Y: The Last Man|
Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, 2002-2008
A mysterious epidemic instantly kills every male mammal on
earth except for overeducated, unemployed escape artist Yorick Brown
and his pet monkey Ampersand. In the aftermath of this apocalypse,
Yorick is quickly put under the protection of an elite bodyguard known
only as 355, and soon thereafter the two of them are joined by Dr.
Allison Mann, a human cloning expert. Their quest to get Dr. Mann to
her lab and to reunite Yorick with his girlfriend Beth takes them on
an odyssey that circles the globe.
I reviewed the first volume of this series a
few years ago. It seemed promising. Now, after sixty issues,
it's over, and I'd say it more than delivered on its promise. What
a great series! I hope that it comes out in one of those Omnibus
editions at some point, but until then, it's available in ten
What's great about Y: The Last Man is that it isn't a sociological
treatise dressed up as a story. Vaughan did do a ton of research, and
the all-female world is a very interesting setting, but Y is an
adventure first — an epic adventure that's such a good page-turner
that every time I have stopped to look something up for this article I've
ended up reading several issues in a row. I'd call it a character piece
second, as unlike a lot of authors working on high-concept stuff, Vaughan
really cares about the life stories of the people involved in his tale.
(Pattern 15.) And then it's a meditation on
gender th— actually, a meditation on gender fourth, because it's a
comedy third. Not in the sense of being structured according to the
requirements of the comedy genre, but simply because when you put smart,
funny people in a room together, comedy breaks out.
(Pattern 13.) Paul O'Brien complains
that Vaughan has a "tendency to shoehorn almanac trivia into stories," but
I liked the way most of the characters knew about all kinds of interesting
stuff. They were a joy to tag along with. Highly recommended.
Spoilers (or skip ahead)
So now that it's over, a thought on #60.
Y: The Last Man ends by jumping sixty years into the future.
The world has healed, but it's not back to the way it was. For the better
part of a century, humankind has perpetuated itself by cloning, but cloning
Yorick has been sufficiently tricky that there are still fewer than two
dozen men on the planet. It remains a world of women.
Now, it stands to reason that heterosexuality would be one of the first
traits you'd expect natural selection to reinforce — those who
choose to mate with the opposite sex tend to produce more offspring than
those who don't, for obvious reasons. So it should be hardwired. I'm
straight, and it certainly feels hardwired to me. And yet there is much
to suggest that it is not — that the very notion of heterosexuality
is an artificial construction. Clearly our categories of "heterosexual"
and "homosexual" aren't universal across cultures. But it's an interesting
argument. I read an article a while back, sort of dubious but worth a
mention. It is well known that pederasty was endemic in ancient Greece.
I've heard several classics professors bemoan the fact that students
inevitably ask, "So does that mean that, like, 90% of Greeks were gay?"
— because, again, the Greeks didn't categorize sexuality in those
terms. What this article pointed out was that it was well-attested that
the accepted model of beauty in the ancient Mediterranean world was male,
yes, but a certain type of male: rippling chest, radiant skin, broad
shoulders, tiny cock. (The words are from Aristophanes, but the pictures
back them up.) And so, the article concluded, we can see that while the
culture was misogynistic enough to drive men to take male partners,
something drove them to select the most feminine specimens among their
own sex, and that something must have been their innate heterosexuality
asserting itself. I'd want to see more support for that hypothesis, but
it's an interesting observation.
Nowadays we tend to consider males to be pretty hardwired into an
orientation of hetero or homo or bi, but female sexuality is thought to
be more fluid. I mean, I guess it depends on your social circles, but in
the culture I recognize as mine — ie, not Jesusland — it's
kind of surprising when a straight woman hasn't sauntered to the
other end of the Kinsey scale a time or two. It's not a category shifter.
It certainly doesn't require the elimination of the male sex. So it's
pretty easy to believe that the survivors of the gendercide would turn
to each other for companionship and love and physical intimacy. It
probably wouldn't even take very long. And yet, at the same time, I
have to think there would be some women in the world of Y who
would find that prospect unimaginable — if only because, if the
scenario were flipped, I can't imagine myself turning to some dude for
those things. Maybe if I'd been born into a different culture... but
that brings me to the point of this section.
Y: The Last Man concludes with a few representative scenes of
the all-female world of the 2060s. Everyone we see is well under sixty.
That means they're all clones. They've all been born into, and grown
up in, a world without men. Every human relationship they have ever
been a part of, every human relationship they've ever even seen, has
been female/female. And yet, in theory, millions upon millions of years
of natural selection have wired most of them for heterosexuality. So I'm
fascinated by the question: If they meet one of these Yorick clones, how
do they feel about him? Or how do they feel about men in general, in
photographs and paintings and statues? Would nature prompt them to find
the masculine form a turn-on? Or would nurture lead them to find it
horribly alien? I guess that in asking this I'm conflating sex with
gender — maybe a butch half of the population would preserve the
masculine form even as the actual male sex became a distant memory. Or
maybe not. In Sparta, I have read, brides shaved their heads, donned
men's clothing, and waited in dark rooms for their new husbands to come
to them, because after so many years in the barracks, coupling with an
unboyish creature would make a Spartan groom freak. In the first 59
issues of Y we meet many women doing this, binding their breasts,
donning fake beards. Would anyone be bothering by #60? Would those who
did even have a clientele?
