A Review of Moths and Manhunt

Kelly Jennings on novels by Jane Hennigan and Gretchen Felker-Martin

The gendercide trope is a plot device employed as early as 1915, in Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s Herland. In that novel, a small group of men discover an isolated mountain valley where the society is run entirely by women, all men having been killed thousands of years earlier during and after a volcanic eruption. In modern versions of gendercide texts, generally a pandemic arises which affects only one biological sex – all the women fall asleep, as in Stephen and Owen King’s Sleeping Beauties (2019); or all the men die of a disease, as in Joanna Russ’s ‘When It Changed.’ In Brian Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man, every mammal with a Y-chromosome dies of an engineered virus, except for Yorick Brown and his pet monkey. The point of all these stories is a what-if. If all the women were removed from the world, what would happen to society? If we had a world without men, what would that world be like?

Most of these tales treat gender as biological fate. If you have one sort of genitalia, you’re a woman; if you have the other, you’re a man. There are no trans men or women in these Utopian worlds, no intersex or non-binary people. So, on Russ’s Whileaway, women are not by any means straight – marriage is between two women, families are groups of women and children – but they are all cisgender. In her later novel, The Female Man (1975), Russ does include boys dressed as women in the most dystopian version of her multiverse; however, this is clearly marked as an abusive practice. These boys are not trans women: they are a symptom of the (male) desire to dominate and oppress. If Russ’s men can’t oppress women, they will force boys into the place of women, and oppress them.

Some more recent texts, like Virginia Bergin’s Who Runs the World (2017), acknowledge that trans people exist, but then continue as if trans people do, in fact, not exist. In that novel, the main character, a young girl, has never even heard he/him pronouns – all the people in her world are clearly cisgender women. And this is how most contemporary novels employ the gendercide trope: the existence of trans people is either nearly or completely erased.

In Jane Hennigan’s Moths (Angry Robot, 2023), a worldwide pandemic is caused by a strain of mutant moths sweeping the globe, shedding tiny toxic threads which kill half of biological men outright, and cause the rest to become uncontrollably violent, attacking, raping, and killing any women they encounter: their sisters, mothers, wives, friends and neighbours. Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt (Tor Nightfire, 2022) is more complex. Here, a pandemic caused by a virus called t. rex affects everyone whose body produces more than a certain level of testosterone – ‘anyone with enough testosterone in their system to put out a decent crop of black hair’, as one character puts it. Victims of t. rex suffer fever and terrible skin lesions, and then mutate into bestial rage-filled quadrupeds with fangs who rape, kill, and devour any living creature they can catch.

Both of these riffs on the gender plague trope can, of course, be read as commentaries on male violence, and especially on the violence which underpins patriarchal oppression. The tacit understanding that makes patriarchy possible is not that all men do inflict violence on their children, wives, and neighbours, but that all men could inflict that violence. Both Hennigan’s novel and Felker-Martin’s novel turn that male violence up to eleven. There’s a heartbreaking moment in Moths in which a bewildered, crying child asks her mother, ‘Why was Daddy so angry?’ and the mother replies, ‘He didn’t know what he was saying, baby. He didn’t mean it.’ They’re in a fictional women’s shelter, in the midst of a fictional world-changing pandemic; but those words are words that have been said by mothers to children in our non-fictional world, thousands if not millions of times.

In England, where the action of Moths takes place, during the early days of the pandemic armed women round up men – to either sedate and transport them to hospitals, or to kill outright those who can’t be captured. Makeshift hospitals are soon overwhelmed, so eventually, a few men and boys are transported to ‘facilities’, while the rest are left to die. Because most of the miners, truckers, engineers, power grids workers, and so on, are men, world societies suffer a vast economic setback. Thirty years after the outbreak, which is when we first meet our main character Mary, England is just beginning to recover its former technological level – though people still don’t have phones, or personal computers, or personal cars.

Moths follows two timelines: one with Mary thirty years after the plague; and the other with Mary and her co-worker Olivia as the plague is sweeping through the world. Decades after the plague, Mary works in a men’s facility, caring for uninfected men imprisoned for their own protection and for the protection of society. In this future world, men over 18 are kept in these facilities, while boys are kept in preparatory schools, or preps. The facilities are of varying quality – the one Mary works in is nicer than most. A large part of the work being done by ‘carers’ like Mary is making sure that the ‘residents’ (the imprisoned men) don’t get infected, and much of the oppression of men in the facilities is justified by the fear of that infection. Men are not allowed outside, men wear long seamless shifts and nothing else, men can’t have books (the toxic moth threads can be caught in the pages), and so on. Education for men is not a priority in this economically struggling future, and since men can’t have books, they can’t educate themselves. The residents at Mary’s facility spent their time doing crafts or engaging in love affairs, though Mary also holds occasional story hours. Infected men, housed in facilities which are much less nice, are kept sedated and restrained at all times.

