A Review of Christina Sweeney-Baird’s “The End of Men”
The Women of Men’s End
When I was writing fiction, I authored a 20,000-word novella called “Good Boy.” It was about a society where men had been killed off mysteriously by a plague, and the only “men” available were synthetic replicas who were kept as pets by women. I’m not sure if the story was terrible — I’m the worst judge when it comes to my own work — but the piece remains unpublished for two possible reasons: one, I was unable to come up with a convincing enough virus that would kill off most of the world’s men (I was trying to link the plague to a form of Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease) and, two, I felt that I was kind of beaten to the punch by a comic book series called Y: The Last Man, which is about the last remaining male human on earth and his pet (male) monkey. In any event, I guess I was wrong about the novella’s salability because here’s a new book about a virus that kills off slightly more than 90 percent of those carrying a Y chromosome called The End of Men.
It’s odd reading a book about a pandemic during a real pandemic, but author Christina Sweeney-Baird wrote it in 2018 and 2019, well before COVID-19 hit, and it’s just only now that the novel is what it is: a prescient look at the world in 2021. (Except that this book is set between 2025 and 2031.) The plague that fells men begins in Scotland of all places, and is transmitted between humans at a frightening rate: despite what the blurb on the front book cover reveals, women are the carriers of the disease, and men die within hours or a couple of days of contracting it and exhibiting flu-like symptoms. (Plus, the virus can live on untreated surfaces for roughly 38 hours.) The virus is discovered by an emergency room doctor named Amanda MacLean (note that first name: A Man, Da — or short for Dad). When she tries to inform her superiors of what she’s been able to piece together is going on, she gets shot down presumably because she’s viewed upon as a hysterical woman. If the history of the coronavirus — which is less lethal — has shown us, this aspect of the novel seems a little forced because of course people would take the warning seriously knowing what we know now.
The End of Men partially succeeds as escapist fiction because, while you might disagree with certain aspects, the worldbuilding has been at least thought out. When only roughly 10 percent of males surviving the pandemic, Sweeney-Baird posits that most women would become lesbians to not miss out on sexual relationships with others. The author has come up with a semi-plausible reason for the virus that doesn’t involve mad cow disease, so I’ll tip my cap to her for that — even though I saw that the science of the virus was questioned in a negative review I read on Goodreads by someone who presumably knows more about this stuff than I do. The End of Men is a “what if?” romp through the question of how the world would survive if half the population was suddenly wiped out. It’s an entertaining romp at best. It’s not perfect, but there are interesting angles to be explored by the premise: such as what do you do when doctors — in a male-dominated field — suddenly die off? How do you replace them? What do you do about the army and police and other male-dominated professions? The answers may not be entirely realistic by the end of this novel, but at least they’re thought out to a greater or lesser degree.
Where The End of Men falls flat, though, is that it is told from multiple points of view from different characters in the first person singular in chapters that could read like short stories. While there are characters whose stories are told throughout the book, there are a handful of characters who are introduced only to be never heard from again. The other problem is that Sweeney-Baird is not a strong enough writer yet to disguise her own voice. What does that mean? It means you’re stuck with characters who sound similar to one another and so you may have a hard time keeping characters straight. It also means that when men important to these character’s lives die, there’s little emotional impact. You’ll never forget that these are just characters in a book who are not real.
Still, The End of Men can be exciting. My favorite bits involve a scientist from Toronto who goes against the Canadian stereotype of kindness and humility and demands that she be paid handsomely for discovering a vaccine for the virus. (In comparison, when Canadians Frederick Banting and Charles Best discovered insulin to treat diabetes, they demanded that the patent of the medication be given away for free so that they could get insulin into the hands of as many people as possible who wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford it.) Of course, it’s also interesting to see how the novel maps against the real-life COVID-19 pandemic and what keys it has to solve our current pandemic riddle. It’s kind of too bad that this bit of speculative fiction didn’t remain entirely speculative based on our current situation. As they say, the truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction and The End of Men is proof of that. The inverse is also true: the fictions of this book are sometimes more perplexing than what we’ve gone through with COVID-19. Take this as you will.
All in all, The End of Men ends up being a mediocre read. It’s kind of mindlessly fun, but it’s also not taut. The novel could be said to be a thriller without too many thrills, and it is a book that has more questions than answers. (I’m wondering how come there wasn’t more rioting and looting when the men were dying off. Surely, men would turn violent and some women have the potential for this trait, too — so it’s odd that this wasn’t explored in any great detail beyond a relatively minor incident in one American city.) Still, I have to give Christina Sweeney-Baird a bit of credit: she has succeeded where I haven’t been able to in writing and publishing a semi-believable story about what would happen if most of the world’s men died. Could there be any hope for “Good Boy” seeing the light of day? Only time will tell, I suppose. Until then, you have The End of Men to keep you company, as somewhat flawed as it may be.
Christina Sweeney-Baird’s The End of Men will be published by Doubleday Canada on April 27, 2021.
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