A Fact-Check for the Four-Color World

Monday, May 16, 2005

Guest Post: Y: The Last Man #33

And now, another guest post from Mr. Gareth Wilson:

Y: The Last Man #33
Brian K. Vaughan Writer
Goran Sudžuka Penciller

Brian K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man diverges from our universe on July 17, 2002, when every sperm, fetus, and fully developed mammal with a Y chromosome dies, simultaneously and gruesomely. This includes everything from wild giraffes in Africa to airline pilots in sealed cockpits to (presumably) frozen sperm samples in locked freezers, all within seconds of each other. Wildly implausible as this premise is, it's not actually a target for fact-checking, any more than Bobby Drake turning into ice is. Y is about a wildly implausible mass death and the single survivor of it, just like X- Men was, from the very beginning, about people who can do bizarre things like turning into ice.

Having started with wild implausibility, Vaughan seems determined to ground his post- male world in the reality of our world. The numbers of female soldiers, pilots, mechanics, ship captains and so on in Y come from real-world statistics. The gender structure of Bush's cabinet in 2002 is the same, with female Secretaries of the Interior and Agriculture, although the names are changed. Even the top-secret and presumably fictional spy agency one of the characters belongs to, the Culper Ring, is based on a real spy network of the Revolutionary War. And these real-world details are where the fact-checking comes in.

In issue #33, the sole male survivor of the mass death is travelling on a ship from California to Japan for reasons that need not distract us, accompanied by a Culper Ring bodyguard and a scientist. During the voyage a member of the crew is murdered and the murderer is caught transmitting a radio message suitable for contacting submarines. Let the ship's captain describe the rest:

"Australia was one of the only countries on the planet that allowed women to serve alongside men as submariners. Oceans pretty much belong to them now."

This is mostly correct. The only countries with women submariners in 2002 were Australia, Norway, and Sweden. Canada had recently changed regulations to allow women to serve on submarines but none had completed training. Australia's women submariners began training in 1998 to crew the six new Collins class diesel-electric submarines.

The captain goes on to explain that the Royal Australian Navy has been using their control of the oceans to rob civilian ships of food and medical supplies. Whether this is a plausible development goes beyond fact-checking, and the captain may not be a reliable witness. But whether the Australian submarines actually could control the oceans is something we can check. Each submarine currently has a crew of 45, and due to the cramped conditions and restrictions on supplies this must be close to the minimum crew requirements. Vaughan obligingly gives us the number of women on the post-male submarine: 42. Tight, but probably workable, and a nice Douglas Adams reference. We see a boarding party of six but they presumably have other roles on the submarine as well.

But how many female submariners would actually be available, after the mass death? In a 2003 article in the Melbourne Sunday Age Commodore Mike Deeks predicted that women would command an Australian submarine in five years. In passing he mentioned the total number of women serving on Australian submarines: 41, out of a total of 530 personnel. So, if we assume there were no new female submariners between 2002 and 2003, that all of them survived the plane crashes, car crashes, and starvation that must have occurred in the mass death, and that all of them stayed in the submarine service... the submarine's still short one woman. And that's just one submarine. It's strongly implied that there are multiple Collins class submarines in service, maybe even all six. To crew them the Australian navy would have to be taking women from surface vessels and retraining them - a process that takes months in our reality and would take even longer if all the male instructors were dead. I'm assuming no submarines were actually at sea during the mass death - being female in a 90% male sub would be as lethal as being a man in that case.

Even if the submarines could be crewed, there are more problems, as the ship's captain points out:

"Those Swedish-built subs are noisier than hell."

The ships were actually built in Australia to Swedish designs, but that's nitpicking. The noise problem is real, though, and was a considerable scandal although with other problems with the submarines. In 1999 a report recommended the subs be junked, since, to quote the Age article, "...the vessels were too noisy and vulnerable to attack, their engines broke down regularly, their hull and fin made too much disturbance when they moved at speed, the periscope was blurry, the communications system outdated and the propellers likely to crack." Some of the submarines were later upgraded, but after July 2002, and mostly by male engineers - not an option in the Y setting.

So, is the scenario of the post-male Australian Navy raiding ships with submarines impossible? Not at all. We just know that they'll be crewed with poorly trained and inexperienced women, coping with noisy, dangerous, and unreliable vessels. Whatever they're after must be worth it...

Gareth Wilson
New Zealand