The Motherlines Series Critical Essays

Suzy McKee Charnas


(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

Suzy McKee Charnas presents a number of challenging and even shocking details, including the horrific treatment of women in the Holdfast, reproduction through mating with horses, and the women’s extreme violence upon their return to the Holdfast. Seen as an exaggeration of the results of conditions in current society, the events in the novels work together to make a powerful political statement. The three novels, which are Charnas’ first, second, and eighth, make their impact most forcefully when read together in sequence.

The novels critique the accumulation of wealth at the expense of the environment as well as attitudes toward race, sex, and, especially, gender. Following the Wasting, an environmental disaster caused by greed, no animals and few plants remain in the Holdfast, the land occupied by men. Horses and sharu, small but vicious creatures, are the only animals still living in the Grasslands. In the Holdfast, racism and sexism have been taken to their extremes. The men have killed all the “unmen” except some fems, their name for the white women they have enslaved. Besides women, the unmen included all nonwhite men. The novels question condemnation of homosexuality as unnatural by portraying a reverse position: Men, fems, and Riding Women consider enjoying sexual activity with a member of the opposite sex perverse.

The novels’ strongest message is feminist. Life for fems in the Holdfast is miserable. As children they are raised in “kit pits,” literally pits dug in the ground where only the strongest survive. Those fems who survive to adulthood are forced into hard labor or into life as “pets” to men. Their diet consists of curdcake, a mixture of breast milk and the corpses of dead fems. Men rape and kill them at will.

Most fems are not taught to speak, although some, such as...

(The entire section is 754 words.)