In the early 70s, many government secrets became public knowledge. Among the more interesting revelations: the president and his cabinet would not have time to gather their families in the event of nuclear war, but they would be permitted to take their secretaries with them to the bomb shelters. The American way had to survive, you understand.

This inspired Suzy McKee Charnas to write a brutal work of sf satire.


Title: Walk to the End of the
World

Author: Suzy
McKee Charnas

Original Publication Date:
February 1974

ISBN: 345-23788-9-125

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More readily available in The Slave and the
Free

Cover Price (The Slave and the Free): $11.87
U.S./$20.36 Canadian

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or Amazon.ca

Premise:

At the some point in the
late twentieth century, nuclear war and environmental
destruction rendered the earth uninhabitable. The
descendants of America’s establishment and their
secretaries survived in shelters. Centuries later, a
horribly dysfunctional dystopia exists called “Holdfast.”
Complex taboos and self-serving legends run the world of
men, while women, called “fems,” live lives of utter
degredation.

Across this world travel several characters, each with
his or her own agenda, hoping to find a resolution in the
city of ‘Troi.

High Points:

After a few chapters,
Charnas’s dystopic society seems disturbingly credible,
while packing a powerful satiric punch. In some cases,
Charnas takes certain traditions to insane, satiric
conclusions, while in others, circumstances lead
descendants of the miltary/industrial elite to practices
which their ancestors would have found repugnant. The roles
of homosexuality and marijuana in Holdfast’s culture make
perfect sense– and would, of course, horrify its
traditional, all-American founders. It’s not hard to hear
Charnas snickering– or perhaps that was just me.

Some of the satire can be grasped by most readers;
Holdfast’s reinterpretation of the Christian story,
chilling and (given the professed religiosity of most U.S.
politicians) hilarious, remains comprehensible. Likewise,
Charnas satirizes (or merely depicts) the manner in which
mythology and interpretations of history develop according
to serve ideology. But many of the story’s satiric details
are based on very specific aspects of U.S. culture
in the decade or so leading up to 1974. These allusions may
baffle some younger readers. (According to the author,
some readers have missed entirely that this book was
supposed to be a satire).

Low Points:

It’s also hard to know how to
assess the novel’s less realistic aspects, given that it is
satiric. This book states pretty clearly that no
animal life of any kind survives. Obviously, then, the
thriving ecosystem, with plants and familiar wilderness,
seems unlikely.

On a more pedestrian note, the novel begins very slowly,
and took a while to get my interest.

Finally, if you get ahold of a first edition of
Walk…., you’ll notice a low point unrelated to the
writing: overall production. The book boasts a few typos, a
couple glaring instances of bitched (sorry!) type, and a
fairly idiotic cover. A cranky 70s men’s hair model is
superimposed over a tower which violates any known rules of
construction. Oppressed females are represented in the
lower right-hand corner by two kneeling Breck Girls, being
beaten by a member of the Chippendale Dancers. I would love
to know what some Sf cover artists are smoking.

The Scores

Originality: 4/6 This is, in the
context of its time, a new twist on the by-then overused
“post-apocolypse world” premise. It precedes a more famous
feminist dystopia, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s
Tale
, by a decade.

Imagery: 4/6

Story: 4/6 Story takes a back seat to world-building and
basic rage but, after a slow start, the Walk… drew
me along.

Characterization: 4/6 Bek, the outcast on whom the story
centers, seems convincing. I accepted that his motives made
sense to him. The novel’s best characterization
occurs near the end when Alldera, the most significant
female character, takes center stage. Many of the other
characters are less well-drawn.

Emotional Response: 5/6. Portions of this book will remain
with you.

Editing: 5/6. Charnas writes well. The editor of the
first edition fell asleep at times.

Overall Score: 4/6.

In total, Walk to the End of the World receives 30
out of 42.

Additional Notes and
Comments:

Men put off by Charnas’
feminist anger ought to consider what female readers have
to tolerate while making their way through Heinlein and
many other writers of classic SF. In any case, satire tends
to be excessive, and anyone unprepared for what a satirist,
female or male, might do with traditional male culture
(particularly in the shadow of the Cold War), may not be
ready for this novel.

This is a good book; it is not a nice one.

Over the decades, Charnas developed a series from this
novel’s premise. Look for reviews of Motherlines
(also found in The Slave and the Free) and The
Furies
later this year. If these maintain my interest,
I may also review The Conqueror’s Child.

UPDATED (10/10/2005): The author has provided a
study guide to this novel, which is available online here.