Her name is River. She is fourteen-years-old and she is day-dreaming about the exploration of outer space.
It is an autumn evening.
Dark is coming soon.
She is miles from home.
She feels no fear.
Why would she? There are no predators. No such thing as ghosts.
Fear belongs to another time. It lives on only in the memories of others.
She feels no fear at all.
Not even when she sees it: the body lying in the middle of the road.
– Who Runs the World?
Who Runs the World?, written by the English writer, Virginia Bergin, was published by Pan Macmillan in 2017. It follows the story of fourteen-year-old River, a girl born into a world without males, and the novel is written in the first person perspective. After a virus killed most of the male population 60 years ago (it targets the Y-chromosome), females had to rebuild the world with a new set of Agreements and prevent the human race from going extinct. This means that the remaining males had to be kept in sanctuaries to protect them from the virus, while females had to continue living without ever meeting a real male. When River accidentally meets a boy one day, she doesn’t know how to react.
The concept of this novel is both large and ambitious, and I believe that Virginia Bergin’s take on the “female-only-society” idea was extremely creative and interesting. Readers were challenged to explore the social construction of gender that exists in our society today and we are encouraged to think about our own perception of gender. We’re presented with questions and the opportunity to imagine the answers.
Who Runs the World? emphasises the power of educating young minds, and how the society that one grows up in shapes one’s entire life. For example, when River meets Mason, she has to train herself to refer to him using simple pronouns, such as “he” or “him” or “his”, rather than “it”. Having never seen a boy before, Mason was more of a creature than a human being. Due to the world that she lives in, she can’t just associate him with a human being because it doesn’t make sense to her the way we can’t just associate the colour blue with the name “red”. Similarly, Mason grew up believing that women had to have a certain appearance to be considered women, that if he ever came across a woman she would rape him and steal his sperm, and that women are not capable of running the world without a man’s help.
I appreciated the fact that in River’s world, one’s appearance meant absolutely nothing. While females did wear clothing, their bodies were never shamed. It was mentioned that it was perfectly normal for females to have facial hair and small breasts and underarm hair.
Although the society was entirely female, it was not perfect. I liked the fact that it was mentioned that women did steal, women did kill and women were not perfect entities because that is just entirely untrue. Many people believe that this novel is an extreme form of “feminism” that forces the belief that a world without men would be perfect, but it is quite clear that that was not Virginia Bergin’s message. I think that if the novel was written from both River and Mason’s perspective, it would have been far more powerful and effective.
While reading Who Runs the World?, I sensed a lot of secrecy that was not explored in the novel. There was something about the sanctuaries and the female International leaders that made me believe that there was something darker happening behind the scenes. This was only touched on slightly when it is discovered where Mason was being sent to before he escaped. There was a lot of room for some interesting conspiracy, such as the possible origin of the virus, the brainwashing and treatment of males, the conditions of the sanctuaries, etc. Unfortunately, the childish thoughts of a hormonal teenager is as interesting as it gets.
There were parts of the novel that made me laugh, specifically the Granmummas (they are our future selves) and their old habits. At one point, River mentions how they had to put on a play of an old movie that the Granmummas used to love, Twilight. However, I believe that Who Runs the World? was wasted potential, as there was a lot that Virginia Bergin could have done, but didn’t do with the plot. It reminded me of The Giver, an old novel written by Lois Lowry. In the end, all that I could gather was that we are products of the society that we are born into, which was frustrating because it wasn’t enough.