Science Fiction Studies

#79 = Volume 26, Part 3 =November 1999


Dunja M. Mohr

Parity, with Differences: Suzy McKee Charnas Concludes the HOLDFAST Series

Twenty-five years after Walk to the End of the World (1974), Suzy McKee Charnas has completed the HOLDFAST series with The Conqueror’s Child (Tor, 1999), perhaps her best and most gripping book. The HOLDFAST series is unique within feminist sf in that it reflects twenty-five years of the development of feminism. Investigating the raging war of the sexes, Charnas does not shy away from describing the slow—and sometimes grim—process of change leading from dystopia to utopia, the painful purging of psychological and physical violence involved. Conqueror’s Child is a revisiting, and in many ways a rewriting, of the previous books. Coming full circle, the story—which began as a gruesome feminist dystopia in Walk to the End of the World, then moved on to the experience of separatism in Motherlines (1978), with its two opposed all-female societies, went on to show women taking fierce revenge on men and liberating other women in The Furies (1994)—now goes beyond separatism and war. While Walk to the End of the World described the outcome of patriarchy, and Mother­lines and The Furies focused on women’s struggle towards full humanity, The Conqueror’s Child returns to consider men from a different angle: how can they undo their past deeds, how can they recreate masculinity to acquire full human subject status? The series thus moves between the possibilities of a (re)formation of dystopia and a negotiation toward the building of what Tom Moylan has called a critical utopia.                

A harsh 1970s (eco)feminist comment on extreme dualism, hierarchical patriarchy, and colonialism, Walk to the End of the World introduces a society set in a bleak post-holocaust environment known as the “Wastin.” An ecological disaster has been caused by white men’s cruel exploitation of nature, irresponsible (ab)use of science, and biochemical and nuclear pollution; but the crisis is conveniently blamed on women, people of color, and rebellious youth, all subsumed under the umbrella term “unmen.” The surviving white males (re)build a misogynist patriarchy divided along gender and age lines, reducing the surviving females to animal status and younger men to an uneasy submission. Referred to as fems (a wicked pun on females and feminists), women are used as breeders and slaves: biology is literally their destiny. Contaminating sexual contact with fems is limited to the necessities of reproduction and heterosexuality is outlawed, whereas the intergenerational relationship between senior and junior men is characterized by homosexuality. Food scarcity, superstition, fear, DarkDreaming induced by drugs and violence, ensure a fragile ritualized life that terminates in the nirvana of a poison drink at Endpath.

The plot of the novel revolves around two deviant juniors, the outlawed DarkDreamer Servan D Layo and the Endtendant Eykar Bek, as they search for the latter’s father, Raff Maggomas. They are accompanied by the slave-runner and messenger Alldera on their journey to the city of ’Troi, where Maggomas has re-established industrial science and (in an allusion to Swift’s “Modest Proposal”) experiments with fems as nourishment. With Alldera, Charnas invents the sort of strong female character so often lacking in sf and begins to tell her story. Formerly silenced, Alldera acquires the status of a narrative “I,” claiming subjectivity and humanity after the ultimate objectification of being raped by Servan and Eykar. At the journey’s end, Eykar declines his patrimony and kills Maggomas. In the turmoil of the juniors’ uprising against the seniors and the destruction of ’Troi, Alldera, who is pregnant, escapes into the surrounding wilderness.                

In Motherlines, Charnas rewrites the myth of the Amazons into an alternative all-female utopia. Alldera is taken in by Riding Women, warriors and nomads living in the Grasslands. Free from male restraints and heterosexist pressures, they have created a culture of their own, often interpreted  by critics as a community of lesbian separatists. Unlike lesbians who have been forced to define themselves against heterosexist patriarchy, however, none of these descendants of the first escapees has known such strictures. Their non-hierarchical culture is structured by non-possessiveness, communality, cooper-ation, and tribal kinship. Having escaped from laboratories where scientists designed them to be parthenogenetic, the Riding Women mate with horses to trigger reproduction and practice the non-possessive naming of the resultant offspring, who are cared for not in families but by sharemothering. In self-songs, they express their individual stories. What is so striking about these characters is that Charnas portrays them as individuals, drawing on the full scale of human characteristics undivided by feminine or masculine categories. They are strong squabbling warriors, caring mothers, tender as well as fierce lovers. Non-possessive relationships and the disruption of the mother/child dualism create close bonds without exclusive ties.                

