Walk to the End of the World

by Suzy McKee Charnas

Cover image

Series: Holdfast #1
Publisher: Berkeley
Copyright: 1974
Printing: 1978
ISBN: 0-425-04239-1
Format: Mass market
Pages: 246

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This is the first book of the Holdfast Chronicles, a fairly well-known feminist SF series. Three of the four books in the series have won Tiptree awards (the first two retrospective), and the remaining book was shortlisted.

I think the retrospective award was mostly for the sequel, Motherlines, with Walk to the End of the World included because the books are closely linked. Either that or feminist fiction has gotten a lot better, since this wasn't a very good book.

Walk to the End of the World is a post-apocalyptic dystopia, based on the idea that a small group made it through the apocalypse in a shelter and in the process developed a philosophy of extreme sexism and racism. The non-white races are (to the best of their knowledge) wiped out, so the racism is mainly theoretical, but women, or fems as they're called, are kept as slaves and for breeding purposes and believed to be completely subhuman. While there's a faint plot, it's mostly an excuse to explore the world and culture, which is a catalog of the worst that one could imagine coming out of extreme misogyny.

Dystopias aren't my favorite genre, but I can find them enjoyable. They need to have engaging characters I can root for, though, even if horrible things are happening to them. Usually they work best by setting up an underdog and then letting the reader enjoy their victories. Unfortunately, the characters here, while being useful for exploring the ideas in the book, are almost uniformly unlikeable and uninteresting.

The women, who are the more interesting characters in this world since they're the underdogs and the oppressed, hardly appear in this book. They don't appear at all for nearly half of it, and then the one female character is almost always silent and rarely has her viewpoint or ideas present in the story. The men only occasionally get chances to develop some character outside of the portion of the dystopia they're supposed to illustrate, and most of what they're doing is wrapped up in either the widespread use of pot for visions or exploration of the weird politics of age. Only towards the end of the book when the woman's voice shows up a bit more and the Endtenant becomes the main character did the book start to interest me.

This is really an idea book more than a story, and it's heavily influenced by the 1960s. The other political belief of the dystopia is that younger and older men are natural enemies and must be protected from each other, with rebellion of the younger generation (also blamed on women) being a supposed cause of the apocalypse. As mentioned, pot is used widely for visions as part of the culture, and hemp is also used for food, building materials, and various other things. Charnas also makes some sly comments about the ease of changing social norms; male homosexuality is universal and expected, for instance. Hatred of women apparently served where ethical arguments wouldn't in overcoming dislike of homosexuality.

But while some of the political ideas are well-delivered, most of it struck me as forced and artificial. Towards the end of the book some more rational reactions to the political structure of the world turn up, and I did think the ending was well-handled, but it wasn't worth enduring the tour for. I wanted a story, not just a catalog of horrific ideas, and for that I needed characters I cared about. Hopefully the next book will improve; I've heard it is significantly better.

Followed by Motherlines.

Rating: 3 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-04-25

Last modified and spun 2017-02-01