She must be doing it on purpose, enjoying the delicious thrill of transgression in writing “I think about my friends and the fathers of my children” as the very first line in a book first published in 1962; followed up in quick succession by talking about being leader of a scientific expedition, being engrossed in her scientific work, and being sexually attracted to one’s children and one’s children’s friends. And just as you’ve got your breath again there she goes with the superiority of women when working in biological research: “Yes, I know there have been physicists like Yin Ih and molecular astronomers – I remember old Jane Rakadsalis myself, her wonderful black, ageless face opening into a great smile!” Good old Naomi Mitchison, forthright and shocking.
The framework of this rather short book (a compact 160 pages, feeling more substantial on reading than it looks in the hand) is an episodic description of the female narrator Mary’s scientific expeditions throughout space, intermingled with stories about her children and about her work colleagues and lovers (one and the same). The opening sentence neatly gives you the structure of the book; her children and her nearly-children are not separate from the spacewoman’s work, they are part of it and a reflection of the concerns of it: “I think about my friends and the fathers of my children. I think about my children, but I think less about my four dear normals than I think about Viola. And I think about Ariel. And the other.” How she has her children, and who with, is part of the overall story, but how her non-normal children or pseudo-children come into being really is the story itself.
At the same time as being a personal memoir of impressive sexual liberality, it is something of a fantastic voyage story, but done with science foremost. The first of her scientific expeditions has her temporarily losing the faculty of binary choice, with the relevant aliens (large starfish-like creatures) highlighting the contingent nature of our human either/or choices; a great piece of anthropological thinking, showing us how our deepest assumptions or working practices are not universal, if you get sufficiently far enough away from your starting point. There are standard tropes: the alien lifeforms that go unrecognised until disaster looms in a scale-based tragicomedy, or centipede-like aliens as part of a fairly standard but well done anti-carnivore morality tale. Even then they are not quite that; the aliens that are not recognised because they are on the wrong scale for humans to see are not the villains of the piece and nor even are the greedy humans who precipitate the disaster. The carnivorous Epsies are also not vilified in the way that they would be the hands of other writers; Mary’s revulsion and indeed hatred of them is again clearly down to a piece of contingent, cultural thinking.
It is a bit episodic and it’s hardly massively plot-driven, but I loved the thought-provoking ideas behind each part of her voyages. Mitchison has a fun use of what to us now sounds rather dated language, but which I rather like tone-wise: light, focused, intellectual, mischievous – for example, about the failings of a previous expedition: “One doesn’t want to criticise another discipline; but one knows what molecular chemists are like. And the Epsies had plenty for them. Their atmosphere produced some very peculiar complexes, which left our dull old carbons in the stone age. I can’t find this very enjoyable myself, but to some people it’s jam.” Jam, indeed.