Suzy McKee Charnas's The Conqueror's Child


Suzy Charnas's The Conqueror's Child, the fourth novel in the series known as the "Holdfast Chronicles," is a big, powerful novel of ideas that won the 1999 James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award. Since I was a member of the 1999 jury, my reading of the book necessarily concentrates on its exploration and expansion of our understanding of gender. I'd like to emphasize, though, that Child is so rich and complex a piece of fiction that it could be read in several other ways that would probably be equally rewarding to the reader.

Though a novel of ideas, Child is also a gripping page-turner, one that looks, at first sight, as though it is going to be primarily about Sorrel's relationship with her mother, Alldera, and her particular experience of post-liberation Holdfast. This first impression is strengthened by the style of the narrative, since only Sorrel's chapters are written in the first person. Moreover, it is Sorrel who presents the two intertwined issues of what the place of males, who will not inherit the past privileged position of pre-liberation males, will be in the new Holdfast (and how to create that place), and the relationship between children and their biological parents in a society where parents are not their children's primary caretakers (which is an oversimplification in Sorrel's case, of course, since, unlike the New Free fems who are of her [chronological] generation, she grew up knowing who her "bloodmother" was, a fact complicated by Alldera's ambivalence about motherhood and the fact that the conception was the result of rape). The narrative style favors this focus on Sorrel's relationship with her mother in other ways. For one thing, Sorrel's POV and perceptions are-- unlike any other character in all four books-- curiously close to the responses of someone from our own society, which makes her a sort of mediator for the reader in such a very strange and often brutal world. Reading from her POV, the reader is likely to see her responses as almost "natural," comprehensible intuitively and emotionally rather than merely intellectually (as is often the case with the other characters). And she begins the narrative with a vastly disarming strategy of saying Hey, I fucked up! And yet, although Sorrel's story is certainly prominent, I see it, ultimately, as the medium through which a more serious question is addressed, namely how males (in both the Holdfast and our own world) can participate in a polity with females.

Before I talk about Child's central question, though, I'd like to take a look at the book's structure. Child is an intricately- and tightly-woven book conceptually, which makes it difficult to talk about without falsely compartmentalizing what is in every way integrated and interwoven. For that reason, I find it helpful to think of the book as containing three conceptual axes, rather than, simply, themes-- precisely to keep from considering the themes separately (or hierarchically, as is usually done with themes).

The most prominent axis engages the problem of feminist generations. The book's first sentence and title explicitly invoke this problem, which is not only the problem of the specific mother-daughter relationship of Alldera and Sorrel, but more generally, within the context of the book (and the series), of the relationship between The First Free on the one hand and The New Free on the other. Sorrel, interestingly, does not fit into either of those classifications. In many respects, she tends to be sui generis, always in the position of being neither one nor the other. She has been raised by both the First Free and the Riding Women; and her being raised by "sharemothers" is as important as her growing up with the stories of the First Free. She is socially accepted and claimed by both, but knows that she does not quite fit with either society. Still, the generational problem is hers as much as it is Alldera's. (Alldera not only has to come to terms with Sorrel when the latter shows up in the Holdfast, but also has to deal, as a leader, with the tensions between the First Free and the New Free, and, as a lover, with generational difficulties with Beyarra, a member of the New Free generation). The combination of her sense of social marginality and generational strife-- and because of her sense of being abandoned by her biological mother, Alldera-- helps Sorrel to identify powerfully with Veree, who is so marginal in Grasslands society that he requires rescuing-- much, she recurrently thinks, as she had to be rescued from Alldera's indifference or even loathing for her very existence. Finally, the issue of relations between generations is a larger feminist issue of great urgency in the US feminist community. If one wished, one could make a rough allegory about the course of second-wave US feminism using each of the successive books of the series to symbolize different stages over the last thirty years. (Such an allegorization would impoverish our reading, but it could be done.) More interestingly, however, the general conceptual irrelevance of biological parent-child relationships in Child (excepting Sorrel's and Eykar's respective knowledge of the identity of at least one of their biological parents) allows an extensive exploration of how a young adult becomes a full agent and equal participant with individuals who have been various kinds of parents to her, so that although the tension in Sorrel and Alldera's relationship bears some resemblance to mother-daughter tensions in our society, it is not confined by that narrower relationship, but involves the larger question of how young women can become participants in (and not merely the inheritors and sometimes even rejecters of) the trail-blazing done by the generation of women preceding them.

