Walk to the End of the World (1974) by Suzy McKee Charnas

WalkToTheEndOfTheWorldThere’s going to be a lot of defensive denial from readers who look upon my copy of Walk to the End of the World (1974) by Suzy McKee Charnas with “The terrifying science fantasy about a world ruled by men” blurbed on the cover. Knee-jerk responses will vary from “pshh, that’s not fantasy, that’s reality” to “that would never happen this author is a man-hater.” The cover image of an enslaved woman kneeling before two stern-faced men is equally contentious. (cover below, for I could not bear to make it the lead image for this post. this red one over here isn’t much better.)

So let’s take a moment to readjust our worldview: Systemic slavery of women exists today, in larger numbers than you think. It exists in first-world countries, with an estimated 60000 slaves in the US, most of them women. Even conservative states in the US are taking action, explicitly designating Human Trafficking Task Forces to differentiate from smuggling and immigration issues, while educators are being trained to identify victims of slavery, just as they do victims of child abuse and neglect. Moreover, areas of economic boom have the highest rates of slavery in the first world.

And no matter where you find it, or in what form, slavery today is overwhelmingly gendered, with men subjugating and controlling women against their wills, all over the world.

Even with all that data, it’s still going to be difficult for some readers to accept the premise of Walk to the End of the World. And Charnas doesn’t help: she isn’t about to coddle those readers who wander beyond the cheesy cover for a first page skim:

Women had not been part of the desperate government of the times; they had resigned or had been pushed out as idealists or hysterics. As the world outside withered and blackened, the men thought they saw reproach in the whitened faces of the women they had saved and thought they heard accusation in the women’s voices…

…They forbade all women to attend meetings and told them to keep their eyes lowered and their mouths shut and to mind their own business, which was reproduction.

…A few objected, saying, no, these men will enslave us if we let them; no one is left to be their slaves except us! They tried to convince the others.

The men heard, and they rejoiced to find an enemy they could conquer at last… (3-4)

Some of the best SF stems from incendiary doomsaying seeded by contemporary observation: Brunner’s overpopulation, Ballard’s evolutionary regression, Tiptree’s screwfly men. The point of this kind of speculative fiction is not to predict or promise direct parallels, but to illustrate a point about society. But while the extreme dystopias of Brunner and Ballard are hailed by a wide audience of readers, the extreme dystopias of Tiptree and Charnas are often dismissed, or treated as dangerous and exaggerated, as if the same higher-thinking skills that are required to parse out the significances of Brunner’s and Ballard’s hyperbole cannot be applied to feminist SF. Joachim Boaz comments on this same double standard in his own excellent review of this same novel.

In Charnas’ far-future, post-apocalyptic world, all nonwhite persons have been wiped out, and dissenters have been either exterminated or subjugated. Men not fitting the acceptable macho profile have been bred into nonverbal beasts of burden. Women are kept as chattel, assigned to hard labor, reproductive labor, servitude to male society. Interestingly, both male and female societies have become homosexual in the process: for men, sexual relations with the “fems” is nothing more than an unpleasant reproductive duty, occasional curiosity, or assertion of power.

WalkToTheEndOfTheWorld3Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of this novel is where Charnas drops us: right in the middle of the far-future, long after the tumult of nuclear crisis (assuming), where the destruction of society as we know it is in the distant past, and the subjugation of “fems” has long been established. The status quo is unrecognizable to readers. It’s a quiet violence in a way, more revolting than brutal in its details, because the women in this story were born into this society, the rebels wiped out or bred out long ago. Obedience is the norm, any signs of unrest will be covert, underground. There is no protest. Not even clenched jaws.

Which makes it difficult to orient to this book, where the fems are even oppressed by the narrative. It’s a man’s world, after all, therefore the lens is on the men– so unlike popular feminist SF that centers directly on women protagonists, no matter how gnarly the contrivance (ahem, The Handmaid’s Tale, with your epilogue about “discovered tapes” that couldn’t possibly exist in a world of women without property). It’s an unexpected turn, the way the men’s stories, with their petty politics and soap opera affairs, dominate the tale, meanwhile the reader’s eye keeps glancing about the periphery of each scene, looking for women– or any sign of the real struggle. When Alldera, clearly the hero of the tale (right? right?), enters the picture on page 77, she is without tights, tricks, or tumbles. She’s not even pretty:

