Post-apocalyptic Feminist Science Fiction #1: Suzy McKee Charnas’ Motherlines


With apologies: this entry is of a somewhat more adult nature than my previous entries. If you prefer your blogs and science fiction no more than PG-13, please stop here. Really.

The War to End All Wars has come and gone, destroying society as we know it and leaving two remaining primary societies–the Holdfast, a dual-sex1 militaristic community desperately clinging to what remains of the pre-apocalypse way of life and the Riding Women, an entirely female society out in the desert plains wilderness–and a secondary group of women who’ve escaped the dual-sex society. In the dual-sex society, men dominate completely and women are enslaved labor and/or sex objects, without any right to participate in running the society. The all-female group lives a semi-nomadic life, following the seasonal rains that bring new grass to the plains; horses are an integral part of their society, serving as food and transport and companionship. Walk to the End of the World is set in the former community, and centers on the disintegration of that society and one “fem” in particular, Alldera. Motherlines picks up as she flees across the mountains to the plains and the women who live in it; through the book, she shuttles between the Horse Women and the much smaller group of free fems who have also escaped the Holdfast. There is a very faint echo of LeGuin’s The Dispossessed in Motherlines, as both authors pair societies, one of which has a utopic climate but a dystopic culture, and the other the reverse, though Charnas makes it a bit clearer which society she expects us to prefer.

I first read Motherlines at thirteen, and not surprisingly loved the book for the horses; I dreamed of joining the plains women just so I could be with horses 24/7. As an adult, I still love the horsies, and still wouldn’t mind running off to live with the Plains women, but I’m now interested in the book for (I’d like to think) more complex reasons. Charnas isn’t the first writer to suggest a solution to sexism of eliminating men completely from the equation–Joanna Russ’ Whileaway springs to mind, although I’m sure there are many more. This solution has always seemed overly simplistic to me, rather like the section in LeGuin’s Lathe of Heaven in which racism is solved by rendering everyone gray2: surely we’d be better off if we figured out how to train the men to not be such [insert derogatory noun here]s? A single sex world presumes homosexuality, though Charnas handles it rather differently than Russ; her characters don’t pair off into monogamous couples. Motherlines does also address the obvious problem of how to perpetuate the society’s future generations; how do you propagate if there’s only one gender remaining of a species that requires two to reproduce? Whileaway’s residents have genetic manipulation techniques sufficiently advanced to allow them to combine ova from two unrelated women to create genetically unique children, but no such technology exists in Motherlines. Instead, the scientists, in a last gasp effort, tweaked then-living women so that they could reproduce clone-style replicas of themselves, using an activating fluid3. The women take it one step further and tweak themselves so that horse sperm will serve as the activating fluid, in the absence of more….er….sterile laboratory substances.

In other words, they mate with the horses. Not surprisingly, this is as upsetting to the fems as it would be to most modern people. Rest assured, the children are NOT half horse, as the women carry a complete gene pairing requiring only activation; the children will, in a sense, be twins or clones of their mother with no genetic material from any other individual of any other species. In the context of the plains women’s society, it makes absolutely perfect sense; the horses are an integral part of the women’s lives, so including them in the cycle is no more than logical. Motherlines centers on Alldera’s relationship with the Riding Women and the Free Fems; the former keep her child in hopes of creating a new Motherline. As they’ve come from the laboratories complete with a full set of genetic material, there is no blending of genetic material to create individuals, but rather only groups of identical “twins”, differing only in their own individual experiences, and over time these groups have died away, reducing even that variety. The question of whether Alldera’s child can herself have children as the Riding Women do isn’t answered in Motherlines; I suppose I’ll have to track down the subsequent two books.

Ultimately, though, Motherlines strikes me as being about family ties and finding one’s correct place in society. We don’t always like all our family members, but we’re stuck with them. We don’t like everything about our society, and if we’re lucky, we’ll find one that fits a little bit better…but even that may not fit 100%.

1I feel a bit odd calling it a bisexual society, though in some ways it is by modern standards
2though I think that was the point…
3stop laughing! the men are gone, remember?

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