Motherlines also depicts a society of escaped Free Fems who have been so far incapable of decolonizing their minds to invent a new life. Still driven by internalized hierarchical and possessive thinking, their matriarchal society reinvents patriarchy, rebuilding and perpetuating slavery at Tea Camp. Unlike the Riding Women, the Free Fems cling to external controls. Lifting external oppression, Charnas warns, will not automatically change us, if our internal programming remains untouched. Alldera’s daughter Sorrel grows up among the Riding Women, while Alldera slips in and out of the two societies, taking first a Riding Woman as lover, later the fem and storyteller Daya. Both insider and outsider, Alldera remains always on the edge, her liminal status permitting her to forge a kinship between the two female communities. The novel ends with the Free Fems considering their choices: either to return to Holdfast to free the fem slaves and use captured men as studs, or to witness their own extinction and recede into the past.                

The Furies abandons the utopian Grasslands and returns to dystopia. It is an angry story of revenge, exploring the corrupting influence of power. Sixteen years after the events in Motherlines, Alldera the Conqueror leads the Free Fems in their victorious return to Holdfast. They succeed in subjugating the men and take revenge on collaborating fem overseers. Incapable of separating gender from sex roles, the Newly Freed perceive Free Fems as alien and the delegation of Riding Women as men. Liberated without having chosen this (a harsh comment on the conservative retreat of many women in the 1980s), the Newly Freed resent their freedom. Imitating the only form of power they know, the Free Fems reverse roles and turn back towards the very tyranny they have supplanted. Afraid of an uprising, they too rule by fear and brutalize the enslaved men, who in their victimization begin to learn the horrors of their own previous rule.                

In The Furies Alldera re-encounters Eykar, handicapped by a failing and mutilated body and now guardian of the library. Both undergo a painful process of recognizing their shared humanity despite all the disparities dividing them. Eykar becomes the spokesman for the dying men who have been herded like cattle into prison pits. He is assisted by the mad cutboy Setteo, who is obsessed with distorted Christian symbols and visions of mystical bear spirits. Meanwhile, the triumphant Fems have developed a new cult attributing their victory to the greater divinity of Moonwoman. One major concern among the Fems is progeny: how can the sexual act be imagined without violence? Some of the Newly Freed secretly mate with (i.e., rape) drugged men; one asks a Riding Woman for sharemothering and is sent to the Grasslands to give birth to her child, Veree. With the ensuing rivalry among the Free Fems, between the Free Fems and the Newly Freed, and between the Fems and the Riding Women, Charnas illustrates the historical infighting within feminism and the frictions of leadership. Accused of tyranny and betrayal for negotiating with Eykar, Alldera finds herself borderwalking on a tightrope. Two Newly Freed, along with her old friend/lover and now jealous foe Daya, attempt to assassinate her, but fail. Both Alldera and Eykar are introspective at the conclusion. Alldera withdraws from both societies, only to re-emerge as politician in the council of Fems, in their attempt at democracy. Eykar comes to realize that the war has been about women and not about men, as men would have it in their hubris: women must learn to govern themselves autonomously without surrendering to division and discord.                

The Conqueror’s Child weaves all these various plot strands and unresolved conflicts together, addressing the questions of how to deal with newfound liberty, how to resist the corruptions of power, how to heal despite the atrocities committed on both sides. Returning to a settled daily routine after the war, the New Holdfasters, both women and men, must break out of the vicious cycle of violence. If children are to be raised as humans and not as animals, Charnas suggests, they will need new and different role models. Only if both genders go beyond separatism and share power by empowering everyone will their exclusive societies evolve into a post-patriarchal multicultural society, affirming difference and equality by allowing everyone the full range of human traits.                

The narrative opens with Sorrel’s prologue recapitulating the preceeding events. For readers familiar with the series, this may be either cumbersome because familiar or a welcome recapitulation; certainly, it provides a helpful and necessary introduction for new readers. With Sorrel, Charnas introduces the fresh perspective of the next generation of post-feminists. Although the offspring of sexual violence, Sorrel carries the memory of slavery and subjection, but has no actual experience of objectification and patriarchy. In a double movement, Sorrel ventures into the New Holdfast: her search for her mother and her father(s) recalls Eykar’s quest in Walk, and like Alldera journeying pregnant to the Grasslands, Sorrel arrives with a child; yet the girl she passes off as bloodchild is the boy Veree. Sorrel does not reject the oppo-site sex but identifies with Veree, because as son of a Newly Freed he is as much a rejected misfit as she was among the all-female childpack of the Grasslands. In the end, “nature” (whether Eykar or Servan fathered Sorrel) is less important than the nurturing of the Riding Women. Sorrel wants to extend the freedom she has experienced to the male sex and dreams of a society in which Veree can be a full member.                

