Book Review: Walk to the End of the World, Suzy McKee Charnas (1974)

(Gene Szafran’s atrocious cover for the 1974 edition)

5/5 (Masterpiece)

“The men heard, and they rejoiced to find an enemy they could conquer at last.  One night, as planned, they pulled all the women from sleep, herded them together, and harangued them, saying, remember, you caused the Wasting” (3).

Suzy McKee Charnas’ Walk to the End of the World (1974) is the first of four novels in The Holdfast Chronicles sequence (1974-1999) that charts the slow forces of change in a post-apocalyptical future where women (“fems”) are chattel.  Kate Macdonald, in her wonderful review of Ammonite (1993) characterized Nicola Griffith’s novel as “instantly […] feminist: not stealth, or muted, or sub-conscious.”  Walk to the End of the World falls squarely, and powerfully into this category.  Told with intensity and vigor, Charnas brands the reader with her vision, a searing and festering landscape where white men have either exterminated the remaining “unmen” (the “Dirties”) or subjugated them (the “fems”) after a manmade cataclysm.  Complex societal institutions maintain control in a mostly illiterate world via appeals to collective memory, intensive drug facilitated indoctrination, and the deconstruction of the family unit in favor of exclusively homosocial relationships.

Walk to the End of the World does not hold back its punches—this is a serious and disturbing novel.  “Fems” are subjected to horrific violence as slaves to man and are forced to great extremes to survive.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

In the grand historical narrative espoused by the men who control the community of Holdfast, a past rebellion facilitated by “fems” and other unmen overthrew the Ancients, already weakened by the betrayal of their own sons.  The survivors blamed the cataclysmic and vaguely understood Wasting that created an impoverished, polluted, and devastated world on the surviving “fems”.  The community the emerges is highly regimented and authoritarian.  They espouse a “heroic” and “pioneering” tradition—Holdfast is an “anchoring tendril” that holds back the forces of destruction (4).  The position of men vs.  women is reinforced by this narrative: men must hold back the destructive power of women embodied by the destroyed world and the wastelands that surround Holdfast.

Walk to the End of the World is comprised of five sections placed in  chronological order.  The first three are from the perspectives of the male characters—Captain Kelmz, Servan D Layo, Eykar Bek.  The fourth, is from the perspective of the “fem” Alldera.  The fifth and final section is a composite that shifts between the surviving characters and ends, again, with Alldera.  The carefully planned structure is  wedded to the narratological and ideological aims of the novel.  None of the characters fit neatly into the post-Wasting world where rigid binaries—between man vs. woman, Senior vs. Junior, white vs. non-white, man vs. animal—dominate the society in which they restlessly inhabit.

The first character Captain Kelmz, blurs the position between Seniors and Juniors by retaining his position into old age over a band of Rovers, “the powerful defenders of the Seniors and their interests” (10).  More dangerously, Kelmz sees other men in “beast shapes.”  More than simply a flight of imagination, “to think of the beast was like willfully calling up the ghosts of dead enemies” (8).   Man conquers beasts.  Men are not beasts.  Kelmz’s visions violate this central tenet profoundly troubling his sense of the world.

The second, d Layo the DarkDreamer, “has no company, no order, and no legitimate use to his fellows” (7).  He also encourages and facilitates drug induced dreams outside of those taught in the Boyhouse (where all boys are taught to develop their manly souls and survive in the regimented world).  Rather than “dreams of victorious battles against monsters” (45), the dreamer is free to dream what his soul desires.  Under d Layo’s guidance, Kelmz dreams that he is emasculated and is but a pathetic perversion of other men (46).

The third, Eykar Bek is the Endtendant at Endpath.  At Endpath Seniors—and Juniors manipulated by Seniors—end their lives when their “souls [are] ripe for departure” (17).  To dream a drug induced dream was to “assure the life of one’s name among younger generations” (17).  However, Eykar Bek has other interests—he seeks to uncover the reason why he knows his fathers name.  In Holdfast, the “mass-divison of Seniors and Juniors” is more important than blood-ties.  All men are brothers, some older, some younger….  In the grand narrative, the Ancients were overthrown by their sons: In a perversion of the Biblical story, “even God’s own Son, in the old story, had earned punishment from his Father” (22).  Eykar and d Layo were friends at the Boyhouse.  d Layo was thrown out into the Wild while Eykar was condemned to serve at Endpath after the scandal caused by his father.  The quest for Eykar’s father forms the thrust of the narrative.

