The Men by Sandra Newman review – vision of a world without men | science fiction books

In Sandra Newman’s fifth novel, all human beings and fetuses with a Y chromosome disappear in an instant, leaving the XXs to celebrate, grieve or organize in a radically altered world. To create a work of fiction with such a stark premise – as Newman also did in her previous high-concept novel, The Heavens, a time-travelling tale set between a reconfigured present-day New York and 16th-century England – runs the risk of confronting the reader with a task of reimagining that is hard to see beyond.

But although it’s true that The Men never allows us to forget its dramatic first principle, numerous other strands and themes emerge: the long aftermath of trauma and coercive control; various manifestations of charisma and complicity; the insidious, dehumanizing effects of a society in thrall to screen representations of reality. It is also a novel about the lengths to which we might all go to assuage individual loss and grief; if the world turned out to be a better place without your loved one, would you sacrifice the greater good to turn the clock back?

It is in the exploration of these areas, the hinterland beyond the shock headline, that The Men really intrigues and disturbs. Once both characters and readers have indeed absorbed the mass disappearances and their immediate effects – the collapse of industries and utilities chiefly run by men, and the ensuing plane crashes, power outages and lack of policing; the vast reduction in sexual violence and assault, and the “sweet clamor of voices in the air” when those voices belong only to women and girls – it is the least obvious fallout that dominates.

For its central character, Jane Pearson, a tall, white, blond ex-ballerina whom Newman gives the sole first-person narrative, the loss of her husband and young son brings not only mourning but a chance to try to integrate two parts of her life and her psyche. There’s her dela youth dela, when the predatory head of a dance company used her to procure young men and boys, leading to them both becoming “the most famous sex criminals in the United States”; and her adulthood dela, in which she attempted to become the perfect wife and mother, “a saint of love”.

Bridging the two is Evangelyne Moreau, a Black woman who, following a jail term for shooting the police officers who massacred her family, has founded a political party and looks set to become US president. Evangelyne and Jane have been lovers and colleagues in the past, and the disappearance of Jane’s domestic life from her means they might be again; the ambiguity over who holds the power in their relationship, and to what extent the structural privilege of race and class erases the personal dynamic, is another of the novel’s most fertile subplots. Tellingly, Jane’s story is given precedence throughout; she is the white protagonist whose trauma is judged most worthy of elaboration and understanding. That Newman is aware of this is suggested by various key scenes, including one in which Jane mistakenly assumes Evangelyne is chasing her through the streets because of her notoriety; in fact, the Black woman simply wants to ask her not to attend a class aimed at Black students.

Evangelyne’s name is clearly meant to suggest HG Wells’s novel The Island of Doctor Moreau, but despite her evident desire for influence, she is not the book’s mad scientist, desperate to create half-animal, half-human beings. That strand of the story unfolds in the shape of mysterious video footage that appears online, featuring the missing men in a terrifying apocalyptic and savage setting. Several of the novel’s characters become addicted to “The Men”, as it comes to be known. Soon the footage is gripping viewers desperate to see their own loved one on screen, their obsession fed by the gradual release of additional material.

Utopias and their failure, and outright dystopias, are a concern of Newman’s work; in 2014’s The Country of Ice Cream Star, a post-plague society must figure out why everyone dies before they reach 20, while the alternative ways of life represented by aliens and visions cropped up in her 2002 debut, The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done, in which the possibility of metamorphosis was clearly signaled by the protagonist’s name, Chrysalis. In this novel she seems most concerned with the conflict between the individual and the group, and the ways in which that might threaten any form of progress. The landscapes of “The Men” are suffused with environmental degradation, where “not a stick was alive, not a floating seed”. “We understood: this was a future world in which the men had never disappeared. It was the hell to which we would have been condemned, the Earth they would have made,” notes Jane.

The novel caused trouble ahead of publication. There were vehement charges of gender essentialism and transphobia; in Newman’s scenario, the disappearance of anyone with a Y chromosome means trans, intersex and non-binary people being swept away. (“Now this,” thinks one character, ruefully, “those trans girls gone just like men. Just another way God fucked you.”) There were also accusations of misandry for the idea that violence, war and cruelty might simply go away in the absence of men, rather than relocate to another host. Predictably, most of these reactions occurred in the absence of the text itself, although some detailed critiques have more recently appeared. Even then, though, it was the novel’s most easily summarised premise, its elevator pitch, that dominated.

But it seems too literal to read the book as a simple equation in which the existence of men equals the death of hope for the future, even as one might also argue that the stark set-up makes such a conclusion tricky to avoid. The Men is a confusing novel, full of fraught ideas and jangling emotions, and a prose style that veers from affectlessness and distance to attempts to capture vulnerability (Ji-Won, an artist who has become a volunteer truck driver, shaves her head for practicality , and later has “the feelings of a turtle coaxed out of its shell, or perhaps of a naked heart on a timid foray outside the body”). At its strongest, however, it is an exploration of attachment, its lure and its peril, and the impossibility of its eradication from human affairs.

The Men by Sandra Newman is published by Granta (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

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