Walk to the End of the World by Suzy McKee Charnas

Coronet, 1981, 252 p.

 Walk to the End of the World cover

This book has an odd, disjointed structure, being narrated sequentially from the point of view of four of its characters, Captain Kelmz, Servan d Layo, Eykar Bek and Alldera, before the final section, called Destination, which switches between the last three of those. It was a bit of a slog at first as there was a significant degree of information dumping and much of the story was told, not shown to us.

The setting is many, many years after The Wasting, where most of humanity was wiped out by various environmental disasters and their accompanying wars. The remains of humanity are congregated in a smallish land area known as Holdfast, bounded on two sides by The Wild and stretching from the inland town of ’Troi to Lammintown and Bayo on the coast with a slight seaside extension to Endpath. (These are – unneccesarily – outlined on a map which follows the dedication page.)

Holdfast is a subsistence society run by men who blame the descent of the species on women, here known as Fems and treated as subhuman slaves barely fit for the necessary breeding (which is looked on with more than distaste by the men, who are supposed to prefer same-sex encounters.) The litany of those “Dirties” who are the butt of the men’s displeasure at their reduced state is a list of all those whom political right-wingers have traditionally despised. They chant, “Reds, Blacks, Browns, Kinks; Gooks, Dagos, Greasers, Chinks; Ragheads, Niggas, Kites, Dinks,” and, “Lonhairs, Raggles, Bleedingarts; Faggas, Hibbies, Families, Kids; Junkies, Skinheads, Collegeists; Ef-eet Iron-mentalists,” adding, “Bird, Cat, Chick, Sow, Filly, Tigress, Bitch, Cow,” and, “the dreadful weapons of the unmen; cancer, raybees, deedeetee; Zinc, lead and mer-cur-ee.”

I note that in that second last list, of derogatory terms for women, Charnas has missed out the most potent, the c-word, which her characters would more probably have gloried in. (It may be she thought it would not get past her publishers. Possibly she tried, and they vetoed it.)

In Holdfast, intergenerational conflict is thought to be inevitable and male children are brought up not knowing who their father is (and vice versa.) This provides part of the motor for the plot as Eykar Bek, once Endtendant at Endpath, to where men go at the end of their lives for a ritual suicide, knows his father is Raff Maggomas but not his whereabouts. The plot involves d Layo, Bek and the fem Alldera variously hiding out from the men at Lammintown and Bayo before travelling to ’Troi where the final confrontationt takes place. As Alldera is set on finding the legendary free women in The Wild, whom we do not meet (and into which we do not venture) in this novel, scope is afforded for a sequel.

At time of first publication in 1974 the future postulated here may have seemed an overly pessimistic view of the future of gender relations – which then were becoming more fluid in the West. But suppression of women never really went away in the wider world and in these days of resurgent male chauvinism in the so-called “mature” democracies and the less polite areas of the internet, it is frighteningly plausible.

Undoubtedly feminist as Charnas’s intent was, as a novel, taking the gender relationships aside, the mechanics of Walk to the End of the World’s plot and the degree (or lack of it) of characterisation were pretty standard SF fare for the time.

Pedant’s corner:- a UK edition but printed in USian. Kelmz’ (many instances; Kelmz’s,) Maggomas’ (several instances; Maggomas’s,) pantomines (pantomimes,) flutists’ (flautists’) focussed (focused,) Chings (Chinks,) lambaste (lambast,) tattoed (tattooed,) Matris’ (x2, Matris’s,) gutterals (gutturals,) gasses (gases,) Robrez’ (Robrez’s,) a missing end quotation mark, “to wipe the thin film of pinkish blood, from the Trukker’s blade” (doesn’t need the comma,) metail-tipped (metal-tipped,) dismissal (dismissal,) mock-obsequity (mock-obsequiousness.)

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