Reviewed by E B Heath
Oh, what a brilliant thought experiment! Speculative fiction at its best! Readers will be thinking about this premise long after reading the last page. So, so, clever Sweeney-Baird!
The above accolades were inspired by Christina Sweeney-Baird’s novel, The End of Men. The novel takes place in 2025; it features a devastating global plague that attacks only men, although everyone is a spreading host. Only one in ten men are immune from the virus, the reason for which is not discovered for several chapters. Written in 2018, it eerily preceded Covid-19. Given that we have all been educated on how a global pandemic is handled, and on the speed and efficacy of scientific research, a tad of disbelief needs to be suspended when reading the science behind Sweeney-Baird’s explanation of her gender specific virus. This in no way detracts from an intriguing premise that brings social issues into sharp focus, particularly how the gender dichotomy within politics and the division of labour does not serve us well. A lesson that one might think would have been learnt during the last world war but, somehow, we manage to slip back into nineteenth century thinking.
The structure of this novel is organized into sections: Before, Outbreak, Panic, Despair, Survival, Recovery, Strength, Adaptation, and Remembrance. Readers will walk along side five well-drawn actors who drive the plot as a doctor, researcher, politician and bureaucrat, but other characters portray a variety of lived experiences, political and personal. Each character’s point of view appears in a short chapter written in first person, present tense, which gives propinquity to the plot as tension builds.
Grief leaps from the page as women witness their husbands, sons, and fathers dying in quick succession; they become isolated in the world as their families are stripped away. Grief is perhaps the only issue that is described in any depth; the author visits many ‘what if’ scenarios and only so much can be explored fully in one novel. To mention but a few of the scenarios Sweeney-Baird throws into the mix: Scotland in 2025 is independent from the United Kingdom; women championing democracy challenge China’s male-controlled communist party; the economy falters, rather than collapses, as females are trained and rushed into male jobs. (This is a bit of a stretch but to assume otherwise would drive the novel into a dead end.) Women take over politics; necessity results in hard policies like isolating newly-born boys from their parents, so they might survive to help re-populate the world. The government allocates sperm to grieving mothers so they might replace their sons. Women redefine their sexuality marrying other women. It would be easy to assume this novel acts as a feminist polemic at loggerheads with male power but rather, it brings a sense of loss and how missed the male population would be, both personally and professionally; demonstrating that women need equality and respect, not commanding power. Had the author proposed a scenario whereby ninety per cent of females died, the findings might have been much the same. Namely, our shared humanity trumps the gender dichotomy and sexual politics.
Christina Sweeney-Baird studied Law at the University of Cambridge, graduating with a First in 2015, and is now working as a corporate litigation lawyer in London. One can only wonder how she found the time to write this intriguing novel, and, given that The End of Men would be a hard act to follow, what will happen next.
By Christina Sweeney-Baird