Outside the facilities, women are farmers, doctors, engineers, teachers, members of government. The Men’s Welfare Association (MWA) is made up entirely of women. Pregnancies, via IVF, allow women to choose the sex of their infants, and since male infants are immediately institutionalised, most women choose to bear female infants. Men in general are seen as a burden on the economy, since caring for them is so time- and resource consuming, and since they contribute nothing. Hennigan also plays with other gender reversals – the younger women, for instance, assume men are soft and helpless, and unable to handle any real intellectual work, as well as irrational victims of their emotions even before they’re infected

Mary, who was pregnant at the outset of the plague, gave birth to a male infant, whom she has never seen; and we later learn that her son Ryan, twelve when the plague hit, now lives in drugged restraint in one of the less nice facilities. Possibly because of this, and possibly because of her job as a carer, Mary is more sympathetic than most to the men in her world. As the plot develops, we learn that a vaccine has been created, and is being used to protect a few very handsome men who are being kept by powerful women. However, these same powerful women do not want the vaccine to become common knowledge. A world in which men came out of the facilities and took their place in the world again would be a world in which these women would, once again, be second-class citizens. These women feel that the life imprisonment of the men who remain is a small price to pay for a world run by women, which is to say, by them.

This plot move is also a common trope – women benefiting from gendercide who do not want that gendercide to end. It’s the main action in Bergin’s Who Runs the World, and the plot twist at the end of ‘When It Changed’. Similar plot twists appear in any number of other gendercide novels – A Voice Out of Ramah (1978), for instance, by Lee Killough, and The Gate to Women’s Country (1988) by Sheri Tepper. So I’m not going to talk about Hennigan’s plot resolution. More interesting to me is Hennigan’s use of a trans character.

Before the pandemic, Mary’s best friend is Claire, a trans woman. Mary and Claire are teachers at the same school, and as the pandemic kicks off, they are together in the faculty lounge. When classes are cancelled, Claire stays with students waiting for pick up, while Mary goes home to check on her husband and son. Her husband turns out to be one of the 50% of men who die outright; her son is sent to a ‘hospital’, which is to say a repurposed warehouse filled with men and boys restrained on cots. While searching for her son at this warehouse, Mary finds Claire strapped to one of the cots. Claire, who has contracted the plague, had been rounded up with the cis men. She begs Mary for help, and Mary promises to try. This is the last we see of Claire. She vanishes from the warehouse, shipped out with the infected, and Mary cannot even search for her, since Claire has changed her surname and Mary does not know what her former name was.

Claire is the sole trans character in Hennigan’s novel. We do see a woman on a road crew at one point who has had top surgery; but we’re told this is just a standard practice for women in a world without men. Mary tells us, ‘My eyes lingered on the pinkish scars where her breasts used to be. For some, they just got in the way.’ This could, of course, be Mary’s naïveté. Maybe we’re supposed to read these people as trans men, and Mary just doesn’t think of it? But given that Mary’s best friend was Claire, I’m dubious; and no trans people are mentioned otherwise.

So while Moths acknowledges that trans people exist, it keeps them firmly on the margins, and in fact fridges its only trans character – that is, Claire seems to exist in the novel mainly to show that Mary is a good person, and so that Mary can feel bad about Claire’s fate. As far as trans representation goes, this doesn’t seem like much of a step forward.

Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Manhunt stands in stark contrast to Hennigan’s novel. I first became aware of Manhunt via twitter, where it upset a lot of people. And I can see why. Aside from some truly graphic body horror (the book opens with a graphic description of infected men being slaughtered in order to harvest their testicles and kidneys, used in manufacturing oestrogen) Felker-Martin delivers a grimly dystopian world, filled with graphic violence – disturbing violence, not the romanticised sort we often see in dystopian novels. The absence of men does not, in the world of Manhunt, create a peaceful, productive society. Rather, into the power vacuum created by the loss of cis men step cis women, the TERFs of the XX army, who happily continue to promulgate the patriarchal order.

One point often ignored by all of us is how much of the work of the patriarchy is, in fact, done by women. It was women who bound their daughter’s feet, for instance; and women who have historically neglected the education of their daughters in favour of educating their sons. It is women who shame other women for their dress, their makeup, for neglecting their domestic duties. It is women who nag their daughters about gaining weight; women who scold their sons for crying or showing any emotion except anger. It is women, to borrow Audre Lorde’s metaphor, who wield the master’s tools in order to maintain the master’s house.

In Felker-Martin’s post-plague world, we meet these women. One of them is Sophie Widdel, the daughter of a pharmaceutical billionaire. At some point before the t. rex pandemic, Sophie’s family built and stocked a fortress-like survivalist enclave, where Sophie and her selected society now reside. There’s a pool, a library, a dining hall, a clinic, hot showers, and air conditioning. Sophie entices our main characters – Fran, Beth, Robbie, and Indi – to join her community, because Indi is a doctor and can manufacture oestrogen. At first this enclave seems promising, although readers are perhaps made uneasy by Sophie’s over-the-top gender performance (tiny, slim, and perfectly made up, she is endlessly squeeing over things in her little-girl voice). But as the novel progresses, we find that although Sophie’s community seems inclusive and utopian, in fact Sophie is selling trans women and other disfavored people to the XX army, either as labour or to be publicly slaughtered.

