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As a rule, men hated most those they had most wronged; it followed that they hated – and therefore feared – their ancestors’ victims, and imagined vengeful unmen where there was nothing but vacant desolation.

Ballantine - 1974 - Gene Szafran.

Ballantine – 1974 – Gene Szafran.

The world all but died during the Wasting, leaving behind an impoverished, cataclysmic mess where all beasts and almost all plants were exterminated—what remain are hemp and a few strains of seaweed. The few men who survived knew who to blame: the sub-human unmen, “whose skins had been tinted all the colors of the earth,” and the fems, traitorous females of the species who caused the doom of mankind. By the time they emerge into the world to establish the Holdfast—the last bastion of civilization amidst the vacant, inhospitable Wild—their fears and hatred has reshaped society, locked into a set of strict binary hierarchies: senior/junior, man/unman, male/fem. It is the ultimate patriarchal society, a culture of homoerotic manliness that would put the worst Greco-Romans excesses to shame. Men who don’t pass their boyhood indoctrination become marijuana-addicted berserk warriors called Rovers; the rest work and toil as Juniors within military units while their Elders reap all the profits. To know the name of your father is a terrific crime. But it is far better to be a man than a fem, used as slave labor, chattel… and for pleasure by a few perverted Elders who eschew the purity of homosexual love.

Eykar Bek is one of the few men who knows the name of his father; he’s abandoned his post and is on a mission to find his father. Rover Captain Kelmz, and the shifty Servan d Layo, sent out to find and return Bek to his duties, decide to join him instead. And so they set out with the fem Alldera to carry their load, following Bek on his quest. Walk to the End of the World is structured in five sections; while they’re in chronological order, each one focuses on a different character from the group:

  • The first section follows Kelmz, all but thrown aside by his commanding officer after his many years of duty as a sort of forced retirement, an act which no doubt influenced his decision to side with Bek. Kelmz is a man who defies the “age line” between Junior and Senior, staying in his Junior role long after he could have retired as a Senior. Even more dangerous to his society is his fascination with beasts: he seeks out knowledge of them, envisioning other men with beast-like attributes, clear violations of his society’s separation of man and beast.
  • The second section follows d Layo, expelled into the Wild and existing outside of society as a lawless, dutyless antihero. He has no unit or peers, and contributes nothing to the society… except his doses of marijauna and his DarkDreams. He is the lone free spirit in a society that abhors the “freaks” of the old world—as the children’s litany of freaks goes, “Lonhairs, Raggles, Bleedingarts; Faggas, Hibbies, Famlies, Kids; Junkies, Skinheads, Collegeists: Ef-eet Iron-mentalists…”
  • The third section follows Bek, d Layo’s boyhood friend and lover; he abandoned his post at Endpoint, a station where Elders—and manipulated Juniors—end their lives in a drug-fueled haze. With the division between Junior and Senior far more important than familial heritage, that  Bek knows the name of his father is a dangerous scandal, part of the reason Bek was assigned to Endpoint. Now, he seeks his father—and more importantly, the reason he knows his father’s name.
  • The fourth section follows Alldera, trained as a runner and brought along as a pack-fem. Fems are seen by the male characters as little better than beasts fit to work the fields and bear their sons (for those men stoic enough to copulate with a fem); they are kept in servitude, though they have their own set of subversive work-songs echoing those of black American slaves, sung in a slurring softspeak incomprehensible to men. But behind Alldera’s homely looks and dull stare is a keen intelligence, and while she keeps up her deception of deprivation and idiocy, she has her own ulterior motives for following these three men on Bek’s quest.
  • The fifth section includes all the surviving characters, bringing their journey—and the story—to its conclusion.
Orb - 1999 - Jon Sullivan. Omnibus edition with the first two Holdfast novels.

Orb – 1999 – Jon Sullivan. Omnibus edition with the first two Holdfast novels.

Whenever I see a “feminist” SF work, cries of “misandry” are not often far behind. You only have to look on Amazon or Goodreads to see a few reviews of Walk that label it as such, but that’s kind of like saying that the guy who bumped into you on the bus or subway “assaulted” you. Charnas is far too savvy a writer to fall into that trap; what makes Walk an effective novel is that it starts off with three male protagonists who are sort of “counterculture” to their society; they have their strengths, codes of honor, and redeeming qualities, enough that you can sympathize and empathize with them. You’re hooked into their story, invested in their quest, and while the world is a terrible place rife with degradation and abuse, the worst of those elements are not shown early on. Three-fourths of the way through the novel, Alldera becomes a point-of-view character, and abuses that were safely distanced in the background jump to the foreground; what were unsavory but unnoticed brutalities in the men’s world are front-and-center in hers.

And that structure is why the novel works as well as it does. The three men are all rebels against a strict, repressive society. Kelmz shows an “unmanly” fascination with beasts, imagining men with beast-like qualities, and subverts the senior/junior “age line” that is a strict demarcation. d Layo has given himself up to DarkDreaming, expelled from working society even though his hits of hemp are always appreciated. And Bek, worst of all, knows the name of his own father—a crime for sure—and abandons his post in favor of his own agenda. But they remain complicit and tainted by their society’s values, and there will be no heroic realization on their part of their world’s inequalities; when Bek realizes the depth of his society’s inequalities, rather than accept a fem as a person he instead denies that realization so that he has the fortitude to complete his quest:

There must be no horror, no rape, nothing outside of the ordinary, superficial relations between men and fems. Therefore I can’t permit you to be a person.

It’s brutal stuff, and I’m only scratching the surface of how awful, ugly, and disgusting the world of the Holdfast is. This should really come with a trigger warning, not just from the world’s misogyny but from the rape and cannibalism.

Walk to the End of the World is one of the most stunning novels you’ve never heard of, a powerful book that deserves more recognition and accolades than it receives—I guess readers assume the tone and subject is off-putting rather than wade in to find out for themselves. I can’t say it’s the most vivid or well-written book I’ve ever read, especially when Charnas breaks the cardinal “show-don’t-tell” in some of the more expository sections (further distancing the reader from the content, perhaps?). And its roots in the dark days of the 1970s could make it feel more hyperbolic to today’s readers. But it presents one of the most defining issues of our time—the role of gender, how it influences and is manipulated by culture/society—and flips it into an thoughtful tale, one that’s quite entertaining despite the abhorrent elements of its fictional society. If you like your books not just to entertain but to shine new light on the great social-political issues of their day, then try Walk, a spotlight at the heart of gender issues.

For other views on this novel, see Bookgazing, Emerald City #47From Couch To Moon or Science Fiction Ruminations.

Book Details
Title: Walk to the End of the World
Author: Suzy McKee Charnas
First Published: 1974
What I Read: Radical Utopias (Quality Paperback Book Club, tpb, 1990)
Price I Paid: $0 (gift from my parents)
MSRP: $25.99 tpb (2-in-1 with Motherlines, Holdfast vol 2) / $6.99 ebook
ISBN: 0312869126 / B00846X02C