Book review: Moths by Jane Hennigan

(courtesy Angry Robot Books

Copy for review provided by Angry Robot Books via NetGalley – publication due 14 March 2023.

Humanity is balanced on a razor-thin knife edge.

We may not always, or often, think so as we rush from train to work to lunch to evening function and on and on, but the reality is that whether its climate change, pandemics, war, water shortages or energy scarcity, we have a lot piling up on the negative side of the scale.

Just how precarious our place on the evolutionary ladder is becomes chillingly clear in Jane Hennigan’s Moths, a grippingly thoughtful novel which explores what happens when a species of moths, driven from its Amazonian habitat and attendant predators by land clearing, finds its way into the heart of global civilisation.

Up close and personal with humanity in a way it simply hasn’t been before, the moth sets off a global cataclysm when the gossamer-thin strands of its caterpillars waft around the world, either killing all men outright in their sleep or transforming them into rage-fuelled murderers.

In an almost-instant, civilisation teeters and falls, its rebuilding down to surviving gender who possess an immune system robustly able to fend of the infection before it does to them what it did to men.

Forty years after the patriarchy falls in a brutalist wave of death and violence, society has reformed around women who run everything by necessity, with the surviving men, and those born after the collapse, locked away in institutions where they are treated as second-class citizens, not worthy of education (those that approach depends on the degree of liberal leaning by the facility’s administrator) or advancement, their only real worth lying in their ability to sire new offspring which they do through a tourist-like series of visitations, led by women curious to see what men are actually like.

Australia did better than most, so I hear anyway. It seems they used the infected men as sires, as we did. Their early investment in solar power and agriculture paid dividends. Their male population could be as big as ours, even bigger perhaps. I’ve even heard that some infected men are able to work in purpose-built factories and farms over there.

With pitch-perfect worldbuilding which boldly imagines society a homo-normative solely in the hands of women who may be prone to the power hungry sins of men but nothing like to the extent of what took place before moths changed everything, and eye on the many broken elements of our male top-heavy world, Moths is a brilliant dystopian ride through a plausibly possible future.

Key to its great, immersive appeal lies in the fact that while it provides plenty of page-turning action, intrigue and conspiracy, it is an innately thoughtful piece of storytelling.

It asks us to be honest about the great many failings of the current world, and how these might be solved by the sudden disappearance of men from the centre of public discourse and management.

While that might seem like a simplistic premise – that everything would be better with men out of the equation – Hennigan’s novel is anything but, diving deep into emotional and moral complexity, all too aware that something as complicated as the world we live in cannot be fixed by simply removing something.

Time and again it asks whether what has been added, or rather formed in the absence of one half of humanity (though clearly the percentage has tipped massively in favour of women), is a good thing and whether society is better off without the oppressive patriarchy that runs the world at the moment.


Much of Moths centres on the person of Mary, a woman from the time before, who has made an accommodation with life as it is now but who still mourns the loss of her husband Adrian to an eternal sleep and to her 14-year-old son Ryan to murderous rage.

With flashbacks to life at the start of the world-changing pandemic sitting illuminatingly alongside the present day narrative moments, where the supposed idealism of current societal structures is being challenged in a number of key ways, Moths is a cleverly insightful story that neatly balances rumination and action to a wholly beguiling degree.

Much of the action within its pages is of the more meditative kind, proof that you can have a full speed ahead story that doesn’t need to be all octane and tension-filled moments and which isn’t necessarily slowed down by recollection of time gone by.

Much of Mary’s experience is drawn upon to push the story along, with the novel’s main character caught in significant ways between the past and present and how the two might come together to forge a more equal future where the sins of the past and the partial failings of the present can be brought together in a more beneficial future for all.

I realised I’d been holding my breath. She’d told me she’d killed a guy in cold blood and now it was hard to tell what she was thinking.

As she’d been speaking, her voice had become monotone. The only concession to the horrors that she’d been reliving was the way she wasn’t looking at me, even though I was staring at her. Instead, she kept her gaze fixed straight ahead.

Moths tackles the rampant inequality and gender bigotry of the current age by illustrating how society’s over-reliance on men to run everything from engineering to tech, energy and host of other functions critical to society’s smooth functioning, almost immediately dooms the world.

While there are a legion of talented women out there practising their professions, their numbers at the time of the moth apocalypse are such that when the men disappear, there simply aren’t enough women left to step into the breach.

Thus, things like petrochemical fuel production and the internet fall by the wayside, victims of society’s present inability to fully incorporate the full talents of half of its population.

It’s a grave error and a crime against one critically talented and important gender, and it almost consigns humanity to oblivion, with those who survive, largely it seems in the UK and Australia – no other countries are specifically mentioned though it’s believed the United States has been wiped off the map – having to work fast and hard to build something new out of instant almost nothing.

Quite whether what has been built on the moth-addled ashes of the past is worth preserving in its entirety fuels much of Moths as does insightfully thoughtful musing on the inequity of the “before” world and how so much needs to change, preferably without an apocalypse necessitating it, if humanity as a whole is to enjoy a sustained and richly beneficial future.

As dystopian thrillers go, Moths is breathtakingly good, full of tense, adrenaline-fuelled action, emotionally resonant moments and conversations that shine a light on what is broken in the present and must change for the better in the future, and how humanity as a species is balancing on the precipice with something as deceptively simple as the beat of a moth’s standing between us and possible annihilation.

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