In Virginia Bergin’s novel, Who Runs the World?, which won the Tiptree Award in 2017, we find ourselves in a postapocalyptic world, sixty years after a virus has killed nearly every human with the XY gene on the planet.
This premise—something kills off all men (at least those with the XY gene) in a culture, so that the remaining world is entirely female (or at least inhabited solely by those with the XX gene)—is a popular one in science fiction. Charlotte Perkins wrote of such a culture in Herland (1915). Joanna Russ created Whileaway. Brian Vaughn and Pia Guerra gave us Y: The Last Man (2002-08). And James Tiptree herself wrote “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (1976). But besides being a popular premise, this is a problematic one, given that it rests on the binary assumption that XY = male and XX = female. And while Bergin nods toward this misconception in more than one passage, having her main characters note that XX men exist, the omission of any trans people tends to be inherent in the premise. And, notably, Bergin includes no trans people among her characters or in the history of the virus.
What makes the book nonetheless work as well as it does is the lens Bergin turns upon gender essentialism and toxic masculinity, as well as the voice of the main character—the bright and likable fourteen-year-old River—who wants to design airplanes and spaceships, and has grown up in a world of autonomy and almost complete safety. (At one point, she mocks her grandmother for worrying when she comes home late—there is nothing that would hurt her in her world.)
River has been raised in the UK of a post-plague world, which works on seven Global Agreements. Among these are, “The Earth comes first” and, “Every child is our child.” This world consists of grandmummas (women over 65 or 70); mummas (the XX-children of the grandmummas); young adults like River; and Littler Ones. Though, as noted, Bergin’s characters briefly mention that trans men exist, all of the characters we meet are women. The result is a society that we read as wholly composed of women.
Into this society, Bergin places a young male—an “XY”—named Mason. Upon meeting Mason, River’s grandmumma Kate calls him a boy, and uses he/him pronouns with him. As the scene develops, it becomes clear that River has neither heard nor used these terms before. This conflicts with Bergin’s worldbuilding. As we soon learn, the virus that killed every human with the XY gene is still around. Any contemporary XY exposed to the virus dies within twenty-four hours. Thus, all XY babies in this world are born in sterile surgical suites via Caesarian section, and are removed immediately to sealed Sanctuaries, to be raised by other XYs and to spend their entire lives in this isolation. XX women never visit or communicate with the XYs in these Sanctuaries. Thus, we are told, our young protagonist, River, has never seen a “bio-born [human] male” (p. 39). A society inhabited by such creatures seems fantastic to her:
I can remember Plat pointing out to me that some of the characters in Twilight … were supposed to be XYs (as well as vampires and werewolves?!), and me going back to the book and trying to understand: that these weren’t just people (or vampires! Or werewolves!) but they were supposed to be … male as well as female. (p. 35)
In River’s world, “people” means women. That’s not an accident. That’s the basic underlying foundation of the society she lives in. So far, so good. On the other hand, River’s mumma, Zoe, mentions that trans men exist—so why wouldn’t River have met some? Why, then, would she not be familiar with he/his pronouns, and know what a boy is? This is a plot hole, obviously.
Equally obviously, for her story to work, Bergin needs a society that is “all woman.” Thus, while she gives a nod to trans men, and we have to assume that trans women would also be killed by the virus, all of this is left off the page. For her plot to work, we have to ignore the existence of trans men and women. If a given reader can manage to get past this, the book will probably work for them. Frankly, it’s a big hole to get past.
Once we get past it—if we do—Bergin gives us a story that turns its lens on gender essentialism. River has come to believe that human = female (that is to say, XX). Again: that’s not an accident. Her society, this all-women (all-XX) society, runs on that belief. Men have been erased. River knows XYs exist, but all she knows about them outside of their existence is what she learns during the single week her school spends on “Men’s Studies.” What she learns is that men used to run the world, that men are violent, that they rape, that they kill, that they wage wars, they’re destructive and dangerous. (Again, this ignores the existence of trans men in the post-plague culture. How do these men deal with a society that sees all men as dangerous, violent rapists? How does Bergin’s culture deal with trans men in their world, given that those men, we assume, aren’t all dangerous, violent rapists? This is information the text doesn’t address.)
Since the women River lives among rarely kill or rape, don’t wage war, and are socialized heavily against violence (one plot point deals with what happens to River when, at thirteen, she punches someone), it’s no big jump for her to conclude that women are people, and men are something else—something not quite human.