While there is little actual discussion in the novel about participatory democracy, I find that the very narrative style of the novel shows rather than tells how these young women enter the sphere of action as full agents-- and how they do so in much the same way as the older generation of women continue to do. We see several individuals and small groups setting out to make things happen without consultation with everyone else (or without waiting for instruction), which is how real democracy, should it ever exist, would work-- as well as its converse, namely the old style of alpha male-dominated "leadership" as demonstrated particularly by Servan, and by Arjvall et al's brutal groupthink, and by Setteo and Eykar's lapsing back into being unquestioning servitors of what formerly ruled them. I find a wonderful freshness in the women's refusal to be harnessed into majority or consensus behavior-- an attitude that flies in the face of the usual conceptions of post-revolutionary "government." Such widespread independence is risky for their collective survival, but it is necessary, and it makes them, at long last, more like the women of the Grasslands than like the Holdfast men they've overthrown (which readers of the earlier books will know was not always true). What this independence of initiative does for the plot is truly marvelous, of course-- giving us all these characters pursuing their own agendas, creating trajectories that inevitably collide with one another, such that as one reads, one never knows what will be the result when they do collide.

The second and most abstract axis of the book is the problem of continuity. This is as highly gender-inflected as the problem of generations. I mean "continuity" here to include the continuation of human life in general (the continuity that is usually considered to fall within women's rather than men's sphere of human activity), and the continuity of ideas, institutions, technology, and knowledge. The issue of literacy and the preservation of the volumes in Eykar's Book Room, of the narrative politics of writing down "history" vs. storytelling, of whether or not to cultivate new (really, old) crops turns on an opposition between permanent revolution and a disregard for whether Holdfast society continues into the future on the one hand, and the impulse to (re)build civilization, with the understanding that the men's tools (particular books and the techniques described in those books, as well as literacy, as a means of perpetuating ideas and stories both old and new that might otherwise be lost) will be used, despite their association with the evils of slavery and destruction, on the other hand. Eykar, tellingly, sees books and writing as something that any community/polity needs, something valuable to be preserved as a part of human memory and possibility. His idea that writing is at the heart of human community originated from his days as a member of the male-dominated polity, but now has been transferred to the fem-dominated polity in such a way as to make clear that he sees the fem-dominated community as the present and future human community. Cultural continuity in the new Holdfast has shifted from being a male to a female concern.

By my reckoning, most of the fems who oppose literacy and the cultivation of new/old crops and the preservation of Eykar's Book Room are the same people who see as absolutely essential the continuing slavery of the males-- or their complete eradication, even if that means that the Holdfast ceases to exist when the last living fem has died. "`Better no men than masters again,' people said." (265) I take this quote from a description of the contingency plan to kill all the adult males should Servan d Layo prove a credible threat to the new Holdfast. But the quote reflects the broad attitude that life at any price is not an idea any Holdfast fem has ever entertained and the suspicion that culture itself must be intrinsically male, and that thus cultural continuity must be either a luxury for or simply perilously dangerous to the fems. Moreover, the overcoming of slavery has eliminated the very idea of valuing continuity or quality of life simply for its own sake. I find this particularly interesting (and by the way find it credible) given the almost universal assumption that if there is any one tendency hardwired into women (as opposed to men, who are often characterized as death-driven), it is the determination to preserve, generate, and maintain life in any and all circumstances. (Joanna Russ's We Who Are About To, obviously, challenges the universality and primacy of this tendency, but can be fairly said to be a fairly rare challenge of this assumption.) The character in the book who best embodies this willingness to do anything to preserve the life of her children is Salalli, of the Pool Towns-- someone outside the societies of the Riding Women, the Holdfast, and the Bayo Born. To ensure their mere survival, she shows herself willing to do anything, including countenancing the rape of her daughter and the corruption of her son, whom she rejoices to see becoming like the man who has enslaved her. My sense is that Sallali's making mere survival, whatever the conditions, paramount is the response of someone who has no idea what ultimate moral consequences submission to slavery in exchange for life will entail. By contrast, Alldera, when put the test, determines not to sacrifice another's freedom for her daughter's life. Charnas shows very clearly here that any woman's take on this is a complex matter of circumstance rather than a hardwired piece of gender essentialism. And the contrast between the choices made by Alldera and Salalli respectively starkly dramatizes the broader issue of what an entire society decides collectively about the value of survival vs. a consideration of the terms that survival in a particular situation entails.

