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Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison

November 6, 2014

memoirsofaspacewomanMemoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Naomi Mitchison’s first science fiction novel, Memoirs of a Spacewoman, is a brilliant episodic rumination on the nature of non-violent interaction with alien species that challenge (and transform) conceptions of ourselves and others. The first sentence of the novel narrows in on Mitchison’s central themes:

“I think about my friends and the fathers of my children. I think about my children, and I think less about my four dear normals than I think about Viola. And I think about Ariel. And the other. I wonder sometimes how old would be if I counted the years of time blackout during exploration” (p 5)

Technological change (the crews of FTL spaceships experience time-dilation called “blackout”) yields a unique set of sociological problems. The conception of family is forced to evolve as the relationships between explorer parents and children who do not accompany them on voyages – and how each experiences time – generate distinctly different ways of living. Society also transforms as humankind contacts bizarre new lifeforms, attempts radical communication experiments, and interacts with neighboring aliens for prolonged periods of time.

Highly recommended for fans of thought-provoking 1960s social science fiction (especially of the feminist bent). For those who are willing to read along the more esoteric and unjustly forgotten fringes will discover a wealth of worthwhile SF by women authors pre-Le Guin.

Caveat: Do not expect pulp heroes, space battles or political intrigue. This is social science fiction at its best.

Judith Merril’s radical and inspiring short story ‘Daughters of Earth’ (1952) traces the history of the space program – from the first spaceships to the first colonization program attempts – through women scientist/astronaut descendants of a single family. Memoirs of a Spacewoman follows similar lines: The narrator, Mary, is a communications officer who follows in the footstep of her explorer mother on a series of expeditions to alien worlds with their unique biological organisms and communication problems. Despite the loss of her mother on one of these voyagers she is irresistibly drawn to the challenges of space. Likewise, her daughter Viola, although physically disabled after her mother experiences an unusual pregnancy, feels the allure of scientific discovery.

Most appealing about Mary is her incredible devotion to her own area of expertise and her empathy, regardless of differences she encounters, with others. She has the credentials and experience to be the leader of new expeditions but refuses to take them: “I know I would forget about my expedition if I came on a really interesting communications problem” (p 5). Although some of her fellow astronauts (mostly women) cannot help but judge the aliens she attempts to be openminded: “one reads and watches, one steeps oneself in 3D and 4D; one practices detachment in the face of apparently disgusting and horrible events; one practices taking bizarre points of view” (p 7).

Of course, it is never that simple: Mary’s experience with her “daughter” Ariel is case in point. In one of the novel’s many episodes – often attached to a particular expedition/biological puzzle – scientists bring back a life form that might not be sentient. This being regenerates from the smallest fragment: “if kept in a suitable environment, they developed into the whole animal, but on a very small scale and barely viable” (p 41). Initially they decided to graft the animal on other non-human animals. They discover that they survive and flourish, at least for short periods of time, and before detaching from the host.

Mary decides that she will take on a graft to learn more about the creature. The experiment is transformative: “I can still remember, past any memory of my later children’s fathers, the peculiar feel and taste on my tongue of Ariel’s pseudopodium, something altogether of itself” (p 49). Ariel grows on her body, Mary experiences similar physical experiences linked to pregnancy, she becomes deeply attached to the unusual form attached to her… With time dilation blackout and long periods away from her children she is less able to form parental connections with them. But she can with Ariel who is attached to her body and soon some elements of communication become possible. But Mary’s joy is short lived as the grafts detach they wither and die.

Other episodes deal with forms of loss. On a world with a deep muddy chasm caterpillar-like aliens seem to spend their lives eating, arranging their multi-colored rock-like fecal matter in brilliant patterns, and rooting around in the mud. Mary and the other scientists feel deep attachment to the caterpillar creatures. Francoise, one of the scientists, goes to extraordinary lengths to communicate with them. But the biological deepens when butterfly-like creatures descend and slaughter some of the caterpillars: it appears that the “butterfly had no maternal feelings, could not have” (p 117). But Francoise becomes too attached, too willing to intervene, to willing to judge and alien species that seems distinctly alien…

Despite Mary’s frequent concerns about her children whom she can only maintain brief contact with, her all consuming career, her infrequent interaction with her lovers (often male colleagues) due to constantly shifting assignments, her strange experience with time (years and years go by on Earth while the astronauts age only when they are out of blackout), and the loss of her “daughter” Ariel she finds solace in her work and the valuable interactions, however brief, that she is able to form with others.

A powerful vision.

This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.

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