All this is called into question when she finds Mason injured on the road as she’s coming home one night. Not at first—at first, when she realizes he’s an XY, she seems him as entirely nonhuman. He’s a monster, and a sick and injured one, and River concludes that he should be “put down,” as any sick and injured animal would be. (To be fair, women who are badly injured or fatally ill are also given the option of euthanasia in this world.) But her grandmumma Kate, who lived through the plague years, when the virus killed all the sons and brothers, fathers and husbands (and the trans women, though again these aren’t mentioned), cannot, as she puts it, “go through it again” (p. 40)—though Protocol says that escaped XYs are to be given no medical treatment beyond pain relief.
One feature I enjoyed about this book was the flexible attitude everyone in Bergin’s culture has toward rules. Though the novel’s characters have the Global Agreements, and many other rules that have arisen from those agreements, rules aren’t treated like commandments. Instead, they’re more like negotiations: this is what we Agreed, but if you have a different idea, we can renegotiate. But even beyond that, the grandmummas are given a lot of leeway in this culture. This is partly because they are grandmothers; but also because of what they lived through, and the choices they had to make to keep the world alive. Most of the grandmummas seem to be suffering from PTSD, and are treated accordingly—allowed to live in their own separate home, play a lot of games, do a lot of drugs, and act in ways not accepted by the society as a whole.
So when the grandmummas decide to try to keep Mason alive, no one makes any real effort to stop them, even though they are violating protocol. Mason ought to die anyway, of course—the virus kills all XYs. So when he lives, it’s a puzzle. Eventually, we learn that he’s been created through genetic engineering—that he’s an XY with a bit of X grafted into his Y, just enough so that he can survive the virus. Now, what will this do to their society? This is the question River should be thinking about—but she’s not. With the blindness and naïveté of youth, she fails to notice that this genetic splice will overturn her entire culture. She doesn’t consider what will happen if men don’t have to be isolated in Sanctuaries from now on. For her, the interesting part of this situation is that Mason, who her culture had taught her to see as inhuman, is, in fact, a human being.
It’s true that he’s a badly reared human. In the Sanctuaries, might makes right, and violence is commonplace. So is rape. Children in the Sanctuaries are not educated—Mason can barely read. Instead, they spend their time playing computer games and working out. Mason spends hours a day running on a treadmill, keeping himself “fit,” as he puts it. To lose fitness in the Sanctuaries results in the loss of status, which is swiftly followed by death. But despite being raised in the most toxic of toxically male cultures, Mason is a decent kid. His very first impulse on meeting River is to try to help this (as he thinks) brother—to rescue him, save him, even at the cost of his own life. And, even once he knows that River is a “she-wolf,” as those in the Sanctuaries call women who live outside them, he never wants to hurt her. On the contrary, throughout the narrative, and despite being terrified most of the time, Mason does everything he can to help not just River but all the women he meets.
This plot crosses with River’s own thread in a disturbing reveal. River, who loves all aircraft passionately, sees a new plane flying over her town one day, and rushes to the airport, where she is sure she will be allowed to have a look at it. Instead, she finds that everyone is barred from the airport while the plane is there. This is both unexpected and insupportable—because .above all. rules—which are really all negotiations—must make sense in this culture, and if they don’t, something is wrong. So River doesn’t think twice about circumventing the ban. And once she reaches the plane, she finds an XY, caged up in its cargo hold.
All River knows of XYs at this point is Mason. She assumes this XY is like Mason, and so when he asks to be freed, she frees him. But this XY is not the good-natured child Mason is; in fact, as we later discover, he’s the “Father,” or FU, that is responsible for much of the violence visited on Mason and the other boys in his Unit. This FU attempts to rape River, and, in the ensuing struggle, she kills him.
Among other things that should occur to River at this point, and do not: if all XYs are vulnerable to the virus, why was this XY being transported in a cage that was open to the air? Should he not be in a sealed, sterile environment? We are meant to notice this, but River does not. To be fair, she has other things on her mind—specifically, that she has just killed someone. In her culture, just hitting someone is a major transgression. Killing someone must have serious consequences.
The 150 of her town convenes on the case. All districts are governed by a 150, consisting of one hundred and fifty people chosen from the population of that district, ranging in age from young adults to grandmothers. The 150 meets on problems and talks them out, until everyone Agrees on a solution. A single 150 also presides over issues of a national level. The 150 of River’s town, which includes her own mother, decides on a solution: Mason will confess to killing the FU. Mason is fine with this for three reasons: first, he has wanted to kill the FU for years; secondly, by taking the blame, he can save River, to whom he owes his life; and thirdly, he can clearly see that there is no place for him in the women’s world. Even if he refuses to take the blame, he has no real future, and he knows it.