In the case of the Holdfast, the question of continuity is further complicated by the previous male regime's apparent indifference and often outright hostility to continuity-- both biological and cultural. Such indifference and hostility, we may conjecture, is a result of the constantly repeated hatred between generations of men, which assumption is taken by at least some of the males as the reason for assuring the obscurity of every person's parentage. (Though given the history of the Holdfast, one could hypothesize that concealing parentage was both a means for and a result of permanently and totally enslaving the women.) [The inquiring reader may wonder that likenesses weren't seized upon-- considering the scrutiny Sorrel gets re whether she is Servan's or Eykar's biological daughter. And considering how constantly the Riding Women describe members of "lines" in terms of notable characteristics, it is a wonder that the First Free who lived in the Grasslands did not, on uniting with the New Free, begin to look for and perhaps "discover" such likenesses in women of the generation before them. But perhaps this idea is peculiar to my own experience of how people who had known my mother, on seeing me, at once begin to exclaim at the strength of the resemblance.]

I see, then, two ways of looking at the problem continuity poses for the new Holdfast. If the New Holdfast does not establish its own cultural institutions-- which requires both invention from scratch and assimilating old knowledge and tools to new purposes-- as well as a means of reproducing its members biologically-- which requires breeding with males-- it faces the likelihood that the Holdfast will die out. On the other hand, the fems are worried about the possibility that their revolution-- and most especially their emancipation-- could be reversed. Curiously, the women of the Holdfast almost universally reject the solution of the Bayo-born, namely castrating men once they are no longer considered useful for breeding. This may be because of the former slaves' reluctance to sanction alteration of the bodies of their slaves (something they themselves were subject to), or because their old masters sometimes castrated boys for their own use, suggesting that such a method would not be sufficient for safeguarding the Holdfast from the danger that adult, living males pose.

Finally, also projected along the continuity axis, I see among the New Free the changes that an identification of oneself as mother begins to set in train for the Holdfast. By "mother" I don't mean only the biological mother (e.g., Beyarra), but all the people who involve themselves with childcare (and with "borrowing" a child for the night from the creche) and all the people who see the children as "theirs." This maternal interest underwrites the significance of continuity-- by identifying the children as theirs, these women interest themselves in the issue of continuity-- which is exactly how the central question of the book-- how males can participate in a polity with females-- becomes so pressing (exactly as Sorrel's urgent interest in Veree's future exemplifies).

The third and central axis I see running through the book is, of course, the Man Question. In The Furies, the Man Question, which was minor (since the book focused intensely on relations among women), amounted to the problem of what to do with the former masters, how to control them, whether to kill them or keep them for breeding, and so on. At the opening of Child, Sorrel poses the Man Question differently-- from the point of view of the mother (in the broad sense of the word as I used it above)-- viz., what will happen to this boy, growing up in a world in which the only existing options for men are being killed (in the Grasslands), castrated (in the Bayo-Born), or enslaved (in the Holdfast)? Although Sorrel sees this as a question of how Veree in particular is raised and for a time entertains the idea of taking Veree out into the wild to raise him apart from these three alternatives, Eykar makes her realize that the question is in fact broadly social in character when he asks her what possible future Veree could have, supposing she did manage to raise him, alone, apart from the Riding Women and the Holdfast (150). (Interestingly, it is not enough that she begins to see how adult males are treated as holding significance for Veree's future: she is still able at that point to regard Veree as an exception.) This realization is only the beginning. In another track of the narrative, we see men interacting in groups. Arjvall's group, with its reactionary messianic Bear mythology, creates problems for males who have accepted the liberation of the fems and their own subordination to the fems' interests. Both Eykar and Setteo find themselves caught between the larger community (which is now female-dominated and thus associated with the fems' interests) and its stability and legitimacy on the one hand, and the males aiming to reverse the fems' emancipation on the other. there is Servan's group, where we are reminded of how men interacted in the old Holdfast. So the new question becomes not only how men are to interact among themselves in a world in which they are not "masters," but what will the new definition of "manly," of what it means normatively to be male, be in a world in which the subordination of women is no longer the standard by which masculinity (by way of contrast) has for so long negatively defined itself.