Philip Wylie, 1951
The world suddenly diverges into two worlds, one populated only
by women, the other entirely by men.
After finishing Y: The Last Man, I remembered that Philip
Wylie, author of the interestingly terrible nuclear war book
Tomorrow!, had also written a
book with a similar premise to Y. So I checked it out,
and again, it's terrible, but again, it's somewhat interesting
as a historical document.
The Disappearance couldn't really have the same premise
as Y: The Last Man simply because the world of 1951 and
the world of 2002 are such different places. Yes, much of Y
is about a subjugated population taking control. Even in 2002,
the "gendercide" of Y devastates certain classes worldwide:
politicians, pilots, prisoners. It almost entirely wipes out
others: CEOs, construction workers, combat soldiers. (Israel and
Australia become military superpowers overnight.) And it
does completely eliminate a few, as major religions find
themselves without a single surviving member of the clergy.
Clearly we have a long way to go until we achieve gender equity.
But! Just as clearly, we have come a long way. When I walk into
a college classroom, as long as it's not a tech class, chances
are very good that half or more of the seats will be occupied by
women; they participate as equals, and no one has the slightest
doubt that they are every bit as intellectually capable as their
male peers. When I take a train into the city and get off in the
financial district, I see businesswomen hurrying about exactly as
their male counterparts do, and it's not a remotely remarkable
sight. And if men were to disappear, Western goverments wouldn't
collapse, nor would the worldwide scientific community.
This was not the case in 1951. The Disappearance isn't a
documentary, obviously, but Wylie does use the world outside his
window as a starting point, and the world he sees is one in which
the number of female politicians and scientists is negligible, in
which educated women are, almost without exception, secretaries,
housewives, or undergraduates working on their M.R.S. degrees.
(Uneducated women have more options — they can work in
mills, in sweatshops, in fields — but that doesn't exactly
make them better off.) Consequently, when the women are left to
their own devices all the cities burn down, and cholera epidemics
sweep the countryside, and when the politicians' trophy wives try
to reconstitute the government they just end up arguing about whether
their uniforms should include peaked caps or brimmed hats, and
only the efforts of a Marrissa figure who's good at everything
prevents an even bigger disaster. (Probably the best example of
this is when the Soviets invade, and she gives them a stern
talking-to in Russian, shows them a bunch of luxury goods that
make them want to stay, and assigns them to do things like
running the bulldozers and trying to get the power plants online,
since they're the only women in the world with the technical
expertise.) Wiping out all the men, in 1951, is tantamount to
wiping out all the adults.
And this is not the case in the world of 2002. One of the most
annoying parts of Koba the Dread
is when Amis blithely avers that "the twentieth century is
unanimously considered to be our worst century yet." That is
such preposterous bullshit that it deserves to go up on the
telescreen with "war is peace," "freedom is slavery" and "ignorance
is strength." Yes, the twentieth century had its share of atrocities,
but so did every earlier era; ask the indigenous people of the
Americas about the 16th century, or the helots about the 8th century
BCE. And to my mind, all of these atrocities together don't equal
the enormity of the fact that throughout human history, in
almost every society, half the population has been treated as less
than fully human. In the twentieth century we finally started
to fix that. Different people can make compelling cases for all sorts
of different measures, but if you want me to morally evaluate an era or
a society, my first question is going to be, "How is it on women's
rights?" Are girls provided with the same range of opportunities as
boys, the same possibilities for the future? Are women treated as full
citizens, not adjuncts to men? Is the world heterosocial, or is
it divided up into separate spheres? (See Pattern 27 in
A Pattern Language.) Yes, we still
have a long way to go on these counts, but compare the position of
Western women in 1900 to where they stood in 2000 and tell me that that
isn't progress. It's curious how it's an article of faith among people
of certain political persuasions, both on the right and the left, that
progress is a myth. No, it isn't inexorable, and it isn't uniform
— stalled in some places, backtracking in others — but I'd
love for Martin Amis to tell me when he'd rather be a woman than now.
A measure of how far women have come is that in the half of Wylie's
book in which the women have disappeared, there's almost nothing for
him to write about. The disappearance of all women and girls on earth
does nothing to the power structure of 1951! Yes, there are some
initial fireworks; the Soviets, thinking this must be an American
attack, nuke Chicago and San Francisco, leading the US to reply by
annihilating the USSR. With that taken care of, the main problems
are (a) how the species will continue and (b) the fact that with no
women around, everyone's laundry and dirty dishes are piling up. So
most of the male half of the book is turned over to Wylie's mouthpiece,
Dr. William Gaunt — philosopher, successful playwright, advisor to
"the military, administrative, and scientific elect" — as he sits
at his typewriter and bangs out screeds about what was wrong with the
world that led society to deserve this fate. "A man who thinks ahead of
his era and who knows beyond its common knowledge must only write or be
written about," Wylie writes, no doubt with a loving wink at the portrait
of himself on his desk. (That's right — this is a
Pattern 19 book.)
