Charnas, Suzy McKee

views updated


Born 22 October 1939, New York, New York

Daughter of Robinson and Maxine Szanton McKee; married Stephen Charnas; children: Charles, Joanna

Suzy McKee Charnas earned a B.A. from Barnard College in 1961 and an M.A.T. from New York University in 1965. As a member of the Peace Corps, she taught English and economic history at various schools in Nigeria from 1961 to 1963. Returning to New York, she taught ancient history and African studies at the junior high level from 1965 to 1967. After working in curriculum development at New York's Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital in the Division of Community Mental Health from 1967 to 1969, she launched her writing career. Charnas never forgot these formative experiences, though; she has instructed at the science fiction Clarion Workshops and chaired the Archive Project Committee of the National Council of Returned Peace Corps Volunteers beginning in 1986.

Her first novel, Walk to the End of the World (1974), made a big splash, appearing as a finalist for the science fiction John W. Campbell award. This first of the Holdfast Chronicles was followed by Motherlines (1978), The Furies (1994), and The Conqueror's Child (1999). These are savagely feminist novels depicting a postapocalyptic world in which women are enslaved and terribly abused. To produce children, they are raped; to feed their fellow "fems," they are milked like cows.

In Walk to the End of the World, Alldera, a slave message-runner, escapes this oppressive patriarchal society and heads west, following a legend of women who live freely on the plains without men. In Motherlines, Alldera finds these Riding Women, and Charnas explores the possibilities of a female society that reproduces by cloning. It is not a utopian culture, however; the characters are prone to conflict and the distresses of stagnation in which a clone society results.

In The Furies, Alldera leads a cavalry of horse-women against the Holdfast, where they kill or enslave all the men they find there. Disagreements about how to build a new civilization point the way toward the fourth novel. The 1970s and 1980s saw much feminist science fiction published, but Charnas' work commanded attention because of the brutality she portrayed and the spotlight she focused upon dominance/submission politics. While her women can be as aggressive and manipulative as men, wreaking terrible vengeance upon their former masters, Charnas plainly shows testosterone-based thinking as barbaric and women as more likely to strive for a noble vision of a creative, nurturing community.

Unicorn Tapestry earned the Science Fiction Writers of America's Nebula award in 1980. The novella became the centerpiece of the novel The Vampire Tapestry, a Nebula finalist. This novel also investigates themes of dominance and submission, here dramatized as the relationship between predator and prey. It depicts five episodes in the life of one Dr. Weyland, a vampire. Charnas subverts vampire clichés, however; Weyland is no supernatural undead ghoul, but a unique biological mutation. While he considers humans inferior and calls them "cattle," he also fears that if he is discovered, they will rise against him as "peasants with torches." He is complexly drawn—Charnas feminizes him at times, inflicting upon him in some scenes the powerlessness and degradation that women endure. In the poignant drama of the Unicorn Tapestry segment, Weyland must undergo psychological therapy in order to regain the university post from which he was fired. In their pas de deux, during which Dr. Floria Landauer realizes Weyland is not delusional but a true vampire, Weyland refuses her encouragements to empathize with his prey, because then he would be unable to feed himself. But they form a rapport that allows him to find a human, even a feminine, side of himself.

Weyland's anagnorisis in Vampire Tapestry occurs when he attends the opera Tosca and discovers that he can, after all, be greatly moved by human passion and art. Charnas' interest in music and opera often enriches her fiction, as such titles as the Nebula nominee "Listening to Brahms" (1991) and "Beauty and the Opera, or, The Phantom Beast" (1996) suggest.

The occult novel Dorothea Dreams (1986) features a middle-aged artist of Taos, New Mexico (where Charnas lives), haunted by nightmares of revolutionary France during the Terror, while her house is haunted by an ancient ghost. Dorothea's desire to live in solitude, creating her masterwork, is inevitably disrupted by the outside world.

Charnas has also written novels for young adults. The Sorcery Hall trilogy—The Bronze King (1985), The Silver Glove (1988) and The Golden Thread (1989)—features Valentine, a New York City teenager who uses magic to protect mundane reality from evil invading from the Otherworld. In The Kingdomof Kevin Malone (1993), teenaged Amy is drawn into a dangerous fantasy world in Central Park, created by bully Kevin Malone as an escape from his abusive father.

Charnas' oft-reprinted short story "Boobs," which won the 1989 Hugo award of the World Science Fiction Society, is narrated by a girl who discovers that during her first menses she is inflicted not merely with the usual pangs of puberty but also, unusually, with lycanthropy, the ability to transform oneself into a werewolf. Delighting in her newfound talent, she avenges herself upon the boys at her high school who torment her because of her budding breasts.

Charnas' fiction is clearly and crisply told in unornamented prose. She is praised for the characterization of her protagonists and antagonists, who alike are sympathetic and believable. Her skill at describing the feminine point of view in conflict with both the supernatural and with men is nonpareil. She is an extremely popular and well-respected author in science fiction and fantasy and has gained critical adulation among feminist theorists.

Other Works:

Women in Science Fiction: A Symposium, with Suzy McKee Charnas et al. (ed. by J. D. Smith, 1975). "A Woman Appeared," Future Females: A Critical Anthology (ed. by M. S. Barr, 1981). "No-Road," Women of Vision (ed. by D. DuPont, 1988). "In Pursuit of Pure Horror: Robert Bloch, Suzy McKee Charnas, Harlan Ellison, Gahan Wilson," Harper's (1989). Moonstone and Tiger Eye (1992). "Meditations in Red: On Writing The Vampire Tapestry," Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture (J. Gordon and V. Hollinger, eds., 1997). The Slave and the Free (contains Walk to the End of the World and Motherlines, 1999).


Barr, M., Suzy McKee Charnas; Octavia Butler; Joan D. Vinge (1986). Bartkowski, F., "Toward a Feminist Eros: Readings in Feminist Utopian Fiction" (thesis, 1982). Bartkowski, F., Feminist Utopias (1989). Shugar, D. R., Separatism and Women's Community (1995). Seven by Seven: Interviews with American Science Fiction Writers of the West and Southwest (1996).

Reference Works:

Readers' Guide to Twentieth-Century Science Fiction (1989). Articles about Charnas featured in American Horror Fiction: From Brockden Brown to Stephen King (1990), Feminism and Science Fiction (1989), Feminism, Utopia, and Narrative (1990), Science Fiction Roots and Branches (1990), The Feminine Eye: Science Fiction and the Women Who Write It (1982), Women and Utopia (1983).

Other reference:

Extrapolation 27 (Spring 1986). Janus 15 (Spring 1979). Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 5 (1993). Locus (May 1990). Midnight Graffiti (Fall 1989). Science-Fiction Studies 10 (July 1983). Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels (1985). SATA (1990).