Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison

memoirsofaspacewomanMemoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
Review by Kate Macdonald

For years I’d thought that I had read pretty much everything Naomi Mitchison had published. Oh how wrong I was. I rechecked, and found to my horror that Mitchison herself couldn’t remember how much she’d published, but 70 books or thereabouts would be about right. Swift detour to abebooks.co.uk to order some of the many that I’ve missed.

Right. I’m back. For years I’d thought that Naomi Mitchison was mainly a historical novelist with outbreaks of socialist outrage and feminist memoirs. Her most famous novels are The Corn King and The Spring Queen and The Bull Calves: there are loads more. Then I realised (after reading reviews by Couchtomoon on SF Mistressworks and SF Ruminations) that I hadn’t read her sf novel Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962), so obviously I had to find it. You don’t often get a novelist writing hugely successful and critically acclaimed sf AND historical fiction novels. (Nicola Griffith is the only one I can think of who’s done this, other than one or two of Joanna Russ’s short stories, but I’d like to know of others. There must be some male writers as well.)

It is stunning. Since Mitchison is not only a dead posh white woman and not primarily known for writing science fiction, she isn’t normally cited as a pioneer in feminist sf. However, Memoirs of a Spacewoman moves the date backwards for when science fiction began to depict women as professionals and technical specialists first. It also demolishes the idea that no-one wrote seriously about alien sex in the 1960s, or about a woman’s right to choose her children’s fathers. Yet, this is not a Barbarella romp in plastic spacewear. It is a novel, even though (as the introduction in my edition by Hilary Rubenstein notes) there is no plot, no beginning or end. It’s a slice of life, a rambling, cheerful discussion of her professional and personal life by Mary, a space communications specialist in a profession we would call xenotranslation. She talks to aliens and they talk to her, on her expeditions to their home planets, and during their sojourns in the laboratories on Earth. She also talks to most of the mammalian species on Earth, but this is considered normal, as is probing the minds of other humans (something to do only with permission). Mary’s working life is bounded by professional protocols, of which ‘do not interfere’ is the strongest.

Naomi 2However, ‘interference’ has different meanings depending on the context. Mitchison’s sly and mildly erotic descriptions of Mary talking to her Martian communications colleagues involve all-body tactility, inside and out, in which their sex organs are very communicative. In another episode she volunteers as one of the human colleagues in an experiment to accept an alien graft on her skin. The entity needs a female host on which to grow before it deliquesces in water to enter the bloodstream of the newly fertilised female, and, then what? No-one knows, hence the experiment, and it has some horrifying consequences when the lab realises that female volunteers are undergoing a strange maternal impulse that is overriding their normal behaviour.

Mary chats away about her children by different fathers, and how they had decided with her to conceive a child before, during or after various expeditions. She was voiced perfectly in the recent BBC dramatization of a fragment of this amazing novel as a kind of jolly hockey-sticks county girl, businesslike and perfectly groomed while handling Martian sex organs in a competent, trained manner. Mitchison – a sex education pioneer from the very early days of the Marie Stopes clinics – was in her seventies when she wrote this novel, and she must have had a lot of fun with it.

Memoirs of a Spacewoman is breathtakingly original, and audacious. Mitchison’s maturity as a novelist, a feminist and as a perpetually open mind, make her narrative voice deeply persuasive. We hardly notice that there is no mention of how all the space travel is funded, or how indeed it even happens. Her interest is not in gadgets and technology, merely that these exist and can be used efficiently and effectively to get expeditions out into space for more and better communications with whatever is out there. Mitchison’s real interest is in imagining alien lifeforms, and how they breed and live their lives. The range of her biological speculation is impressive, until one recalls that she is the daughter and sister of scientists, and before the First World War she had herself begun to train as a geneticist.

This review originally appeared on katemacdonald.net.

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Starfarers, Vonda N McIntyre

starfarersStarfarers, Vonda N McIntyre (1989)
Review by Victoria Snelling

Starfarers is the story of a group of people who find themselves on a journey across the stars. For some that was their intention and for others it was the path circumstance led them down. They are scientists and artists for the most part. As Starfarers is the first book in a series so there are two stories. The series story is the one of what happens to these humans when they leave our solar system and can they maintain their ideals while they do it. In the first book, the story is how the characters overcome the internal and external obstacles to starting their journey.

McIntyre makes an effort to present a future in which humans act differently than they do now. Three of the main characters are in a polyamorous relationship which was once a group of four but they are grieving the death of the person who was at the centre of the relationships. I liked the depiction and I thought it came across convincingly. Each member has to manage their intimate relationships and also manage the group dynamic. That wasn’t portrayed as something too difficult but it also wasn’t swept under the carpet. The characters are highly emotionally intelligent and that helps. I liked that it was presented as a slightly old-fashioned relationship in that it was formalised.