The question that slides by River—at least at this point—is why Zoe, her mumma, wants the blame placed on Mason. The thoughtful reader has figured it out by this point: the genetic engineering that was done on Mason is not new. All or most of the men in the Sanctuaries must now have this splice. All or most of the XYs in the Sanctuaries could be released from them, to rejoin the world as a whole.
But what would be the result of that?
At one point in the novel, we’re told that, as the virus was killing all the men on the planet, the American president—dying himself of the virus—said, “We are now facing a new tomorrow. It looks like yesterday—in a skirt” (p. 112). His point, according to one character, is that a world run by women can only be a step backward: a world inferior to that run by men. And anyone who has read Joanna Russ’s first short story about Whileaway, “When It Changed” (1972), remembers the conclusion that Janet Evason comes to after meeting the astronauts—all men—who re-establish contact with Whileaway, a planet on which all the men (XY men) have been dead for six hundred years: “I do not like to think of myself mocked, of [my wife] Katy deferred to as if she were weak, of [my child] Yuki made to feel unimportant or silly, of my other children cheated of their full humanity or turned into strangers.” And yet this, she can see, is the probable result of reintegrating (XY) men into her culture.
That is also the problem Zoe and the others on the National 150 face. Losing almost all the XY men in the world disrupted their culture, sent the world into chaos. But that was sixty years ago. Since then they have succeeded in building a near-Utopia, in which children like Zoe can thrive and excel and become their best selves. Releasing the XYs from the Sanctuaries, reintegrating men into their culture—men who assume women are lesser, are inferior, and men who have in fact been raised in a toxic culture—would almost certainly destroy all that.
However, Zoe’s culture, River’s culture, is at risk on another front. Since women can now choose the sex of their children, almost no women who bear children are selecting XY offspring. Why would they? Why would anyone bear a child knowing they must surrender that child at birth, and never speak with it, or know anything about its fate, from that point on? It’s clear from other details we are given that many women don’t bear children at all, and those who do bear children have only one or two. The population has plummeted. And of the few children being born, almost none are male.
The problem is obvious, and it’s one which the National UK 150 (which includes Zoe) have taken advantage of. They have had slightly more success than other countries at keeping the XYs in their Sanctuary alive and healthy. This is probably because of the gene splice—elsewhere in the world, the Sanctuaries are commonly infected with the virus, so that all their XYs die off. In the UK, that hasn’t happened—and so they have “spare” XYs, which they can trade to other countries in exchange for technologies like the new plane, or communication satellites. It is true that this means trading away their sons and brothers, using those sons and brothers as currency. (No one uses the word slave.) It’s also true that this means putting their own (XY) children into the Sanctuaries, where they will be subject to rape, abuse, and violence. But it’s not like they have any future outside the Sanctuaries—is it?
It’s not clear whether River ever realizes that this gene splice means the Sanctuaries are unnecessary, or that she has been lied to (as everyone has been lied to) about the need for the Sanctuaries. It certainly isn’t the gene splice that makes her decide to reject the deal made by her 150: their decision to condemn Mason as a murderer and ship him off in trade, bartering his ability to produce sperm to buy the communication satellites the UK needs. Kate wants River to accept this, because she is worth so much more than Mason; Zoe wants her to accept it also, because not just River’s future but the future of their civilization depends on everyone believing the story that has been told—that XYs cannot live outside the Sanctuaries.
But River doesn’t accept it. “Every child is our child,” the Global Agreements say; and they also say, “Everyone has the right to be listened to.” River takes the radical step of seeing that the XY children are also children, and that “everyone” includes XYs. She steps up and speaks out.
We’re not given details about how this changes the world, but it is clear that it does. At the end of the book, at least some XYs are out of the Sanctuaries, and River no longer lives in the simple, false world she lived in before the story began. She knows the world is dangerous now—but is that because the XYs have been released? Or is that because she knows how the UK 150 lied to and manipulated everyone?
I finished Bergin’s book wanting to know more—what happens in the world when the XYs are set free, and what happens in the world when people like River, raised to expect justice and truth from those around them, discover how their leaders betrayed their trust? I want a sequel, I guess is what I’m saying. Perhaps in a sequel, also, Bergin could deal with some of the problems in this first narrative, including the erasure of trans people. I’d read that book.