Today, Angry Robot Books has provided CR with an excerpt from the latest novel by Jane Hennigan, Moths. Described as “A divergent future with a thought-provoking feminist slant”, here’s the synopsis:
Where were you at the beginning?
Or at the end?
And where are we all now?
Forty years ago, the world changed. Toxic threads left behind by mutated moths infected men and boys around the globe. Some were killed quietly in their sleep, others became crazed killers, wildly dangerous and beyond help. All seemed hopeless.
But humanity adapted, healed and moved on. Now matriarchs rule, and men are kept in specially treated dust-free facilities for their safety and the good of society, never able to return to the outside.
Mary has settled into this new world and takes care of the male residents at her facility. But she still remembers how things used to be and is constantly haunted by her memories. Of her family, of her joy, of… him.
Now the world is quiet again, but only because secrets are kept safe in whispers. And the biggest secret of all? No one wants to live inside a cage…
Exploring male violence against women, homo-normativity, and gynocracy, Moths is a powerful assessment of life through the lens of a main character in her 70s. A remastered and revitalised version of the previously self-published, smash-hit dystopian thriller by the same name, Moths shows us a new, post-pandemic world.
This excerpt is taken from the beginning of the book.
Where were you when it started? The question women of a certain age ask each other on long evenings when the younger women are not around to roll their eyes and look away. Or perhaps, where were you when it ended? Depending on your point of view. And the other question that might follow, the one whispered, heads close together in that soft echo chamber of friendship – what do you miss?
But there are far fewer women of that age left now.
Where were you when the stories started coming out of Venezuela, and then Mexico? When did you first hear the news reports outlining pockets of unexplained deaths, violent attacks, and confused stories of mass psychosis?
The moths, so the story goes, came from deep within the Amazon. Silent, undisturbed, contained for millennia. Whether it was a warmer global climate or whether they were driven out by loggers or forest fires isn’t clear. Whatever happened, out they came, away from natural predators, nesting in damp corners and in the tops of trees, crossbreeding with common cousins and laying thousands upon thousands of eggs.
Then, forty-three years ago, as any schoolgirl can tell you, the eggs hatched, and an army of hungry caterpillars spread their tiny toxic threads on every breath of wind.
This was the waking of the new world.
Where were you? They ask, those who are left – at the death, the birth, the beginning, the end.
Tuesdays and Thursdays, if I’m on duty, I oversee the residents as they wash their own bedding, along with their daywear. Their attire is a plain, grey, ankle-length shift and canvas sandals. Decades ago, there were complaints that the shift was too much like a dress, that it made the men seem effeminate. But trousers have too many seams and creases in which a tiny, poisoned thread could hide, so it was decided that a shift would have to do. Everyone got used to it after a while; the men said that they enjoyed the freedom a skirt provided. Now few men alive might remember a word like effeminate – or the word freedom for that matter.
At my age, I don’t have to work nights. In fact, if I’d wanted to, I could’ve retired years ago – gone to live in one of the villages beyond the facility. My young colleges all in their twenties and thirties, would prefer it if I did, if I just scuttled off. It would save them the effort of deferring to me, then rolling their eyes when I left the room. But I like the rhythm here. I like the men – especially the new arrivals – they make me think of my son.
What would I do if I retired, anyway? Grow vegetables? Help out in the schools? I’ve been to the schools as a special visitor. I stared down at the girls, all of them cross-legged on the floor, a garden of bobbing little faces staring up at me. Those are the times when I felt really out of place. I couldn’t even answer their questions about the time before. They lacked words like “cinema”, “takeaway”, or “boyfriend”.
I don’t have to do the night watch but last week I did it anyway just to prove to myself that I still could. Also, I knew that there was a transfer on the rota: Olivia. She was not as old as me but old enough, I thought, when I caught a glimpse of her at breakfast.
It’s long, the night shift – nine hours – and with the men sleeping, there’s little to occupy your time. Olivia and I sat in the dimly lit carers’ station, just outside the dormitories, and talked about Coventry, her old facility – the food, the men and how the filtration system had failed, infecting three of the dorms.