The final character Alldera, although perceived because of her gender by the male characters as a beast suitable for bearing sons and working the fields (56), is highly intelligent and an important cog in the communication networks between groups of desperate women.  She leaves her world where woman are forced to be self-sustaining after drastic reductions of food after previous famines blamed on the fems. In an era of incredible deprivation, “fems” build up their numbers due to ingenious methods of preserving their own milk and consuming their own dead (59).  The men who see the process declare that “it was too beautiful, too efficient to be a product of the fems’ own thinking” (65).  Alldera has ulterior motives for joining the three male main characters in their trek to discover Eykar’s father.

Final Thoughts

Despite the lack of popular awareness of the novel in comparison to later feminist masterpieces such as Russ’ The Female Man (1975*) and Margaret Attwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1984), analysis of Walk to the End of the World does appear in some scholarly circles—for example, Bill Clemente’s article, “Apprehending Identity in the Alldera Novels of Suzy McKee Charnas” in The Utopian Fantastic ed. Martha Bartter (2004).

Feminist importance aside, I will focus on a handful of ideas that really resonated with me and elevate Charnas’ novel to its great heights: the role of songs + chants reinforcing/challenging collective memory and the focus on the ideological underpinnings of the society.

Charnas explores a variety of ways of reinforcing the master values in a mostly illiterate society.  One of more prevalent is the notion of a collective memory (at least propagated by men) that reinforces a grand narrative of the past and thus the position of the present in relation to the past.  For example, in the Boyhouse the boys recite  the three categories of people (“unmen”) defeated in the post-Wasting world by white man: the “Dirties” i.e. “Gooks, Dagos, Chinks” etc., the “Freaks,” which includes “Faggas, Hibbies, Famlies, Kids; Junkies, Skinheads, Collegeists: Ef-eet Iron-mentalists” and finally “fems” known by “beasts’ names,” “Bird, Cat, Chick, Sow; Filly, Tigress, Bitch, Cow […]”  The chant ends with a warning about the dreadful weapons of the unmen, “Cancer, raybees, deedeetee” (112).  Man in the present holds back these forces of destruction.

Each social group has their own chants that play into this narrative.  Captain Kelmz in order to fight off his visions silently recites the “Chant Protective” that starts with “a reckoning of the size and reach of the Holdfast and of all the fellowship of men living in it” in order to “remind a man of his brothers and of what they expected from him” (8).  The ferrymen keep a “Chants Celebratory” which includes the names of the men who dare enter the empty lands to obtain wood for the ferries, “part of a fabric of custom intended to hold ferrycrews together in manly order” (33).

The songs of women fall into different patterns although they serve similar functions in creating collective cohesion.  For the women who still have tongues— “muteness in fems was a fashion in demand among masters” (141)—songs, spoken in obfuscated “fem speak,” serve to transmit news.  Work songs are more than entertainment, they tell of the hell wrought by the “wonderful knowledge” of men (158).  They posit historical narratives counter to those of men: “Those of the unmen who realized what was happening and rose up to fight, the Ancient men slaughtered” (159).  Other work songs directly mock the songs of men and the heroic founding of Holdfast, “Heroes […] The unmen are not gone; you are more predictable than the thoughtless beasts, though not as beautiful” (159).   Although the chattel of man, songs sung working for their masters are a powerful medium for rebellion.

Charnas also weaves ancient theories of generation and matter into the ideological underpinnings of her society.  This creates an unnerving familiarity of thought between ancient Western Thought and this dystopic future.  The male soul is a “fragment of eternal energy” that is fixed inside a woman’s body by “the act of intercourse.”  As the soul is alien to the woman, her body surrounds it with a physical form in order for the soul to be expelled.  Thus, “a man’s life” is a struggle between the “flesh-caged soul” not to be seduced by the concerns of the fem generated “brute-body” (103).  Historical narrative combines with pseudo-scientific theories of matter to generate the iron-clad boundaries, enforced by the victors, between genders.

