticism online. In this novel, a plague transforms men into mindless, cannibalistic monsters who roam the woods, raping and killing. Trans women must stave off transformation by constantly taking hormones they can only get by killing men and eating their testicles. Meanwhile, they’re being hunted by TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists), who see them as man-monsters waiting to happen. The book is written to graphically convey the terror of transphobia. Still it’s been attacked by some on Twitter for its bioessentialist premise. Although producers of the TV version of Y: The Last Man hired trans writers to make the story more inclusive, it too was considered problematic.
There’s something transformative about utopian fiction
My own book has been the focus of attacks, even before its publication. Once again, it is the premise that matters. In my novel, all male humans disappear inexplicably in a single moment, and the resulting female society has a utopian odour. It’s no Whileaway; the plot is largely about the grief of people left behind. But fossil fuel emissions plummet, it’s easier to elect leftwing politicians, and, yes, lesbian polyamory is the order of the day. In the book, trans women are treated as women, trans men as men, and their problems are viewed sympathetically, but it has the hated premise. The attacks on it escalated to the point that a writer, Lauren Hough, had a prize nomination from an LGBTQ arts organisation rescinded for defending it online.
Critics of the genre make important points, but I wouldn’t have written my book if I didn’t believe their criticisms were too sweeping. The more thoughtful versions of the narrative don’t affirm a gender binary, but try to dismantle it by erasing sex as a category. Russ’s Whileawayans are better and happier not because they are biologically female, but because they are free from sexism. The premise also interrogates the belief that excluding certain people is a means to a peaceful society. Exclusion as social policy is a time-honoured tradition in America (think mass incarceration and racial segregation) and on the rise worldwide.
It’s also the idea behind excluding trans women from women’s changing rooms. Making people ask hard questions about it is crucial to all campaigns for justice.
Finally, Russ’s and Sheldon’s utopias (and, I hope, mine) are fraught with doubt. They present the reader with impossible choices – between accepting abuse and becoming as great a monster as your abusers; between rape and genocide. They are not works of dogmatic certainty like Gilman’s. They don’t even claim to know the nature of gender. All they know is that patriarchy is killing us, and something has to give.
I believe there’s something potently transformative about utopian fiction. Too many of us now are trying to make a political revolution without hope. Our narratives of justice are all about punishment. We squabble about what constitutes punching up or punching down, but are poor in solutions that don’t involve punching. In our art, we don’t imagine better worlds, only more and grimmer apocalypses, and the people in them only long for the patriarchal world order that gives us supermarkets, indoor plumbing and hormone patches.
When you put down Y: The Last Man or Manhunt (or Station Eleven or World War Z), it’s with a sigh of gratitude for the status quo. When you put down The Female Man, it’s with the unsettled, heady feeling that a freer world is just out of reach – but also with a consciousness of the violence that lurks behind most promises of freedom. We still have no answers and every utopia is riddled with asterisks. Let’s mind the asterisks and listen to the criticisms – but let’s dream our dreams.
• The Men by Sandra Newman is published by Granta Books (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.