She was a sturdy woman, not fat exactly, but heavy – curvy, as it used to be known. Her hair was brown and cropped, and she moved slowly, pausing before she spoke. As we talked, she had a habit of nodding, just slightly, along with my words. It was like a tacit agreement, softly nudging along the conversation.
She talked of her wife, Lucie, and of their two daughters, both grown, one working in agriculture and the other in marine conservation. I didn’t ask about sons, of course; it would have been inappropriate. She asked me about myself. Safe questions, curious rather than probing. Did I commute from one of the villages? Had I visited the shrine at Waterloo Station? Was I married? All of which I answered in the negative and followed up with a polite question of my own. But I was listening for something in particular: for a signal, an offering that might lead to a more interesting conversation. It came late in the shift, past midnight. I’d nearly given up waiting. And when it arrived, it was a peach.
We’d been talking about the dogs in the local woodlands: whether the animals still had a sense of their domestic origins or whether they were fully wild now. Not an incendiary topic but at least we’d graduated from pleasantries. She paused, this time for a beat longer, then said quietly, “In Coventry, there was a ward sister who was keeping a man in her apartment.”
I stared at her for a moment, confused, trying to work out what she meant. “Like a servant?” I asked, finally.
She shook her head slowly and her eyes slid to mine, “Like a husband.”
I couldn’t help myself – my mouth hung open. Hearing the word spoken aloud felt odd, like an attack of déjà vu. Husband. Her voice had quietly lingered on the S – a conspiratorial and deliberate inflection.
“How did you…? Did you see him?”
I thought that she wasn’t going to answer, that she was going to change the subject – I half wanted her to.
But she carried on. “She kept it a secret, but I delivered food to her living quarters. She always asked for a large serving and kept the door to her suite half-closed when I arrived. But one time I looked through the doorjamb. He was sitting at the table, just sitting there, holding a drink. He was dressed in clothes from before.” Her breath came quickly and her eyes shone in the low light of the carers’ station.
I felt a fierce sense of outrage towards this unknown ward sister: how dare she be so irresponsible, after all the suffering, the sacrifices? What gave her the right to endanger herself and him – what if he’d become infected? The filtration systems are weaker in the staff quarters, the surfaces less often scrubbed. I felt something bitter beneath my anger, fanning it: a man sitting at a table, nursing a glass of wine or whisky, beer perhaps, stretching his long legs under the table, music playing in the background or the sound of the TV, the smell of cooked chicken – just a man, relaxing, glad to be home after a long day.
Suddenly, I was aware of Olivia watching me. She’d stopped nodding and was sitting completely still. She was weighing up my reaction.
I chose my words carefully, “But she must have known how dangerous that is.”
No reply. She wanted more from me. She’d opened the door, but I had to walk through. I leaned in closer. “What happened when the filtration failed? Was he infected?”
Olivia shifted her heavy frame towards me and her voice was barely above a whisper. “I don’t know. But the next time I went there, after it was repaired, she was the only one in the room.”
A man living in a sister’s quarters. This sort of thing hadn’t happened for decades. There was a time, just after everything changed, when we thought it would go back to the way it was. We believed that we just had to wait it out and we could carry on, drag everything we knew with us. But then more waves of moths came, more heartbreak, more violence. Eventually, we had to come to terms with what we had and what we would never again have.
And now this. Were there secret affairs happening everywhere or had this been a one-off? What could they even find to talk about together? It’s not like before. They don’t go out to work or read books and there’s no TV, no internet. The men just pass their time doing chores and crafts or gossiping in the rec-room. Every now and then there’s a campaign to improve the men’s education, laminated reading materials, more advanced teaching for those who show aptitude. But the MWA comes back with the same arguments, again and again, lack of resources, higher priorities.
Olivia leaned back, her round cheeks flushed. It was on the tip of my tongue: Did you report her? But of course she hadn’t. This was her offering – the trust she sought to barter.
I nodded and offered a tentative smile. She smiled back.
After that, those quiet hours wrapped us up together. We were protected, complicit. Our soft voices spread out into the night.
“Where were you when it started?” she asked. “Tell me everything.”
Jane Hennigan’s Moths is due to be published by Angry Robot Books in North America and in the UK, on March 14th.