Now that I have my axes in place, I'm ready to discuss this novel's particular insight into gender, an insight that I find blindingly brilliant. Alldera puts her finger on the key to the Man Question when she tells Sorrel that she shouldn't feel that she fell down on the task of killing Servan, since "That was Eykar's task, his and Galligan's. Men generally want someone to do it for them-- us, of course, but in the end it's their own job." (401) Sorrel doesn't understand, so Alldera explains, "Drawing the line between what a man may do and what he may not do and still have other men call him a man." (402) In other words, if the polity is going to include males, then the males will have to draw new standards for what is normatively male-- standards that are necessary for creating a space for them in a mixed-sex polity (since their old definitions will inevitably require their exclusion and work only in a polity without females). This insight puts one of the major problems of political equality onto the map in a way that has simply not been done before. In order for Holdfast society to become inclusive, not only do men have to cease to be masters, but their conception of what a socially normative man is must change. Which is to say in more general, real-world terms, that after liberation it's not simply a matter of women refusing an inversion of power relationships, where they (also) become masters, not simply a matter of women learning new roles of political agency (as we saw in The Furies), but it must also be a matter of men remaking themselves for a world of inclusion.

In a tentative, tenuous way, Eykar and Setteo are limited participants in the polity-- until they are derailed, not by Arjvall, but by what could be considered powerful phantoms of the past (in both cases on the symbolic and psychic levels of the story, however literal and embodied the case is for Eykar on another level of the story). Eykar has understood that the polity now is the fems' community. And in a limited way, they act, until derailed, as members of the whole community-- with Setteo even going so far as to thwart Sorrel's removal of Veree from the Holdfast. But all along, it's tricky for both of them, since they walk the tightrope of their relations with the other, subordinated men. It's interesting that the flight of males is described as "snapping," since with both Setteo and Eykar one can see the moment in which they snap away from their (marginal) places in the polity, abruptly ceasing to be even the limited citizens they had been. In a sense, "snapping" means embracing a non-citizen identity-- seeing oneself only as a slave, and one's interest as a slave as always at odds with the interest of the community that has enslaved one.

So. When it comes to the test, Eykar, the most advanced male in the Holdfast, is shown not to have remade himself for a world of inclusion. But then he didn't know that he needed to do that-- no one did! And probably few readers of The Furies would have understood that that was the necessary next step post-liberation. Up to now, the focus (in both real life and in the previous Holdfast novels) has been on how women must change themselves to become full agents and participants-- how women must become not like men, but not like slaves, either: and this has been the emphasis in feminist theory, too. It's not just Eykar's emotional bond to Servan or even the old desire to be a master, but Servan's representing the old masculine ideal (which replaced the ideal the fathers had tried to force on Servan and Eykar's generation of males) that works so powerfully on him. And though Eykar's first motivation for joining forces with Servan is the belief that Sorrel killed Setteo and the desire to avenge that killing, this channeling of his rage against Sorrel-- and by extension Alldera and every other fem in the Holdfast-- is symptomatic of the extent to which the old culture of normative masculine behavior and response is imprinted on his psyche and rises to the fore at a moment of great emotional crisis. His desire for revenge is what keeps his situation from being defined (by the reader) as merely a clash of loyalties (old vs. new). The loss of Setteo in a sense throws him back into old patterns. It undoes everything he's learned intellectually about post-liberation sexual politics, such that Servan's attraction for him is not simply that of an old lover, but a reminder or even reinforcement of the old patterns in which there is war to the death between generations, and men must be oppressively and hierarchically in control. Servan is, after all, the embodiment of the old ideal-- and the only living remnant of it left (the fems having suppressed all traces of it inside the Holdfast, dreaming Bears notwithstanding). Eykar's reversion is a retreat to what he knows best, to what feels, in his backbrain, almost, safest and most correct. Servan represents the old normative standard. The Bears, for Setteo, represent the deepest, almost instinctual and religious/supernatural pull of the ancient power of patriarchy.

An interesting complication is posed by Servan's one male Pool-town captive, Shareem. He comes from a male-dominant society (albeit one less oppressive-to-women than the old Holdfast's), and thus must-- especially at the age he is-- identify not with the beaten and dominated, but with the oppressor, Servan. He sees only two choices-- becoming a master, or becoming a slave. What child, given the choice, would choose the latter? But of course, because that thread of the narrative resembles, in feel, an arm of alternate history projected into the post-liberation Holdfast, it reminds us that simply freeing the men would be no solution. Veree and all the boys of post-liberation Holdfast absolutely require a new normative standard for what it means to be male-- or else they will be caught, forever, in the stark binary relation of master/slave that must always prevent an inclusive mixed-sex polity from coming into existence.

