A lengthy novella (24,360 words according to my Kindle) that ultimately doesn’t quite deliver on a bold premise.
That bold premise is the one in Kelly’s Nebula Award finalist ‘Men Are Trouble’ from 2004 – a society without men.
Kelly achieves this through aliens that arrived on Earth and instantly removed all the men from the planet, are now impregnating (on an essentially immaculate conception basis) women with female embryos, and have intelligent robots through which they communicate with humans (the aliens being bird/bat-like creatures) and who do a lot of domestic and manual work for humanity. Womankind, or the female-only humanity has struggled with this, with the early years following the disappearance of men featuring panic, suicide, rioting and so forth.
It’s not perhaps the subtlest way of approaching a number of topics around gender, and the story itself ditto. The protagonist is a hard-drinking, hard-smoking, bicycling(!), cynical Private Investigator (I have to confess Officer, that I have a dislike for such stories), who has a wife and a daughter – she has very male characteristics. Womankind/humanity has to some extent descended into butch/femme roles, and gender reassignment surgery has a key role in society, and in the story.
The plot revolves around a whodunnit (a theft and a murder) and the aliens are disappointingly vague characters. The crux of the story, is that the aliens, or some of them, at least, are wondering if their removing of men was in retrospect a good idea. Ideally the story could have got into the minds of the aliens, their politics and so forth, to give insight into this issue. As it is, there’s detail about surgery and phalloplasty (ewwww) and just not enough subtlety for my liking. And the robots are just too like C3PO in terms of their manners!
There’s little description of the society, and it did feel like it was set in the 1950s rather than the 2050s or so it was set in. Indeed the story felt as if it was written in the 1950s, when we had a clear male/female society, and homosexuality (amongst men) was still illegal in the UK – rather than the 2010s where we have (in many countries) a more metrosexual, transexual, polysexual, asexual, trysexual, genderblended society – for aliens to travel to our planet and remove all the men seems just too simplistic. And fortunately as I was reading on a Kindle, I didn’t have to fold the magazine over to avoid other people seeing the cover of the magazine. This may seem overly harsh, but a comparator for this story would be P.D. James novel ‘Children of Men’ – a story on a similar theme (no more children) that would meet the benchmark to reach (this is Best SF, remember, not Good SF, Reasonably Good SF, or Fair to Middling SF).