If there is a germinal feminist SF story, then Suzy McKee Charnas’s Holdfast Chronicles are almost certainly it. This is not necessarily because of the quality of writing, though Suzy is very good, but because of the openness and honesty with which she approaches the subject, and because of the breadth of feminist history that the books cover. This is a tetralogy that has been a long time in the making, and the world has changed a lot in the 25 years it has taken to come to fruition. Here is the story of our liberation, encapsulated and writ large.
Before I get stuck in, a few words of warning. I am going to review a whole four-book series here, including a lot of interpretation. It simply isn’t possible to do that job properly without a few spoilers. If you don’t want to know the basics of the plot (and by the way there isn’t that much really surprising in it) stop reading after this paragraph. The two older books are out of print and hard to get hold of, but Tor has taken the sensible step of repackaging them as a single companion book to the final instalment so you should be able to get the whole series quite easily. Male readers should, of course, approach with caution, it ain’t going to be comfortable.
Probably the place to start is to admit that yes, this is another post-disaster novel. David Brin gets very angry about the fact that feminist SF almost always starts with the destruction of the known world and he attributes this to some sort of collective revenge fantasy amongst feminists. A more likely reason is that many feminists believe that it will not be possible to construct a feminist society from one in which men are currently in charge. That again is a debatable claim. You could, for example, employ extreme violence, but that would just be sinking to the level of the opposition. You could espouse separatism instead, but the men would probably resist that. Suzy looks at all these issues and more. The Wasting, as Suzy terms it, seems to be simply a device which allows her to set up an allegorical world rather than deal with the real one. That is a standard SF technique, and it seems to work.
And so to 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. This results in an unusual innovation on Suzy’s part. Despite their WASP origins, the men of Holdfast are avowedly homosexual. Breeding is a duty, not a pleasure, and men who enjoy sex with Fems are looked upon as disgusting perverts. The other unusual feature of Holdfast is that there is a strong age distinction. The old men, the Seniors, are in charge, the young do as they are told and are kept well in their place because they are dangerous. This is exemplified in the Holy Book, for is it not written that the Son rebelled against his Father, preaching all sorts of wishy-washy, liberal nonsense, and was crucified for his sins. In Holdfast, it is an abomination for fathers and sons to know each other, for if they did, nature would surely lead then to try to kill one another.
To understand this strange set-up, we have to remember that the book was written in America in 1974. It comes from the world of Hippies and Vietnam War demonstrations. It is no accident that rebellious young men are known as “freaks”. By finding a logical explanation for why Holdfast should embrace homosexuality (and, indeed, cannabis), Suzy is pointing a none-too-subtle dig at the arbitrary nature of social prohibitions.
It is a time too when feminism, despite the good work of the suffragettes, seemed hopeless. For all their rebelliousness in other areas, Hippy men were just as much unregenerate, chauvinist pigs as their fathers. For those who dared to think rebellion, it was a time of anger.
The main characters of the book are two young men. Servan d Layo is a loafer and a drug dealer, a classic, laid-back, golden-haired surfer boy for whom everything seems to go as he would wish it. His lover, Eykar Bek, is more thoughtful, though no less rebellious. He is also a man with a problem, for he knows who his father is, and is anxious to kill the man before he himself is killed. As it happens, Eykar’s father engineered the situation. He too is a thinker, an engineer and a reader. He has all sorts of grand ideas for Holdfast and, having read a few old books, wants to make sure that he has a son to take over from him when he is gone.
The book is a story of plots within plots. The Seniors wish to use Eykar to kill his father who is threatening to become too powerful. The young men see a potential father-killer as a focus for rebellion. Servan sees the whole affair as a big opportunity for self-advancement. And the Fems see a small chink of hope.
Alldera, a young girl trained as a courier, is inserted into Eykar and Servan’s group as a slave in return for help against the Seniors. The hope is that she can use her running skills to escape as the rebels travel on the edge of the wilds and perhaps reach the mythical “Free Fems”, escaped slaves rumoured to live free in the wilds. In fact what happens is that Eykar and Alldera discover in each other a common passion for intellectual discussion (here Alldera is highly unusual, for their own safety most girl children are not taught speech, and many have their tongues cut out to keep them quiet).
You might think at this point that we are destined for a soppy ending. No such cop out is in store. What happens, of course, is that Eykar finds his father and quarrels with him, significantly over the father’s plans to use Fems for food. In the ensuing chaos, Alldera escapes, and Holdfast is plunged into war.
And so to book two, Motherlines. Alldera, alone, hungry and pregnant (both Eykar and Servan have raped her), struggles across the great desert in search of the Free Fems. On the brink of death she is discovered by a scouting party of Riding Women, a society whose existence Holdfast never suspect.
The Women (so called to distinguish them from Fems) operate a mounted society based on that of some American Indians. They are clones, the result of a pre-Wasting experiment to ensure the survival of the race. Male sperm is required to quicken the child, but any male sperm will do and they choose to use their horses. The Women know how men treat the Fems in Holdfast, and they have a simple solution to the problem. Male humans are killed on sight. Each woman and her clone daughters forms a “Motherline”, hence the title of the book. Naturally, the Women are all lesbians.
