Ember is Y Negative. In the world created by Kelly Haworth for her novel, ‘Y Negative’, that means Ember is not a man or, as they’re described in this post-apocalyptic future, not a masc but he wants to be. Yeah, I said he. In this world, plagued by acid rain and devouring fogs, there are no women.
After serving his term as a surrogate, a Y Negative’s obligation to society, Ember has surgery to have his breasts removed. He is sterilised and begins a regimen of testosterone injections and works out regularly at the gym. His ultimate goal is to transition from Negative to Andro. Being either means being a second class citizen in this world. Ember and his few friends are derided and abused by the mascs. Regardless, they strive to live functional and fulfilling lives after their service but the cost of regular testosterone injections is high and Negatives don’t have the earning potential of their XY chromosome counterparts. The deck is permanently stacked. Ember will never be a masc. He will always have a Y chromosome and no amount of testosterone will change that but his yearning for it leaps off every page of this book.
Jess is a masc. He’s got all the right chromosomes, body parts, family parts and life parts. His parents (two fathers called father and dad) are mascs and so are all his brothers. He lives a life of blissful ignorance of the plight of Y Negatives until his dad dies. Even in his grief, Jess finds comfort in his studies, his work and his boyfriend.
When preparing to embark on an annual trip of the survey stations, the legacy of his dad, Jess recruits Ember to be their tech guy. Ember has his own electronics business and Jess has used his services before. He remembers him and offers him a month of paid work. Always looking for a way to pay for his next testosterone injection, Ember accepts, even though it will mean travelling for weeks with four mascs.
What follows is a collision of worlds and ideals in a setting already teetering on a fine point. The soil samples Jess’ team takes show improvement and have been looking more promising for a while now. It will be a while before they can grow food outside of a greenhouse but perhaps the world is on the mend from the mysterious apocalypse that killed everything but the hardiest of plant and animal life. While the land outside the protected cities might be recovering, the society within is obviously sickening. Throw in an acid rainstorm and an attack by the mysterious scavengers living on the fringe of society and everything Jess and Ember thought they knew about their society is challenged.
‘Y Negative’ is an ambitious novel. While telling the story of Ember and Jess and their seriously messed up world, Hayworth makes several comments on our own society, not in the least how certain minorities are marginalised. Ember puts a lot of effort into looking as masculine as possible, but so many of the mascs are trained bullies, finding fault with his manner of dress or something as slight as the fact he doesn’t have a pronounced Adam’s Apple.
The story is also a strong comment on personal identity as evidenced by Ember’s struggle to be something he has been taught is the ‘ideal’. It matters not whether he’s a mutilated woman trying to be a man in a world where he will never be equal. He may as well be the wrong colour or the wrong body shape or not blessed with the talent or skill or opportunity to realise his dreams. It’s a struggle we’re all familiar with, even in small ways.
For this story, it really does matter that he’s not a man because everyone in this world is a man. Men are the ideal and entwined through that are several more threads of thought and story and my ultimate question regarding this book. Why? What happened to this world? How was this society shaped? When did the notion of woman and man become twisted into three or four male-oriented genders? Where are the women? Finally, why do the men continue to pair bond and live in family units with two parents?
Ember’s journey is an interesting read. I enjoyed the weirdly post-apocalyptic world and the portrait of a society that was way beyond the grasp of normal. Ultimately, I came away from this novel less than satisfied, however, because I had too many questions at the end, I didn’t need to know what had all but killed the planet. A few theories are bandied about but, as in the ‘Mad Max’ movies, the cause of the apocalypse isn’t really important. It’s in the past. For the characters in this story, the now is important. The future is important but I found it difficult to suspend disbelief when it came to the odd structure of the society. That may very well be a comment on me as a reader, that I’m so invested in my ‘heteronormative’ life that I find it nearly impossible to envision a different way of doing things. Without commenting on my life and views, I think is has more to do with needing to know the answers to the questions posed above. If not all, then at least to a couple of them. To accept this world, I need to know why.
That quibble aside, I would recommend ‘Y Negative’ to readers of post-apocalyptic fiction with a romantic bend, readers interested in trans* and gender questioning characters and readers who enjoy thought provoking commentary on a number of social issues that plague our world, acid rain aside.
(pub: Riptide Publishing. 294 page paperback and ebook. Paperback price: $15.19 (US), £14.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-62649-334-6. Ebook price: $6.99 (US), £ 5.54 (UK) ASIN: B0181DH3Z2)