She turned up toward him a face like a round shield of warm metal. Instead of the sweet perfection of Kendizen’s pets, this fem’s face expressed a willful stupidity that was perfect in its own way. The muscles around the wide mouth were strongly molded and the lips cleanly edged, but instead of mobility the effect was one of obstinate dullness. Her eyes, not large enough for the breadth of cheekbone underneath, gazed blankly past his shoulder; she blinked only after a long interval, and sleepily. The total impression given was one of fathomless unintelligence. (117)

Charnas borrows a lot from the era of American slavery, the tone and behaviors strikingly similar to that of slave narratives from the plantation-era South. When Walk finally opens up to the real story, Alldera’s POV in the penultimate section on page 159 of 246, we are finally enlightened to the fems’ strife on their own terms, those quiet, covert rebellions that slaves have relied on historically: pidgin and linguistic drift, chants and songs, work slow downs and playing dumb, strengthening community in isolation. Alldera’s section reveals all of this, undermining the previous half of the book, the men’s soap opera part, by unveiling the workings of her mind, as well as more of this world we’ve been trampling through, while still participating in the overall story arc: the men’s quest to get from A to B. In many ways, this revelation mocks the first half of the book, along with any and all other male-driven quest fiction that keeps women on the side.

Not that the first half of the novel is entirely intended for just the purpose of mockery. Walk to the End of the World is foremost a study of character, an ongoing demonstration that rigid social barriers serve no reality, the internal workings of men and women are much too knotty. Each male character, seeming petty at first, is complex and dynamic, not a good fit for the strict roles and expectations within the Holdfast hierarchy. At a witch burning:

Bek flinched at the sight of them. He had always had that reaction, an involuntary sympathy rooted deep in the body-brute. He forced himself to look again. (128)

This is the feminism, root words be damned. Charnas uses the men’s complexities in Walk primarily to highlight the perversion and failure of strict gender and social roles.

Most fascinating is how all aspects of this society are tied together by flimsy Oedipal superstitions. “Rebellious sons rise…to strike down first their fathers’ ways, then their fathers’ lives” (145). These superstitions drive the plot, the reason for female slavery, the reason for the A-to-B questing, as well as explain so many of the odd incongruencies between Holdfast society and our own. It’s an achievement that Charnas can make it work: to saturate this society with Oedipal paranoia, to establish it as the foundation of a viable system, while maintaining that sense of irrationality and flimsiness in the reader’s eyes. It’s an impressive bit of social architecture.

WalkToTheEndOfTheWorld2As a novel, Walk to the End of the World is a fascinating study of world building and intention, though not ideal for a casual, weekend read. The depiction is strong, revolting at times. Some will find discomfort with the quite literal PoC-erasure, which (though supported by the plot) feels limiting and amputated with its constant men/women dynamic that’s really a white men/white women dynamic that often goes unacknowledged. Though well-layered character is its strongest aspect, the dialogue and action are not well-incorporated into the narrative, giving it a broken, jumpy feel that can’t always be intentional for fostering a fragmented tone. It is a difficult read, both for its layered subtleties and because, well, it is a character-driven science fantasy (which is hard enough to read) that’s a vehicle for something more, making it similar to the experience of reading The Book of the New Sun, Viriconium, and, more recently, Glorious AngelsDeep, patient reading is required.

Had I planned my reading better, and had a stronger stomach, I would have paired Walk to the End of the World with something from the Gor series, a popular fantasy series based in a world of male domination and female enslavement– just to remind myself when those protestations kick in that there really is a desire out there for this kind of reality.

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26 thoughts on “Walk to the End of the World (1974) by Suzy McKee Charnas

  1. Warstub says:

    Thanks for posting this with the links to the reality that exists in our world. The numbers and statistics are appalling and disgusting.

    It’s also unfortunate that people would rather read ‘light fiction’ than something that will challenge how they see the world.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Fascinating as usual. I can’t wait until my attention span returns enough to allow me to read it. Although Audio books seem to be working well for me, will have to check if it has an audio version.

    I had never heard of the Gor series and have now googled. Whoa.

    Liked by 1 person

    • No audio last I checked, unless there’s some weird German version nobody knows about that only Nikki can find.

      I remember back in my pre-blog days of searching ignorantly for good books (and failing miserably) and always seeing Gor on recommended fantasy lists. Then, after a little research, learning of Gor’s reputation and excluding it from my potential reads. Unfortunately, a weird name like that is easy to confuse with Gormenghast, and I think I managed to attach Gor’s ugly reputation to Peake’s gorgeous works and refrained from them as well. Yay for book blogs that spawn additional research, good feedback, and documentation of both.

