As with Le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest, if I had not known that this was highly regarded amongst feminist sf types I would have given this book up in the first couple of pages. Charnas is utterly devastating in her representation of men and their attitudes towards one another, and their attitudes towards women – “fems” – and towards history and power. While I don’t honestly think things would go this way, it still works as a horrifying critique and savage prophecy of the outcomes of patriarchy.
Charnas writes in a post-apocalyptic world where it seems that only a tiny proportion of white men, and fewer women, have survived to try and rebuild some sort of civilisation. And we know they are all white because there is specific mention of how excellent it is that one class of unmen – the Dirties – are gone, and in case the reader was really obtuse there’s a song enumerating just who the Dirties were. I cannot imagine reading this as a non-white person, given it was hard enough as a white woman. Anyway the destruction of the world has been blamed on the unmen – beasts, Dirties, and fems. The inclusion of beasts in this list is the most bizarre bit to me, because would men really have forgotten that animals were not human and had no connection to civilisation and therefore its destruction? I guess if there were no animals left and you were creating a story to apportion blame, you might. Anyway the Dirties apparently fought against the righteous actions of the true (white) men, and fems were witches who constantly fought against men because they’re agents of chaos and the void.
Not content with this level of terrifying prediction, Charnas also suggests that patriarchy would (d)evolve into ruthless competition between, basically, sons and fathers. To the point of de-identifying familial ties so there can be no seeking out and killing progenitor/descendent; and to the point of reinterpreting Christianity as the Son defying the Father and being punished as a result. (Which is magnificent and disturbing and just whoa.)
The story revolves around the quest of a son for his father – because he’s unique in knowing this information. At heart it’s a very simple and straightforward story but the world that Charnas has created for it is anything but. Through the quest the reader sees basically the entirety of the new civilisation, as well as how the various segments of society work and all the dangerous undercurrents that are at play. The four different points of view, giving very different perspectives, all work seamlessly to develop Charnas’ vision – which is really a warning.
This book is brilliant and terrifying and not for the faint of heart not because of violence to persons but because of violence to notions of civility and humanity. Well, mine anyway; maybe I’m just a bleeding heart liberal. I can’t imagine what would happen if an MRA dude read it; I’d be rather scared they’d miss the irony.
I actually read this as the first in the Radical Utopias omnibus. The next is The Female Man, and I’m not sure my brain can handle rereading that. The third is a Delany that I’m pretty sure I haven’t read, so I will certainly get to that soon.