Notes on A Walk to the End of the World (1974) and Motherlines (1978) by Suzy McKee Charnas

There’s not much I can say about Suzy McKee Charnas’ two books that haven’t been said already in this review by Cheryl Morgan. The Holdfast Chronicles are a tetralogy (of which I have only read two) and Cheryl Morgan describes them as “germinal feminist SF”, “the story of our liberation, encapsulated and writ large”. (On a side note, the difficulty of being both encapsulated and writ large is a useful piece of shorthand for the tricky task of allegory and also why it usually fails.) It’s a great review of all four books and I will not repeat those points here. Just read it. It contains spoilers but – and I apologize to Suzy Charnas for this – the books haven’t aged well and you’re probably not going to read them anyway. This is a problem with the writing and not the ideas of the book. The ideas of the book are fascinating.

…the first novel. Walk to the End of the World is, perhaps surprisingly, not really about women at all. It introduces us to the world of Holdfast, a small, post-holocaust community of men learning to find their way in a world in which all animal life, and most edible plants are extinct. The men, who survived the Wasting in a bunker, are all white. Blame for the disaster is placed squarely on the shoulders of the blacks, browns, yellows, reds, liberals and, of course, the women. Inconveniently, all of those are dead except a few white women needed for breeding stock. Guess who gets to pay the price of their past sins. So we have a world in which all women, known as “Fems” (short, of course, for Feminists) are despised slaves, used only for labour and breeding.

Now, that’s the more predictable part. But the society that is rebuilt at the Holdfast is deliciously fucked up. There is deep suspicion between older and younger men, the Seniors and the Juniors. The pre-apocalypse moment has made them internalize some kind of Freudian antagonism between sons and fathers and to avoid the natural and inevitable murder of one by the other, sons and fathers never know each other. Women don’t even come into this equation. Women are for breeding. The only sex for pleasure is homosexual. And also, there’s societally-mandated drug use – partially as a form of control over the populace. This new society is not some caricature of conservative fantasy but rather some kind of liberal-conservative equilibrium, a statement that political or economic tendencies don’t stop men from being total and absolute assholes.

My favourite part of the first book is a word: Endtendent. The Endtendent of Holdfast is a position of punishment. Nobody wants to be the Endtendent, in charge of brewing poisoned chalices for those who have become despondent and want to take their own life in the culturally appropriate way. It’s the rhythm of the word and the image of a line of suicidal pilgrims walking over the long pier out to the Endtendent’s temple in the sea. Captivating.

Wikipedia says that the second novel of the series, Motherlines, was very difficult to publish. It contained no men at all. (By the way, the first book fails the Bechdel test.) Motherlines are another word for matrilineal family trees. This book is about the women-only society that exists in the wasteland far beyond the Holdfast. The central tension of this book comes from the differences between the “free fems” who are escaped slaves from Holdfast and “the women” who are a matrilneal, egalitarian society of horse nomads who reproduce through a form of cloning. It’s this kind of tension that elevates from the book from painful allegory. There’s a lot to read into here about, as Cheryl Morgan says, the feminist movement.

I began to read these books in my attempt to cover (in chronological order) the winners of the James Triptree Jr award. This award, started in 1991, is named after the sci-fi pseudonym of Alice B Sheldon. It’s an annual award for SFF writers who push the boundaries of our understanding of gender. I’m reading it for multiple reasons, one of which is to explore an alternative, more fun curriculum on feminism and gender. In some sense, these books are exactly that.