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they rejoiced to find an enemy they could conquer at last.”

Walk to the End of the World

By Suzy McKee Charnas 

21 Oct, 2014



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Sorry about the cover image. For some reason none of the nice images of the original Gene Szafran would let me save a copy. 

Rather like yesterday’s Canticle, Walk to the End of the World examines the Earth transformed by nuclear war – the Wasting – but where the mob in Canticle turned on the intelligentsia deemed responsible for nuclear weapons, the handful of high officials who survived the final war in their hidden Refuge decide that the true villains were not the men who finally pushed The Button, because that would mean accepting responsibility. Instead they decide to blame all who opposed them and so made that war inevitable: 

The men heard, and they rejoiced to find an enemy they could conquer at last. One night, as planned, they pulled all the women from sleep, herded them together, and harangued them, saying, remember that you caused the Wasting. It was a Black female’s refusal to sit in the back of the bus that sparked the rebellion of the Blacks; female Gooks fought against our troops in the Eastern Wars; female terrorists made bombs side by side with our own rebel sons, whose mothers had brought them up to be half-men; female vermin of all kinds spewed out millions of young to steal our food­ supplies and our living space! Females themselves brought on the Wasting of the world! 

The other races of humanity are beyond reach, either far on the other side of the scrub lands that surround the Holdfast (the community the survivors create after emerging from the Refuge) or extinct, but the lunatics in charge of the Refuge do have women to hand and will inevitably have young men to contend with. Determined never to suffer another Wasting, they establish a brutally hierarchical society with women very firmly at the bottom and men like the officials firmly at the top. 

Inexplicably, an abjectly impoverished misogynist dystopia run by violent psychopaths turns out not to be such a nice place to live and while it’s worst for the women, that’s not the focus of the book, or at least not the first two thirds. Instead we get the journey quest of two young outcasts, Servan D Layo and Eykar Bek. Women are just part of the background, there to be used and abused but not thought about. Not by the characters, anyway. 

D Layo is offered the chance to redeem himself by dealing with Bek, who has suddenly begun shirking his assigned job of poisoning those tired of life. D Layo and Bek have history together, not least as former lovers. In short order, the pair set off in the company of the unfortunate Captain Helmz to look for Bek’s father, who by violating this society’s taboo again fathers learning who their children are warped Bek’s whole life.

The journey will take the protagonists from one end of Holdfast to the other, through the wastelands to distant Troi, where the metals come from and where Bek’s father is even now working to bring an audacious scheme to fruition. Along the way, Bek will be confronted with something whose existence he had scarcely considered before; Alldera, a fem with plans and ambitions of her own.

This is one of those books where I know exactly when I first heard about it. It happens that it was reviewed by Spider Robinson in the first issue of Galaxy I ever bought, along with Patternmaster by Octavia E. Butler, More Women of Wonder by Pamela Sargent, Aurora: Beyond Equality by Vonda N. McIntyre and Susan Janice Anderson, The Clewiston Test by Kate Wilhelm, Pilgrimage by Zenna Henderson, The People: No Different Flesh by Zenna Henderson and The Bloody Sun by Marion Zimmer Bradley; I sense a theme. I cannot recall what he thought of the other books (although I expect he liked the Butler – is this how I found her?) but I recall he loathed Walk to the End of the World, dismissing the set-up with a snarky Deep, man.” 

Really, is there any place for snark in book reviews? But Robinson’s more energetically negative reviews were often of great use to me, if not at the time then later, and perhaps I will do a series called Books Spider Robinson Really, Really Hated (Yes, I Know He Publicly Retracted and Apologized For That One And We Should Consider the Lesson There1). Books that provoke a reaction, negative or positive, are much more likely to be interesting than books that provoke no reaction at all. The same goes for reviews; there are a lot of reviews of which I retain no memory of at all. 

Walk to the End of the World has many strengths but subtlety isn’t among them. The Wasting didn’t just kill billions of people, which would have been bad enough, but it seems to have killed every animal on the planet except humans themselves and most of the plants, ith only hemp and a kind of seaweed remaining from the plants useful to humanity. This isn’t the author just turning the Apocalypse up to 11; it shapes the plot, from the effects of THC on a hypermasculinized population to the long term implications of certain adaptations of the seaweed. 

One of the points the author makes at the top of her lungs is that while women are very much at the bottom of the pecking order, subject to abuse and murder without recourse, most of the men aren’t living lives that are all that much better. The only people who really benefit from this social order are the men way up at the tippy top; all the mistreatment of women buys the men in the middle ranks is a distraction from their true circumstances.

I just had an odd thought: this was first published after Gor jumped from Ballantine to DAW. Do you think any Gor fans picked this up, hoping it was Ballantine’s replacement for the John Norman series? 

I will admit I went into this expecting that Alldera would be the protagonist. She isn’t and her role is mainly in terms of how affects Bek to converse with a thinking woman. I see Tor bundles Walk with the sequel, Motherlines and while I have not read it – yet — I bet it focuses on Alldera and a society of women. 

Some readers may find this society a bit over the top but really, there’s little in the setup, from the loathing the men have for sex with women to the grotesque hierarchical society to the way the children are taught to hate enemies whose nature they cannot comprehend, that doesn’t have some kind of historical precedent. Or current analog: go peruse GamerGate and tell me those guys wouldn’t find many of the details of Holdfast society pretty attractive. 

Walk to the End of the World is available from Macmillan in a number of formats.

  1. It’s not Always Double-Down”. I am as amazed as you are!