Curious about a gender-based dystopia where women have been erased as a concept and testosterone, inborn and taken via shots, rules the day? Check out Y Negative.
Ember is Y-negative, a person born without a Y-chromosome. In his early years, he was forced to bear children; now, with the help of testosterone injections, he is able to live as an “andro”, but desperately wishes to be one of the biologically XY “mascs”. Mascs are the elite of society and in addition to physically bullying Y-negatives and andros, who essentially form lower castes, they exclude them from educational, job, and leadership opportunities. Ember has another issue: he is “het”, or someone attracted across gender lines. Andros are supposed to partner with andros and mascs with mascs, and Ember’s attraction to masc Jess is taboo.
In the meantime, the world has been catastrophically altered by acid rain and climate catastrophe. Ember and Jess, along with a team of technicians, end up in the wilderness on a mission to check on the monitoring equipment belonging to Jess’s father’s firm. On this journey, Jess and Ember start to realize a mutual attraction – to the revulsion of their team members. But when disaster strikes in the form of “scavengers”, humans who live outside the protected enclaves, everything Jess and Ember think they know about their biology is turned on its head.
The author (who identifies as non-binary) does an excellent job of communicating Ember’s gender dysphoria to the reader. Moreover, reading this book and imagining my (extremely cis) self in this society helped me better understand the feeling of living in a society which would expect my body to conform to their categories, something trans people experience every day.
The author does make sure that the basics of the setting work. Ember’s home city and the life he leads there are awful in a grinding, soul-eating way. Interestingly, the scavengers are not presented as having created an independent utopia but are themselves struggling to re-imagine society. What I found lacking was the plot in the last third or so, especially the treatment of secondary characters as disposable cannon fodder and too much separation in the main pair.
While the romance is a central plot element, it runs side by side with Ember’s gender and sexuality journey. Jess is very flat by comparison. His love for Ember seems hurriedly developed, and his own willingness to embrace a het relationship happens very easily considering the life and attitudes he’s been steeped in. I get that the author is playing with gender roles by making Ember, the andro, pugnacious and aggressive while Jess, the masc, is conflict-avoidant, but this is a bad setting to live in if you’re a couple where the fighter is physically overmatched and the big guy can’t (or won’t) fight. I foresee a lot of black eyes and busted lips in Jess and Ember’s futures.
A word of… reassurance, perhaps? It looks at one point as though Ember’s dysphoria might be waved off as caused by a drug. If you’re reading and are worried – keep reading. It will be okay.
I like sci-fi settings which make me think and re-examine my own world, and Y Negative absolutely does that. It’s confusing at times, but I prefer ‘confusing’ to ‘smacking you in the face with backstory and narration.’ If you want to try an #OwnVoices gender dystopia, this read is interesting and genuinely unlike anything I’ve read. I may not feel the need to reread it, but I’m certainly glad I read it.