Author ~ Kelly Haworth
Publisher ~ Riptide Publishing
Published ~ 16 November 2015
Genre ~ Sci-fi Dystopian M/M Romance
In the last surviving cities of a ruined world, the concept of “woman” has been forgotten to history. Those unfortunate enough to lack a Y chromosome live as second-class citizens in a world dominated by mascs.
Ember is Y negative. He is scorned, bullied, abused by every masc he encounters, at work and at the gym. Not even his Y negative roommate cuts him any slack. He wants so desperately to be accepted as a masc that he’d rather buy black market testosterone than food. Something’s gotta give—he needs a change in his life, but has no idea how to find it.
Jess is a masc with a passion for studying the recovery of their devastated world. His boyfriend is pressuring him for more commitment, and his father expects him to take over the family business. He can’t wait to get away from civilization for his seasonal research out in the wild.
When Jess offers Ember a job, their lives collide in the isolated wasteland, and their initial attraction turns into a relationship that horrifies those around them. Soon their struggle to stay together and to be who they are turns into a fight for their lives.
I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced the feeling of standing amidst chaos, looking back with the benefit of hindsight and saying “Ah, I see what I did wrong there”? It’s not much comfort but at least you hope you’ll never that mistake again. Well in this totally dystopian world from Kelly Haworth there is no comfort and precious little hope either. The world is ruined and nobody ever says why. The seas have risen – Atlanta, if I understood correctly, is now a trans-Atlantic seaport – the earth is polluted and the sky is filled with lethal amounts of acid rain that etches all surfaces and sears exposed skin. This wasteland is populated by an equally toxic society. In the few cities a recognisably modern lifestyle is enjoyed by the mascs, true men with the coveted Y chromosome. A heavily muscled, brawling, ambitious, aggressive elite, they jealously guard their supremacy from the despised Y negatives, the andros – there are no longer any ‘women’, in fact the whole concept has been forgotten – who have to serve their function as surrogate baby machines in their late teens before being allowed the surgery and testosterone that they crave to allow them to be even barely tolerated in society.
Ember is an andro, but unlike most of his kind, cannot accept his fate. He has had the required number of children and now lives a hand to mouth existence, spending most of his income as a freelance computer tech on the regular testosterone he needs. He burns with rage at the injustice and bigotry he faces every day yet strives to become as tough and hard bodied as his oppressors.
Rich kid Jess hopes to follow in the footsteps of his gentle Dad as an eco-scientist while also retaining his exacting CEO father’s approval. Kindly but privileged, he looks forward to his annual pilgrimage into the Outskirts, the wasteland beyond the city, where he will spend a month collecting data from the monitoring stations set up by his Dad. Anticipating having to conduct on the spot repairs to computer equipment he hires Ember. Accompanied by a married couple with an unrealistic view of the ‘joys of surrogacy’ and Jess’s loutish boyfriend they head into the wild to face conflicts they didn’t anticipate.
The world building in this story is supreme. The cities are sterile but safe and bland so the author’s powers of description really kick off with her depiction of the wilderness and Ember’s shock at seeing what little wildlife remains. Nature, as ever, has adapted to changes in her environment.
But the descriptions of humankind are where Haworth shines. Masc society is depicted as a frat house that has got out of hand. All social interactions have that edge where all participants are eager to be seen as top dog and the easiest way to show how tough you are is to pick on those further down the food chain. Injury or misfortune are causes of hilarity. Bullying is the norm, in fact is expected and is applauded as the mark of a true man. Andros are expected to smile appeasingly and, if that doesn’t work, to boost masc egos by cowering and crying. There’s no indication of when this society started or of to what desperate straits of fear and hatred humankind descended to completely forget the existence of women and to even erase all signs of them from their language. It is very uncomfortable reading. One can only try to imagine how a huge environmental disaster on top of existing political measures and reactionary societal attitudes could bring about such a pass. However the book does end on a note of hope – Jess is the best of a bad bunch but isn’t the only atypical masc that Ember meets – but they clearly have a very long row to hoe before reaching any kind of equilibrium. The romance element is handled with sensitivity and there are some sex scenes but they are far more uncomfortably realistic than erotic, which suited the overall tone.
I’m honestly not sure whether I can say that I enjoyed the book. I spent much of my reading time angry, some distressed and some muttering ‘oh this isn’t going to end well’ but since finishing the book I have thought about it a LOT and that is what speculative fiction is supposed to do, isn’t it? Make us speculate?