I recommend Walk to the End of the World to all fans of feminist fiction.  I fervently hope a more mainstream SF audience will be open to Charnas’ brilliantly conceived world filled with interesting characters, biting prose, and disturbing social systems with twisted philosophical underpinnings.  But after reading online reviews and engaging in debates with readers over the years, I cannot help reiterate that a double standard exists when readers approach feminist SF from this era—most readers seem to be fine with other polemical male 60s/70s science fiction authors from across the political spectrum (Robert A. Heinlein, Norman Spinrad, R. A. Lafferty, John Brunner, etc). However, when a woman author takes a dystopic future scenario and weaves a poignant and harrowing experience with a powerful feminist message suddenly it is best avoided.  Alas.

Walk to the End of the World is firmly among my top ten 70s SF novels.*

*note: Russ wrote The Female Man earlier but was unable to find a publisher.

*David Pringle placed it in his top 100 SF novels written between 1949 and 1984 [list].

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

(Uncredited atrocious cover for the 1981 edition)

(John Sullivan’s cover for the 1999 edition)

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20 thoughts on “Book Review: Walk to the End of the World, Suzy McKee Charnas (1974)”

  1. Using songs/chants seems to have been used quite a bit in SF, especially in political works and feminist works. I don’t see it much anymore. I wonder if it had to do with the influence of the 60’s/70’s folk music and politics.

    That cover is truly tragic. It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the novel.

    1. Yes, all three covers I listed are awful. I wonder if it hurt sales. Szafran has never been one of my favorite SF artists!

      If you’re developing a mostly illiterate post-apocalyptical society I have no idea why songs/chants wouldn’t be a major way in which information is transmitted and cultural values/prescriptions maintained. But yes, I would not doubt it has to do with perceived position of music as a political medium that can change and transform.

  2. “I fervently hope a more mainstream SF audience will be open to Charnas’ brilliantly conceived world …”

    Unlikely. Science Fiction literature, today, is thoroughly balkanized. Witness the current Hugo Awards war.

    1. The biggest problem, I think, is lack of availability. People just 5-10 years older than me take for granted that once upon a time, you could actually find all of these works of classic sci-fi and fantasy at bookstores growing up instead of having to scrounge around flea-markets and antique stores for old Ace Doubles, DAWs, etc.

      Sure, some of them are coming back in eBook, but I feel like they’re less likely to be ‘found’ by new readers than if they had been on shelves, right in front of someone, to buy.

      That’s why blogs like this are so important; people won’t know what to look for unless they have someone to tell them.

      1. Doesn’t help that Walk to the End of the World hasn’t seen a reprint since the late 90s. Why this isn’t in the Gollancz masterworks series is beyond me (although, I know little about the copyright issues that often govern what is included — does seem that Tor/Orb owns the copyright).

      2. I know a guy who knows a guy who’s job it was to untangle estate copyright issue. I’m told an unbelievable number of important author’s works are solely controlled by the cousin’s daughter-in-law’s niece who’s in a nursing home type situation.

    1. I think you need it before then 😉

      But yes, it took a lot of effort to get past the horrid cover. But, Clute’s LENGTHY description on SF encyclopedia sold it for me:

      “The first volume presents an elaborately structured, neurotic, Post-Holocaust semi-rural community called Holdfast, a misogynist Dystopia whose white, homosexual males treat women (“Fems”) as scapegoats for humanity’s near self-destruction, which is known as the Wasting. Male homosexuality, breeding as an act of disgust, and the dominance of elder males, all reflect, clearly knowingly, Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night (1937), published as by Murray Constantine, in which the Nazi rulers behave similarly […] The books have aroused continuing interest for the extreme clarity of her dramatic examinations of extreme positions.”

  3. I haven’t read the book but I will say that The Slave and the Free (cover shown at the end of the review), which also includes Motherlines, is still in print. Vols 3 & 4 are also available individually. All 3 are $26 each for large softcovers.

  4. After that thoughtful endorsement, I need to move this book to the top of my pile. I picked up the ’74 edition a few years ago, but the terrible cover made me less eager to read it and embarrassed to be seen carrying it around in public!

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