The XX Factor:
A Review of The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird
Reviewed by Katie McIvor
I had some complaints recently about the tendency to market UK science-fiction novels as ‘thrillers’ in the hopes of attracting a mainstream audience (see my review in Issue #8 of Etherea). Christina Sweeney-Baird’s fascinating, fast-paced debut novel, The End of Men, also falls into this camp, with its near-future exploration of a world in which a devastating virus has appeared out of nowhere and swept across the globe. If that sounds uncomfortably familiar, you may be interested to know that the novel was actually written in 2018–19, well in advance of COVID-19. The fact that it was published in 2021, smack in the middle of a real-life global pandemic, makes The End of Men impossible to read without being constantly stunned by its eery prescience.
An astonishing number of parallels match up. The virus originates with animal-to-human transmission; people can carry and spread it asymptomatically; we see characters sitting two metres apart and avoiding enclosed public spaces. There’s even a guy trapped on a cruise ship. Unlike COVID-19, however, this virus only affects “men” (or, more accurately, people with Y chromosomes), and the death rate among those affected is extremely high. The gene sequence which provides protection from the virus is present only in X chromosomes, so people with XX chromosomes can transmit the virus but are not at risk. Around ten percent of people with XY chromosomes are also immune, while the other ninety percent, give or take a few lucky survivors, die within days of catching the virus.
It’s a terrifying concept, and Sweeney-Baird wastes no time diving into the raw horror of it. The story is split between various narrators, giving an intense, intimate picture of the characters’ experiences. One of the main recurring narrators is Amanda, an A&E doctor in Glasgow, who treats the man subsequently identified Patient Zero. At least, she attempts to treat him, but it quickly becomes clear there is nothing doctors can do to save the victims of this new virus. While Amanda tries to persuade the authorities to pay attention, the rest of the country plods on indifferently until it’s too late. “It seemed so quotidian; the flu,” remarks Catherine, an anthropologist. Over the next few weeks, men drop like flies, while women struggle to come to terms with what is happening.
There are a lot of genuinely harrowing passages in this novel. Amanda is trapped at home, scared to go to work and powerless to help her family, despite all her medical training. Catherine flees to an empty cottage in the countryside, in a desperate, hopeless bid to protect her three-year-old son. The three hundred passengers stranded on a cruise ship off the coast of Iceland, unable to return to shore or receive supplies, battle against panic and starvation. Meanwhile, in New Zealand, the “Birth Quarantine Programme” involves separating newborn babies from their mothers to prevent infection – although the horror of this pales in comparison to the Scottish delivery ward where baby boys are born to inevitable infection, with only a ten percent survival rate.
Having killed off the majority of the male characters in the first half, however, the breakneck pace of the novel inevitably tails off as the “Male Plague” progresses and the survivors begin to rebuild. The focus is now on restoring the population, with governments making predictable yet unpopular decisions about how to allocate their supplies of donor sperm. What started as a terrifying race against time, as families were torn apart by the Plague, winds down into a mostly uninspiring assessment of how humanity might cope in the aftermath of a sudden reduction in population.
The use of multiple narrators works extremely well. Short segments keep things snappy, and moving between different points of view allows Sweeney-Baird to paint a broad picture of the developing global pandemic without ever resorting to obvious exposition. I found the novel’s snarky, energetic tone consistently entertaining, though it didn’t allow for much variation in voice between the different characters. The narrators are predominantly white, upper-middle-class, professional women, which makes for a limited set of experiences. We get some brief glimpses of more interesting characters – I kept hoping we’d see more of Rosamie, a Filipino nanny working for a rich, nasty couple in Singapore – but there’s almost no representation of working-class or disadvantaged characters. Even more worryingly for a novel with such a heavy focus on gender, there’s only one trans character, whose brief appearance consists of a discussion about suicide rates in the LGBTQ+ community, followed by a vomit-inducing cis saviour speech from Amanda. Intergender and non-binary people don’t get a mention at all.
Despite its representational flaws, though, this novel is well worth a read, if only for the brain-melting weirdness of reading about a fictional pandemic while living through a real one. At every turn I was astonished by Sweeney-Baird’s powers of prediction. Possibly the most surreal moment, though, was reading the Author’s Note. “I’m sitting in my flat in central London in lockdown,” Sweeney-Baird wrote in April 2020. “I leave the house once a day for exercise, and shop for food and other essentials once a week. I don’t know when I’ll next see my family.” I can’t have been the only person reading that in 2022 – on the train to work, surrounded by maskless faces – thinking, Did any of that really, actually happen? Doesn’t it sound mad? Doesn’t it all sound a bit too much like… science fiction?
Katie McIvor grew up in Scotland and studied at the University of Cambridge. She now lives in England and works at a language library, where she is surrounded by books and films in over 200 languages.
When not struggling to alphabetise Japanese textbooks, she likes to go on long walks with her husband and two dogs.