(I note in passing and with some amusement that Suzy has chosen pretty much the same method for constructing a feminist society as David Brin used in Glory Season. David chose a biological method of keeping men under control rather than get rid of them, but other than that the idea is the same. Suzy, of course, did it first.)
What Suzy has done here is create a society that is every Rad Fem’s dream. No men, no need for men, even an opportunity to get even with the bastards every now and again. And a social structure that every liberal American could approve of. Were this a Joanna Russ book, the story would probably end there. But Suzy is made of sterner stuff. She is not afraid to examine this “perfect” society and find it wanting.
After a while, Alldera gets to be reasonably comfortable amongst the Women, despite the animosity of the ferocious warrior, Sheel, who thinks the Fem will bring nothing but trouble. However, there are ways in which a Fem simply cannot fit into the Women’s society. To start with, Alldera is not a clone. More importantly, her daughter, now being raised with the camp’s children, is not a clone either. There will be trouble for her when she grows up.
More subtly, Alldera cannot get used to clone society. As clones, the Women place great store on tradition. Everything is done precisely the way it was always done. This suits their tribal society just fine. But, as we have seen, Alldera is a thinker, she is forever seeing ways in which things could be done better. In frustration, she goes off to try life in an alternative society.
For it turns out that the Free Fems do exist. Some women have managed to escape from Holdfast, and now they live on the edge of the plains, growing tea and trading it with the Riding Women. But whilst they might have escaped physically, they have yet to escape from Holdfast’s memes. Once a slave, always a slave. Unable to imagine a society without masters, the Free Fems have created their own, specifically the fat bully, Enola Green Eyes. The Free Fem camp is a hot bed of sedition and intrigue as each person does her utmost to insinuate herself into Enola’s favours, and by doing so demote her rivals. Alldera, who has learned the meaning of freedom from the Women, does not fit in at all. Eventually she is beaten up and expelled.
It is at the Free Fem camp that we first meet the character who is to become the greatest villain of the series. Daya is a Pet Fem, a woman whose beauty had caught the eye of a perverted Senior and who was kept in a harem rather than used for labour. She escaped after a jealous rival caused her face to be scarred. Many readers, I suspect, will see Daya’s role as a villain simply as a case of jealous revenge upon the beautiful, but Suzy is never that crude. Daya’s “crime”, the reason for her evil, has nothing to do with her looks, or her liking for sex with men. It is because she knows no other life but the pleasing of others. Briefly, amongst the Riding Women, she has a taste of freedom and courage, but away from them she immediately reverts to her suspicious, servile lifestyle and her habit of intrigue.
What Daya represents is the traditional role of women in a male-dominated society. She is the schemer, the power behind the throne, the woman who, although clever, cannot act on her own because it is not seemly for a woman to do so. Because she sees her life solely in terms of her relationship to others, she can never be free. It is no accident either that she is an expert story teller. Daya lives in a world of fantasy, convincing herself that all is well, and that others are brave, because she doesn’t have the courage to come forward herself. This is what Suzy is telling us is wrong with women’s lives. This is what we must reject in order to be free.
By the end of Motherlines, egged on by Daya’s mythologizing, the Free Fems have come to believe that Alldera was right all along. They have abandoned Elnoa and come to ask Alldera to be their new leader. What they want, of course, is for her to teach them to be warriors like the Women. Eventually, they want her to lead them home to Holdfast in triumph. Perhaps they are learning freedom at last.
“Men are forked like us, even if they carry different equipment between their legs,” Sheel said. “A man could sit that horse of yours, if he was let.”
The Rois laughed. “I don’t believe they could ride at all, with that tender sex-flesh of theirs stuffed between them and a horse’s backbone.”
“They’d manage, if it was the difference between freedom and slavery,” Sheel said. “You could design a saddle with some kind of special pocket…”
That was in 1978. It took over a decade for Suzy’s friends and fans to persuade her to write the next volume. I’m glad it did, for things changed a lot in the meantime. The Furies was published in 1994 and by that time a lot had changed for feminism. I may be doing Suzy an injustice, in fact I probably am, but there is a danger that if The Furies had been published in, say, 1980, the Free Fems would simply have conquered Holdfast and that would have been an end to it. The 1994 version is an entirely different tale.
Of course Alldera’s army marches. It is the only possible thing for the Free Fems to do. But it is a very different Holdfast that awaits them. The war between the young and old that Eykar started has left the men severely weakened and the social structure all but collapsed. In desperation, the men have started treating women better because they need every hand they can find just to survive. The arrival of Alldera’s warriors is like a group of Rad Fems from the 70s suddenly turning up in a modern workplace and wondering what the hell all those gaudily dressed women are doing in the management offices.
Nevertheless, the condition of Fems is still bad enough for most of them to be grateful for being liberated. A few side with the men against the invaders. Significantly, the army’s first death comes at the hands of a Holdfast Fem. But in the end, the army of liberation triumphs, and with it, brings a whole new set of problems.