My fellow juror, Kelly Link, first drew my attention to what is probably the most important metaphor in the book, the cairn that Sorrel builds for Veree, "For his future, his freedom, his life. For my hopes in bringing him here." (164) Cairns are memorials built for fems killed by the masters, bitter monuments meant to remind the fems of the violence and oppression they dare not ever forget. The very idea of building a cairn for a living boy carries a perverse and almost blasphemous meaning. But Sorrel does not, in fact, produce an imitation of such fem monuments. When she announces she is going to build it, she says she will build a "tower" to the fems' "Moon Lady." But soon we learn that Sorrel's project is nothing so simple:

My building project actually had nothing to do with Moonwoman. I didn't believe in her to begin with, and I needed to do more than just pile up stones in a shapeless heap, as the Free did to commemorate their dead, because that wouldn't take me long enough. I meant to spend the rest of my life building this thing. The act of stacking stones would become a monument itself, a prolonged gesture of protest impossible for the Free to ignore. (195)

The act of building the cairn, then, is meant to be an ongoing political act of visible, backbreaking work, meant to make the people around her hear her voice.

Working with the rocks gave me a sort of respite. My mind was freed to serve me up thoughts that I could turn over in peace while my hands were busy. (196)

Though the spot in which Sorrel builds the cairn is isolated, a continual stream of fems come to see her work:

Visitors always watched what my hands were doing, which gave me satisfaction. I was quick to explain what my work was and how it was intended to rebuke them.

I tried to use as a model what I had seen of the Free Fems' stonework in the Grasslands: the granaries they had built at the Dusty Season wells. But what I was building was a stone tent. I mean a Grassland tent with a taut-stretched roof and flanking wings, but raised on slim stone pillars instead of poles. The side wings of the tent were a problem, since these should curve inward toward the roofline, like stretched, sagging leather.

At the cost of pinched fingers, scrapes, and bruises from failed efforts, I learned to stack my stones in thin flakes, rows and rows of them wedged tight with smaller chips, to create a very shallow and gradual curve, just a hint of a curve, really. I wedged my pillar stones, too, making the seams as tight as I could to reinforce the height of the completed stack.

It was going to be a misshapen tent, absurdly tall and narrow, like something drawn in the dirt by a child. Stone is not felt or leather. (197)

Eykar Bek offers her engineering advice, abstracted from books. Angrily, she refuses it. Later, when Sorrel is away from the cairn, Setteo, who has abducted Veree under instruction from the Bears of the Cold Country, encounters the structure:

What he had taken for a storehouse for manna plants was not a house at all, but a strange pile of flat, dark stones, stacked up solid like a small hill. He set his ear to the stones and heard trickling sounds inside. When he opened his stoppered gourd, water dripped out over the stones for him to collect.

The structure was an altar to the moon-- the Heras had dotted their country with these, although he had seen none like this one; and it shed tears for him, out of sorrow for the nature of his errand. He brought the gourd back full, and they both drank. Setteo wondered anxiously what price would be asked for that sweet, cool water. (316)

Later, when Setteo awakens from a nap, he finds that the cairn has undergone yet another transformation:

An old gray horse with loose-hanging lips appeared and followed them as they moved on. This was the stone water-altar grown animate, shining with moisture at the nostrils and eyes. Because it was made of many pieces cunningly fitted together, it could move like a living animal. It was, he realized with anxiety, the cairn built by Sorrel Holdfaster, now risen to carry this boy. (319)

This horse prevents Setteo from sacrificing Veree to the Bears.

The stone horse stumbled, recovering with a flurry of lurching steps. [Setteo] knew by its silence and its heavy, jolting gait that it was not one of the Bears. It was the moon's creature, a being of stone and water, making the Warm World's humble, wordless argument by its presence. This argument he ignored as hard as he could. (320)

When the horse has succeeded in bringing Veree to the point of deliverance,

The horse halted with a great sigh. The stones that had been fitted together to make up its body slithered apart with a roar and sank in a disintegrating heap, straight down under him into the ground. (320)

The cairn is neither Grasslands nor Holdfast, neither tent nor monument, neither granary nor religious tower. It is a third way, created through sweaty, backbreaking labor, driven by a fierce determination that refuses to be limited to the only choices given, a cry to be heard-- and a structure of transformation that neatly collapses when it has served its ultimate (if unintended) purpose.

Yes, Charnas throws down the gauntlet of challenge. But as she does so, she leaves us, above all, with this marvelous image and symbol of hope.

March, 2000
©2000 L.Timmel Duchamp
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