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  3. Joachim Boaz says:

    Thank you for your review — and I am constantly frustrated with the double standard that we both mentioned regarding men who write “possible” dystopias and women whose dystopias are “impossible” or “feminism gone amok.” Charnas’ is so successful because her book really does attack with such ferocity, and heart, and intensity that reading is transformed into some profoundly active activity…. I remember reading that the publishers were reluctant to publish her second novel in the sequence, Motherlines, due to the fact that ALL the characters were women. I get the impression that some editorial oversight might have compelled her to focus on men in this particular novel. And, she certainly uses the structure and focus to her advantage!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joachim Boaz says:

      She discusses Walk to the End of the World and Ballantine’s rejection of the sequel Motherlines due to it having only women characters in this 2013 interview….

      Liked by 1 person

      • That was twenty minutes well spent. Thank you for that.

        From that, it seems like the male-focus of Walk was completely unintentional and she didn’t realize she was sidelining the women slaves until later. So she went back and added Alldera, which completely changed the direction of the novel.

        And the fact that no one would publish Motherlines because it had no male characters is just crazy to me. This is the part of publishing that I never knew about until I started paying attention to your blog and others. I grew up reading in the ’80s with tons of choices by women writers and about women characters, and in a household of feminist lit in my teens… to the point where I started to bristle every time I was directed away from ‘boy books’ because “oh no no no, you won’t like that, here are the ‘girl books.’ You’ll like these more.” I had no idea publishers had been and still were actively turning away ‘girl books,’ and especially ‘women’s books’ and women writers. It’s just nonsensical… especially when so many male writers are so boring and facile.

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        • Joachim Boaz says:

          I thought that having Alldera (and then the composite chapter with all three) was an effective way for the male narratives to be subverted… But yes, it was sort of odd that she chose to have them in the background for that long. I thought it was a conscious choice as she wanted us to view the world from the male perspective first…

          Are you going to read Motherlines? I haven’t, yet… I need to find a copy.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Apparently it was just honest-to-goodness internalized bias that initially drove her decision to start with the male story, but yeah, it totally worked as subversion once she became aware of what she was doing and altered some things. Pretty cool, but it takes a lot of patience to get through those first three sections if you don’t know what’s going on.

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          • Joachim Boaz says:

            I actually tried to read it once and then I set it back down — as I found the narrative really hard to get into as well… But, the second time around I was sucked into the world and Charnas’ intensity and seriousness of critique. The shear power of it all….

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          • And yes, after that video, I definitely want to read Motherlines.

            Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for pointing me to this book with your review!

      The male-centered focus makes a lot of sense when you point out the editorial context. (That’s just crazy, though.) She pulled it off well, but I think the story would have been much more enjoyable if it had centered on women. The men, as the central agents of the story, make the plot pretty tedious and boring until Alldera’s POV comes in and shakes things up.

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  4. Widdershins says:

    Sometimes I can read books like this without falling into an overwhelming rage, (at the world we live in here and now) and sometimes I can’t. I suspect that if I tried to read this one at the moment, it would be the latter.
    Thank you for going there.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oddly, I felt distant enough from the entire premise to feel more curiosity than rage. On the other hand, MOTHER OF EDEN, which I recently read, did send me into a few fist-clenching rages at the misogynist characters, but it felt like the author was trying to manipulate me emotionally by ‘pushing the right buttons.’ Charnas does a better job of just letting things happen organically and serving the plot instead of poking at triggers.

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  5. liminalt says:

    Sounds fascinating. I have to say though that the bloke on the top cover looks like a horrible cross between Donald Trump and our own Boris Johnson, MP. Ugh!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. […] ended the month on a high note with Walk to the End of the World (1974) by Suzy McKee Charnas. It’s easy to get bogged down in the tedium of intricate character […]

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  7. […] A sample of her reviews: a mini-flash paragraph that embodies what is so harrowing about J. G. Ballard’s  The Drowned World (1962) and a more traditional review of Suzy McKee Charnas’ masterpiece Walk to the End of the World (1974). […]

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  8. […] other views on this novel, see Bookgazing, Emerald City #47, From Couch To Moon or Science Fiction […]

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  9. […] A sample of her reviews: a mini-flash paragraph that embodies what is so harrowing about J. G. Ballard’s  The Drowned World (1962) and a more traditional analysis of Suzy McKee Charnas’ masterpiece Walk to the End of the World (1974). […]

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