This is an occasional column about writing fiction, from the genesis of an idea to the development of a creative process, the joys and challenges of writing, and, finally, self-publishing. It is written in real time: the novel is still in development.
1. It starts
Earlier this year, a former intern in Australia’s Ministry of Defense reported that she had been raped by a colleague, and the country exploded in outrage. Tens of thousands of women and their supporters rallied in the capital, Canberra, demanding action on violence against women, and the prime minister refused to come outside and speak with them.
Over the following days, more and more reports of sexual violence emerged, in politics, in sports, in entertainment. The country was, still is, having a massive #MeToo moment, and I am shocked, outraged, stunned, and dismayed. Most of all, I am dismayed at the actions of members of my own gender, of men.
The numbers are horrifying. According to the World Health Organization, one-third of women worldwide have been subjected to physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. Most of this violence is “intimate partner violence,” which is unnecessarily polite code for what we all know: it is nearly always done by men.
I find myself walking down a street one day, looking at the people around me, and wondering what the world would be like without us. Us men. The abusers, the rapists, the torturers, and the killers.
Wouldn’t it simply be a better world? Could a world without men possibly be any worse? A friend sends me a survey of women that asks them what they would do if there were no men on the streets at night.
The answers are heartbreaking in their simplicity:
“I’d sit on the beach at night.”
“I’d go for a run.”
“I’d walk to my car with my keys in my purse instead of spread between my fingers as a potential weapon.”
“I’d put on a pretty dress and just walk around the city.”
One reply in particular got me really thinking: “My whole life would have been different, and now my daughter’s life would be different.”
I started penning ideas for a story about a world after men. I didn’t get hung up on why the men had all disappeared—they were just not there. We were gone. All of us. The story wouldn’t be about men’s disappearance, or the immediate consequences of losing half the population, but about the world women might create for themselves and their all-female children.
An all-female world. Was it scientifically possible? It turns out, yes. Single-sex reproduction, or parthenogenesis, has been achieved in animal experiments and is in fact easier to achieve for females than for men. So, important plot point: men are unnecessary for reproduction.
Next thought. The good critics of Publishers Weekly and BookLife look for originality in a work. The idea of a novel about a world with-
out men is not original. I remembered a Star Trek episode from my youth where the crew visited a world run by women—where the men are servants.
I decide to do a search for other novels about worlds without men, and discover that, in most of them, ironically, the plot revolves around the reappearance of men, the last surviving man, or gender reversals where the men are painted as “victims” of a matriarchy. There are very few in which men are simply not there. I decide that is a book I want to read.
But I also decide that I am not the one to write it. I want to be involved in writing it, I can be the one transcribing others’ ideas, but a man writing about women in a world without men? I don’t feel capable.
I need to find a way to bring this idea to life through me, but not by me.
2. It stalls
So I’ve arrived at the idea for a new novel. A world without men. Postmale. I want to explore what such a world could look like—not some alien world but our own, say 200 years into a future in which men no longer exist.
Forget the why and the how for now; we’ll work that out. Forget how the women are able to reproduce without men: that problem has been solved by science. The big challenge for me right now is I don’t feel that a male writer should, would, could do the idea justice. On the other hand, it would be harder to accuse me of misandry—a hatred of, or prejudice against, men—with me being, well, you know, male.
I reach out to a group of female friends to test the idea. They range in age from 19 to nearly 60. Some are politically active, others less so; one works in the area of family violence, and others are students, professionals, teachers. They are daughters, mothers, and grandmothers. We live on three different continents. I pitch it to them, and they think it’s an interesting idea to explore.
Then I say to them, “Wouldn’t it be cool if you wrote it?”
I can help. I’ve had some modest success as a writer. I can weave a plot, create characters, and string a few sentences together. I know how to source an editor and proofreader. I know how to pitch a story to a publisher or publish it independently. I can be the vehicle, transport their ideas to the page.
They agree to give it a try. We start throwing ideas around. I’m immediately taken into territory I might not ever have considered.
“It shouldn’t be a utopian world just because there are no men. But it shouldn’t be apocalyptic either. Just because men disappear doesn’t mean society will collapse.”
“There will be less war. Education will matter more than business success. Nature will rebound.”
“There will still be violence. It might be more psychological, less physical, but there will still be power imbalance, oppression, and repression. Not least within families.”
“There will be a hundred different kinds of family. Government and the economy will be less international, less national, more local.”
“There will still be discrimination. Racial discrimination will not magically go away. There will still be outsiders, people who don’t fit in, people who don’t see themselves as women. There may not be men and women anymore but that doesn’t mean everyone will suddenly define themselves as woman.”
We are building a world. Over the course of multiple Sunday Zoom calls, it slowly emerges, this world without men, 200 years into the future. The next stage is to create characters within it.
But then one of our team withdraws. The discussion has woken too much feeling within her because of her personal history, and she does not feel it is healthy for her to continue.
We have only just started, and perhaps we should already stop.
Tim Slee won the 2016 BookLife Prize Fiction Contest for his sci-fi crime thriller The Vanirim (Midgaard Cycle #1). He also writes under the pen name FX Holden.