The novel calls upon men to rehumanize themselves—or, in Alldera’s words, “to learn to carry their honor for themselves” (574). Those willing to change are those most victimized by other men. Setteo admires all women, and Eykar slowly takes on the role of a father, which he just begins to redefine: “a father must be a sort of male sharemother” (567). Yet since Setteo dies and Eykar is part of a dying generation, the hopes for the male sex are pinned on Veree. Sorrel’s identification with Veree and his experience of gender-bending and cross-dressing as female—as well as some fems’ positive attitude towards men, allowing them to join their hearths unchained—hint at a future reconciliation between the sexes. The possibility that traditional binary oppositions are soon to be transgressed is symbolized in the name of one of Sorrel’s daughters: Allda-Tamann, an amalgam of Alldera and her assassin Tamansan-Nan.                

Sorrel learns the hard way the dire need to be cognizant of history, which may otherwise repeat itself. Fulfilling the liberation prophecies of the Sunbear cult that has developed among captive men, Servan D Layo returns with a small gang from his ventures into the Northern lands and threatens to recon-stitute the Old Holdfast. Charnas warns post-feminists: post-patriarchal society is not (t)here yet and the state in-between is fragile. Like “vengeful ghosts of their fathers” (574), men caught in patriarchal thought will undermine true change. In a bow to postcolonial literature and criticism, Charnas includes the cultural memory that was eradicated and blamed in the Wasting and allows the previously silenced subaltern a voice: Servan returns with the people of color he took prisoners in the Northern Pooltowns. Acknowledging multiculturalism, the series enlarges the scope of societies to include the Riding Women, the New Holdfast, the Pooltowns, the community of Breakaways who attempt to adopt Grassland culture in the South, and the Bayo-born of the Swamps, escapees from the former fem quarters. On the structural level, this move from singularity to diversity is reflected by the progress from four successive viewpoints in Walk to the multiperspectivism and polyphony of alternating male and female points-of-view in Conqueror’s Child.                

Intersecting with myth and religion, however, storytelling and history are ambivalent. Truth is not monolithic as Alldera explains: “Everybody’s got only part of the truth. And people do tell lies, or they are mistaken or forgetful, no matter how much time they spend figuring” (569). Daya and Servan display the same sly manipulative type of storytelling. Setteo continues to function as a male Cassandra, his madness telling truth and his sanity forging lies: we can never be sure whether his elusive bears are catalysts of violence or a kind of shamanic Native American connection with nature. Only the new historian Beyarra, former pupil of Daya and now the student of Eykar the scrivener, aspires to telling truths, merging orality and literacy, her- and his-story into multiple stories.                

In the epilogue, Sorrel ventures into the Grasslands to search once more for her mother. Yet the female hero Alldera, having evolved from silent slave-runner and messenger to escapee and outsider, to conqueror and politician, to mythic god-figure, has vanished together with the Riding Women to where they have come from: the realm of myth. There is no utopia, no ideal to be achieved, no guide save to follow one’s own imagination. In absentia, the Riding Women give, as in their naming act of mothers, their history and a map of their land to the New Holdfast society, now emerging from childhood towards adult status.                

Charnas presents us not with a blueprint for utopia or radical change, but rather a fluid process leading towards the building of a new and better place consisting of different cultures and social systems. The negotiations between fems and men towards a society of parity with differences offer no solution insofar as infinite imperfections are implied. Charnas reminds us that this is not only a long, but also a very hard and difficult way. The Conqueror’s Child describes the nature of the Holdfast, the fast hold that the past has on us, and the beginning of breaking free. The New Holdfasters struggle with the creation of a better society without rules laid out beforehand, but inspired by the example of the Riding Women’s culture. The vanishing of the latter signals what we knew all along: we are no Riding Women, and their way of life cannot be simply transferred. For once, the notorious liar Daya has told the truth: “The only reality for us is here ... not over the mountains in another country” (504).

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