Out of Bounds, Judith Merril (1960)
Review by Joachim Boaz
I have long been a fan of both Judith Merril’s fiction and edited volumes. The eponymous novella in the collection Daughters of Earth (1968) is one of more delightful visions from the 1950s I have encountered. Merril reframes biblical patrilineal genealogy as matrilineal – i.e. humankind’s conquest of space is traced via the female descendants of an august progenitor. The story is brilliant in part due to a remarkable metafictional twist, the story itself is compiled from historical documents to serve as an instructional template for future generations of women. Despite substantial editorial control that forced Merril to include a rather hokey plot on two hokey planets, the story remains memorable for the well crafted feminist message.
After Judith Merril’s divorce from her husband – and fellow Futurian – Frederik Pohl in 1952, she found that her “risky” SF visions epitomized by ‘Daughters of Earth’ were less welcome. Due to financial and personal reasons, she had to tread carefully. In a few cases her radical explorations of gender/sex, such as ‘The Lady was a Tramp’ (1957), had to be published under pseudonyms.
Judith Merril proved (and still is to some degree) to be a polarizing figure. The SF critic and author Algis Budyrs dismissed and ridiculed this volume’s story ‘That Only a Mother’ (1948) as “agrandiz[ing] the steaming-wet-diaper school of SF, which in many examples defines and dramatizes women as beings whose sensitivity and humanism are at constant odds with something inherently messy in their bodies”. Shocking headline: SF that actually focuses on the lives and experiences of women offends a man! Theodore Sturgeon puts forth an ardent defense of her craft and abilities as a “Writer” (with a capital W) in the introduction to the volume.
Out of Bounds contains seven short fictions that demonstrate the range she produced over the course of the 50s: from her terrifying and radical first story ‘That Only a Mother’ to more populist and “acceptable” space operas such as ‘Whoever You Are’. The collection as a whole fluctuates drastically from the masterpiece ‘Dead Center’ to the banal exploration of telepathic vibes in ‘Connection Completed’. Seek out ‘Dead Center’!
Judith Merril should be read by any fan of 50s SF. The deserving omnibus collection Homecalling and Other Stories: The Complete Solo Short SF of Judith Merril (2005) is a must buy.
‘That Only a Mother’ (1948) reminds me of Richard Matheson’s later SF horror story about a mutant child, ‘Born of Man and Woman’ (1950)…. In Merril’s similarly powerful story in a future nuclear world, everyday exposure to radiation might cause devastating mutation. Margaret fixates on this potential via letters to her husband Hank – involved in the war effort – who claims that there is nothing to fear. When he arrives home Margaret has already given birth, and…
What makes ‘That Only a Mother’ so effective is the careful integration of everyday life. This nuclear war does not leave a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Rather, life continues much as it did before with devastating consequences. I am an ardent supporter of epistolary fiction. Merril’s use of letters serve to limit what the reader knows (these are letters between a couple and information is kept from the reader) and thus heightens the psychological tension. The nebulous ending furthers this effect. Worthwhile.
‘Peeping Tom’ (1954). Telepathy. A jungle. A nameless war. Tommy Bender, “a nice American boy”, recovers from an injury. In the jungle dampness he learns about the less than tender thoughts of his fellow wounded comrades who lust after their nurses. When Bender can walk again – remember he’s “a nice American boy” – he pays for sex, with a “disconcertingly young” woman (pimped by her young brother) in the nearby village, with cigarettes.
One day when he seeks to assuage his lusts, he enters the hut of the local sage and begins to uncover his telepathic abilities. His nurse love interest is also one of the sage’s students…. ‘Peeing Tom’ rises above many similar telepathy stories not due to the very predictable twist ending, but the strange commentary on the transformative effects of injury and war. This was written after the Korean War. Tommy Bender is not really “a nice American boy” and is solely motivated by his own lusts and passions.
‘The Lady Was a Tramp’ (1957) is without doubt the most unusual story in the collection. The premise: IBMen plot the trajectories and jumps of spaceships, an especially dangerous job on a merchant ship due to the small crew compliment. The female psychological officer, who holds the rank of Commander, likewise has an important role to play in the microcosm of the ship. A role that the new IBMan Terrance Carnahan does not want to believe exists. Merril purposefully conflates the spaceship, the Lady Jane, and Anita, the psychological officer. Terrance considers both “tramps”.
The pros: The story is psychologically tense. Also, the focus on some elements of life in a spaceship exudes a certain realism. The cons: Merril clearly positions Anita as the power on the spaceship, the woman who holds everything together by having sex with all the male crew members. She uses her sexuality to keep the crew from fracturing. Just as Terrance must conquer space to achieve his dream, he must also put aside his reservations and take advantage of Anita’s role. Really?! I find it rather unsettling in its ramifications especially since Carnahan never puts aside his extreme sexism. Very problematic.
‘Whoever You Are’ (1952). A space opera with a fun twist…. A vast web encircles the solar system manned by the intrepid men and women who are still seduced by the allure of space. The bravest souls – called Byrds – fly from the energy womb off into the bleak expanse setting up colonies, encountering aliens. One of these spaceships returns but the crew is dead, and aliens are on board. Thankfully the ship is encased in the web and does not appear to be a threat. Via the ship logs of the various dead crew members the mystery is slowly pieced together. As most of Merril’s futures, women play central parts in uncovering the mystery. But, it might be too late!
‘Connection Completed’ (1954). A man gazes at a woman through a window. What transpires are a series of thoughts projected by both characters attempting to compel the other act and thus demonstrate the veracity of their telepathic experience. Both are fearful that it is all a delusion. If Merril pursued a SF horror avenue rather than the rather tepid conclusion, the story might have been more intriguing.
‘Dead Center’ (1954) is the best of collection. It might be superior to ‘Daughters of Earth’ which was forced by the editor to follow a particular plot… I still hold that ‘Daughters of Earth’ is the more ideologically relevant story. But ‘Dead Center’ blends both polemical and narratological elements into a more cohesive story.
Shifting from perspective to perspective, ‘Dead Center’ explores the ramifications of a disaster. In this case, losing contact with a spacecraft. Jock Kruger is the pilot and Ruth, his wife, the designed of the spacecraft. As the plot slowly unravels we soon understand the nature of the relationship between all the characters. A son who is tired of the lies his parents tell… The ambitions, the “cult of the astronaut”, the public gaze… Delightful. Highly recommended.
‘Death Cannot Wither’ (1959). The collection ends on a sour note with a supernatural tale which, according to the Author’s note, was heavily edited by Algis Budrys – “the story should properly carry a joint byline” (p 137). Edna Colby lives with her husband Jack on his estate. She spends her time contributing to Better Homes and Gardens and suspects that Jack might be having an affair on his occasional trips to the city. After his death in a hunting accident on the estate, a strange series of events transpire – as he returns three years later dead but alive. The story never maintains a sense of unease and feels half-hearted. Avoid.
This review originally appeared on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.