The XX army is run by a TERF called Teach. The members of her army are each tattooed somewhere on their bodies with a double X, showing that they have been certified as ‘real’ women; and the purpose of this army is not to hunt the monstrous men who infest the post-plague world, but to hunt down and kill trans women, or other gender criminals. The army has spread up the coast from Maryland, conquering non-XX communities while rounding up trans people for torturing and execution. The book opens as they reach Boston, where our main characters live.

Outside of these two groups, the TERF army and Sophie’s enclave, the main characters in Manhunt are nearly all trans – two trans women, Fran and Beth, and a trans man, Robbie. There is also one non-trans main character, Indi, a cisgender queer doctor who manufactures oestrogen. Oestrogen supplements in the t. rex world are necessary not just for trans women, but for male children and anyone whose body manufactures too much testosterone – those with PCOS, for instance, or women who have reached menopause. Such people also are vulnerable to the t. rex plague. Enough time has passed since the onset of the pandemic that pharmaceutical supplies of oestrogen and puberty blockers have deteriorated. Without someone like Indi, all of these populations will succumb to the disease. Hence the need for manhunters like Fran and Beth – not just to cull the dangerous herds of transformed men, but also to collect the organs needed to supply all of these people with the hormones that will keep them safe.

That would be hard enough, but these communities also have to contend with the invasion of the XX army, and their hunters – their hunt, that is, for anyone who does not fit their rigid parameter of what it means to be a woman. The XX army hunts for, tortures, and slaughters not just trans women, but also trans men, non-binary people, intersex people, anyone who aids or shelters trans people, anyone who does not perform the feminine gender to their satisfaction, anyone who…well, you see where this is going. Once witch-hunters start burning witches, the category of not-witch tends to grow ever more narrow.

This insight in itself makes Felker-Martin’s novel an important read. But Manhunt also pushes back against the erasure of trans people common to gendercide novels, as well as the erasure of those who don’t fit snugly into one gender category or the other. Even when gendercide novels acknowledge the existence of trans people, as in Moths, such people are kept in the margins, or (as in Who Runs the World?) off the page entirely. I have been talking about these books with a trans man I know (okay, he’s my son), and he made the point that gender plague books often seem like a way to fantasise about killing off not just cis men but trans women as well. Gender plague stories, he notes, often support the idea that the solution for the patriarchy is the eradication not just of men, but of trans women as well. These stories wipe out anyone who doesn’t fit neatly into the box of the ‘right kind’ of woman. We can see this in Sheri Tepper’s Gate to Women’s Country, which slaughters not just men whose gender performance is ‘wrong’, but also women who perform womanhood ‘wrong’. Under the no true Scotsman fallacy, anyone in these gendercide worlds who is not a ‘real’ woman is either erased from the story entirely, or killed, like Claire, for the good of society. Once all the ‘wrong’ people have been eradicated, these novels posit, utopia is possible.

In Manhunt, Felker-Martin responds to this eradication fantasy, if we can call it that. Here, while the t. rex plague removes all the cis men from power, if not from the world, it also attacks, as we note above, anyone who has too much testosterone in their body, including most trans men. (Robbie is a trans man who happened not to be on testosterone when the pandemic started.) The world that results is not the co-operative utopian landscape we see, for instance, in Herland and Who Runs the World?, but rather a violent dystopia in which Teach and her army pick up the master’s tools in order to rebuild the master’s house. Patriarchy doesn’t vanish. These TERFs become the patriarchy.

Manhunt keeps its trans characters at the centre of the narrative. It is their actions, their desires, their decisions that power the plot; and it is them we ultimately care about. That alone makes this book stand out among all other gendercide novels I have read (and I have read a lot of them). But it is Felker-Martin’s attention to the actual mechanisms of the patriarchy, including how supporters of patriarchal power – like Teach – would respond to any threat to that power which makes this book essential reading. Eradication is not the way to dismantle the patriarchy and/or any sort of systemic oppression. There is no silver bullet. The hard work of ridding the world of oppression and injustice must be done not with slaughter, but with education, protection, and inclusion.

I did enjoy Moths – I’m a sucker for any sort of novel about pandemics, including gender plague books – but it is a standard take on the trope. If you want a fresh and far more realistic novel about what would happen in a gendercide, Manhunt is the book for you. ∎

Raised in New Orleans, Kelly Jennings now lives in the Boston Mountains, where she writes, teaches about, and reviews science fiction. Her short story ‘History of the Invasion Told in Five Dogs’ appeared in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: 35th Annual Collection. Her most recent novel In the Deep, was published by Candlemark & Gleam in 2021. Follow her blog at delagar.blogspot.com

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