The most obvious question is what to do with the men. Some of the Free Fems argue that they should simply all be killed. Clearly this is not feasible. The Fems are not clones. They will die out without men. Besides, many of the Free Fems are getting old, and are desperate to get pregnant while they still can. Alldera, reunited with Eykar, hopes for some sort of peaceful resolution, but her hand is forced when a small group of men escape and wreak bloody vengeance on their captors. The die is cast: Holdfast will survive, but now it is the men who will be slaves.
The other burning issue is one of leadership. Many of the Free are followers of the Cult of Moonwoman. Alldera, an intellectual, frowns on this superstition. This does her no favours with her followers. But the real danger comes from Daya. Now that Alldera is triumphant, it seems that she no longer needs the Pet Fem’s support. Without Alldera to serve, Daya must find another master, and that means Alldera must die.
In the end, it is Eykar, a bright young woman from the newly free, and her old enemy Sheel who save Alldera’s life. Having seen the pent up violence of her own people explode into action, and how readily they revert to the ways of the past, Alldera at last understands why Sheel was so afraid of her. Holdfast has not been liberated, it has been conquered.
“Fems aren’t Riding Women.” Alldera paced away from her, hands behind her back. “Though I’m not sure we’re fems any more, either. We were slaves, isn’t that why you despised us? But we’re not slaves now. Are we Women, if we’re free? Can we be Women of the Holdfast, as you and Nenisi and the rest are Women of the Grasslands? Help me make it so.”
Sheel’s throat felt tight. “You ask too much, and of the wrong person.”
There had to be a resolution, but it was another five years in coming. Now, at last the cycle is complete. The Conqueror’s Child is the story of Alldera’s daughter, Sorrel, and of the fight to make Holdfast a place fit for humans, not just for Fems.
During the liberation of Holdfast, one of the newly freed Fems, Juya was discovered to be pregnant. For her own safety, Sheel had her sent to the Riding Women to give birth. It has never occurred to Sheel that the child might be a boy. Normally he would have been killed, but with Alldera’s daughter living at the camp, no one dared touch the child. Left to care for young Veree because no Woman would touch him, Sorrel tried putting him with the camp children, but it was obvious he was different and he was rejected. In despair, Sorrel took the boy to live with her mother, unaware that she was condemning him to a life of slavery.
Sorrel is not the only Fem with sympathy for the men. Many of the Free Fems have taken partners for breeding purposes and are getting fond of them. Eykar is free to run the city library, and this is seen as a sign of Alldera’s patronage, though in truth there is too much pain between them for them to be lovers. Yet others, led by the implacable Kobba Red Hand, still call for all men to die. The majority are just scared. Given what they have done in the past, how could they dare let men be free?
The answer is that before they can be free, a dream must die. That dream is the macho ideal of conquest and mastery. It is exemplified by the Bear Cult, an underground movement amongst the slave men which preaches that the mythical Sunbear will come and save them. Little do they know that the Sunbear is real. After many years travelling the wilderness with a band of brigands, Servan d Layo is about to return to Holdfast. He has women, he has strange and highly edible animals called goats, and best of all he has a gun. Servan’s dream is of conquest.
We are in allegory land here. Not only does Servan have to die, he has to do so in a way that redeems his fellow men. The key to this redemption must, of course, be Daya. Desperate to revive her position in society after the failed attempt on Alldera’s life, the Pet Fem determines to save Holdfast from d Layo. To do so, of course, she needs an agent, because she would never have the courage to do it herself. In order to get herself into d Layo’s camp, she needs a man.
Daya might be old and scarred, but she has lost none of her old skills. She easily seduces a young runaway called Galligan and persuades him to get her to Servan. Once there she contrives to make him attack her. Galligan rushes to her rescue, and the younger man prevails. Thus the cycle is complete. The Sunbear, and the dream he represents, is dead, killed not by a Fem, nor by one of the alien Women, but by a man protecting the woman he loves.
So at last Holdfast is on its way to being truly free. The Riding Women, the old Rad Fems of our past, have outlived their usefulness and ride away into the west, into legend. Alldera goes with them, leaving Sorrel to guide the new nation into adulthood and Veree as its symbol of hope and unity. Gosh but it is corny stuff, put like that, but remember that I’m extracting all the meaning from the allegory for you. This is no Star Wars, bearing its message on the belly of a 20-mile long Imperial Battle Cruiser just in case you might miss it. Suzy is a great story teller, and for the most part the parable does not interfere with the plot.
I’ve read better books than these, literary-wise, but I don’t think I’ve ever read any more thoughtful books. Suzy has taken one of the defining political questions of our times and has turned it into a tale that is both entertaining and insightful. And she never stops digging, never stops turning the searchlight on our complacency. You see, the women that Servan brought back from the wilds are black. Their welcome in Holdfast is uncertain. No matter how much we grow, we always have something new to learn.
This review originally appeared on Emerald City.