So what does he have Gaunt write? Gaunt argues that the predicament
his world finds itself in is really just a more visible expression of
the fact that, since the dawn of the species, men have both treated
and viewed women as inferior, and, not wanting to associate with
inferiors, have divided human society into two largely homosocial
worlds. Obviously, I agree — I just said that whether a society
does this is the first thing I consider in deciding whether it is good
or evil. But Gaunt continues: In our rush to lionize Einstein, we have
ignored the far more important teachings of our greatest scientific
minds, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Together, they have taught us that
men who look down on women will come to believe that intimate contact
with women is dirty and degrading. They'll encode this belief into
religions. But you can't turn off the libido — you can only
thwart it, and thereby bring about a neurotic, sexually frustrated,
and consequently violent world. And then Wylie backs Gaunt up by
arranging the events of the story so that by the end men are
running around shooting each other.
It's interesting that here Wylie is all about fighting sexual
repression — he even throws in a few words on behalf of
open marriage — and yet in
Triumph the idea of the girls in the bomb shelter
deviating from perfect chastity fills him with horror. But even
in The Disappearance, Wylie finds a way to cast himself as
a free thinker while still finding a way to fall in line with the
prejudices of his time. So, for instance, it would be the mark
of a Neanderthal to condemn homosexuality simply because Leviticus
calls it an abomination. Ah, but to have Gaunt say, "Infantile
business, homosexuality. Immature, and unfortunate"? Why, that
just shows how well he has learned the timeless truths of Freud
and Jung! Wylie goes on to have Mrs. Gaunt (for of course Gaunt's
wife, Paula, is the Marrissa figure in the female half of the book)
teach the same lesson in a really appalling sequence. See, Paula
is such a powerful presence in the community that in short order
her household has become a good-sized commune. Her neighbors are
there, and a bunch of orphaned girls, and of course plenty of
black women to work the fields. One of those neighbors is a
pretty young woman named Kate West. At one point Kate tells Paula
that she's planning to leave. Paula asks why. Kate is reluctant
to reveal her secret, but eventually hints that she has a crush on
her. "She leaned back, her knees apart, her hands at her sides.
What Paula had thought of as helplessness and adorableness had
changed [...] Paula made a strong effort to weigh her emotions:
That's what men see! When a girl looks like that, they know!"
Paula struggles to cope with Kate's look of "inviting surrender"
in a long internal monologue. "She had become conscious with a
fierce pleasure" that she wants to get it on with Kate, but some
Freudian self-analysis reveals that such an "infantile" feeling
must derive from having had to repress her gay side as a girl,
thus storing it intact rather than growing out of it. With this
realization, she is able to reply, "Kate! Go to bed. I'm sorry
for you and I'm fond of you but I'm not a child, thank God!" And
then the next day Paula kicks Kate out of the household as a
Then Gaunt and his beatnik friend build a walk-in mandala and succeed
in reaching the women by sending their astral selves into the women's
dreams. Man, Wylie. Man, the 50s!
So what does Wylie expect us to do about all this? Since he says
that the world's problems can be traced back to "what a mess everybody
has made of sex" and how people throughout the ages have been neurotic
because of "how sex hungry they were and how ashamed they were of being
hungry because they had been taught to be ashamed," you might expect
that the first step would be to raise kids not to be ashamed about sex.
But no — do that, Wylie says, and you end up with kids who are
"just balled up in a different way from their parents." There's only
one solution: "Practically everybody would have to decide, all together,
to shift things."
Holy crow! He's the Anti-Amis! Martin Amis offered himself in
Koba the Dread as the ultimate
"gradualist," believing that any kind of mass movement inevitably led to
mass murder; now here's Wylie saying everyone must change at once or the
world is doomed. Worldwide revolution! I can't help but notice that
while in Triumph Wylie recommended
vaporizing the Northern Hemisphere in order to assure the defeat of "the
doctrines of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Merov, and Grovsky,"
he left Trotsky off the list. An oversight? Or did Wylie find some
sympathy for Trotsky's viewpoint, only with Freud as his Marx and Jung
as his Lenin? After all, like Trotsky, Wylie was homicidal —
he wrote a whole book about how nuclear war would
be a good thing because it'd clear the ground for a better tomorrow. The
Disappearance, in the end, is more of the same: he hits his characters
with a global cataclysm, but in the end they're grateful for it, because
it's the only thing that could enable everyone in the world to see the
But just as Amis is wrong that trying to bring about a better world is
inherently homicidal, Wylie is wrong that apocalypse is the only solution.
The sexual revolution has proceeded in fits and starts, and still has a
long way to go. But I'll take it over 1951 and I'll take it over waiting
for the Rapture.
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