On July 17, 2002, a plague sweeps the world. All mammals with a Y chromosome — including embryos and sperm — die nearly simultaneously, along with many women in accidents such as plane crashes. Society and infrastructure collapses into chaos, as women try to understand what has happened and how to begin reconstructing their countries and their lives around the idea that everyone who is living now is doomed, the last generation on earth.
But wait: one man (and his capuchin monkey, Ampersand) has escaped the plague. How? Why? No one knows. Yorick Brown is still alive, and a lot (and I mean a LOT) of people want to know about that. An agent from a secret society, known only as 355, and a geneticist named Alison Mann, vow to help find some of the answers, wherever it takes them.
While the women in this series of graphic novels by Brian Vaughan and Pia Guerra are interested in answers, the books themselves are not. For instance, several competing theories are suggested about where the plague itself came from (the government trying to disrupt the Chinese economy; Nature getting rid of human beings; a terrorist attack) but none is ever confirmed. There are a number of things like this, where we don’t get our curiosity satisfied, because the author just isn’t interested. Rather, this series is interested in considering human beings in a dire situation. How do people react to the threat of extinction? To loss, to grief, to having all their plans unraveled, to a new world order?
And that’s really the best part of these books. There are things about the series that could be done better — it’s a little predictable, for instance. But when it comes to the portrayal of a wide set of reactions to a violent shakeup, it’s aces.
Some consequences are shown to be wide-ranging, and are a result of the treatment of women worldwide. For instance, since only a very small percentage of engineers are women, it’s hard to get everyone back on the grid, hard to get the infrastructure working again, hard to get communications working smoothly. Few societies require or even allow women to be part of their military; fewer allow them to be combat troops. Would those societies have an advantage in an all-female world order? However, since over half of agricultural workers are women, there are plenty of farmers left, and food isn’t generally a problem.
Other situations are personal rather than national. Some women rejoice at the dismantling of the patriarchy, and a group known as the Amazons goes around burning structures such as churches to the ground. Other women grieve their losses at the Washington Monument (snerk.) The author includes a wide range of perspectives — women who are out for their own benefit, women who are terrified, women who don’t much care.
And what about the man? At the outset of the story, Yorick is a pretty immature young man, lazy and prone to despair. His slow development into someone who can take responsibility and care for others (not just for his absent girlfriend, Beth) is an interesting thing to watch. Personally, I credit it to the strong personalities around him: agent 355, Alison Mann, and others.
This isn’t the first single-gender world I’ve read about. Nicola Griffith’s Ammonite and James Tiptree (Alice Sheldon)’s “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” are good examples. Most single-gender worlds aren’t figured as dystopian, as Y: The Last Man is; they explore what all-female worlds could be like in terms of biology, power-sharing, violence, and procreation, among other things. Y: The Last Man is more about rescuing ourselves from those mostly-peaceful possibilities. To which I can only say: huh.