The politics of this future world are described in the ways they impact the ship. It’s a research facility primarily so when countries don’t want to support its aims they pull finding and it affects directly the lives of the people on the ship. Their friends leave and they can’t get the supplies they’re used to. The ship believes itself to be egalitarian, but one character is a gardener and he observes that the academics don’t mix with the custodial staff so it’s not as free and equal as they’d like to think. There’s a fair amount of exposition in the book but for me I found it interesting and thought it was well-handled as character development and worldbuilding. But this is a vision of a future I’d like to buy into so perhaps I wouldn’t have thought that if McIntyre had been exploring different ideas. I enjoyed the worldbuilding and I found the characters real and engaging. I’ve been acutely aware of the monoculture of most of the books I’ve been reading and the conspicuous diversity, at least in gender, ethnicity and sexuality, was refreshing.

Clearly this is the first in a series and it is setting up what is the real story – due to political tension on earth the ship and its scientific mission is under threat and eventually the US tries to take it by force. They want to use it as a military base. As the ship is weapon-free their only alternative is to run – to start their mission understaffed, under-supplied and underprepared. It may only be the first peril they face on their journey but it was full of tension.

I enjoyed this very much and am keen to read the rest of the series.

This review originally appeared on Boudica Marginalia.

Kindred, Octavia Butler

Kindred, Octavia Butler (1979)kindred
Review by Debbie Moorhouse

Published in 1979, Octavia Butler’s Kindred is one of her few stand-alone novels. Narrated in the first person, it tells the story of Dana Franklin, a black woman from 1976 who is repeatedly transported to the South of the USA in the nineteenth century, usually without, but once with, her white husband Kevin.

Dana’s knowledge of the history of slavery in the USA, which includes her own family’s history, enables her to adapt to being dragged through time to rescue her ancestors, Rufus Weylin and Alice Jackson, from injury, illness and death. Rufus is the son of a slaveowner, and Alice a free black woman who is later enslaved. One of Dana’s rescues of Rufus is saving him from the wrath of Isaac, Alice’s husband, who has caught the young white man attempting to rape Alice. Once Isaac is caught, mutilated, and sold away, Rufus is able to take Alice to his bed with impunity.

Kindred doesn’t shy away from the ugliness of slavery, yet throughout it didn’t feel as if Dana was nearly as frightened as she ought to be. It’s as if something is lacking at the heart of the story. Butler does a much better job in Dawn of communicating the character’s fears, helplessness and distress. Perhaps Dana’s confidence is the result of detachment, an inability to believe that this world could kill her without a thought, yet that doesn’t come across, either. So although this is a well-told and thoughtful story, it lacks the visceral responses of a modern, free woman with rights who suddenly becomes a possession, a piece of property, something to be punished, mutilated, even killed, at will.

What is handled well is the relationship between Dana and Rufus, particularly. She tries to counterbalance the influences of his society and family, to make him see that raping Alice is wrong, that selling slaves away from their families is wrong. Yet she’s never able to overcome his own sense of rightness, of his place in a society in which nothing he does to slaves can be wrong – unless it’s teaching them to read and write, or tolerating their own choices of sexual partners. He doesn’t see himself as cruel or unreasonable; this is just how things are. And eventually he comes to believe that his rights over black people extend even to Dana, despite her having frequently warned him that alienating her will lead to his death.

The ambivalence of many of the relationships in this book are reminiscent of those in Marlon James’s The Book of Night Women, and reflect how adaptive human behaviour is, especially when that human is a woman trying to protect herself, and perhaps her children. Dana herself adopts the behaviours and mannerisms of a slave, and it takes Alice to call her on it, to remind her of who she used to be.

By the end of the book, both Alice and Dana have freed themselves in the only ways open to them, their methods perhaps reflecting the gap of over a hundred years between their attitudes and beliefs.

A strong book, well worth reading, and one that carries utter conviction in its characters and its events.

Welcome, Chaos, Kate Wilhelm

welcome_chaosWelcome, Chaos, Kate Wilhelm (1983)
Review by Megan AM

Two parts mainstream Cold War espionage thriller to one part bio-social science fiction, Welcome, Chaos is a departure from Wilhelm’s reflective, elegiac vision of seven years prior: the captivating, multiple award-winning Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976). In many ways common with one another, both novels contain themes of pre- to post-apocalypse, survival via artificial biological advancements, ethics of scientific intervention, and, well, birds.

When Lyle Taney leaves her history professorship to study nesting eagles on the coast of Oregon, she finds herself torn between befriending her warm, intelligent neighbor Mr. Werther, and spying on him for arrogant CIA agent Lasater. She doesn’t trust the domineering CIA agent, and she’s both intrigued and attracted to Werther, and his house servant Carmen. Are these men really responsible for the deaths of two scientists?

Between both novels, Wilhelm seems to be saying that it will require an apocalypse to put power into the hands of scientists, but she’s uncertain if this is a good thing. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang serves as an ethical quandary, emanating a suspicion of scientists with bountiful resources, power, and entitlement, Welcome, Chaos conveys an optimism about similar circumstances, where scientists stand poised to serve humanity at the edge of nuclear annihilation. Both narratives are motivated by ethical questions, but, unlike Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, Welcome, Chaos fails to provoke any serious and prolonged contemplation.

The difference lies in the treatment of the protagonists. In Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, the protagonists are symbolic of every person; the reader sees humanity at the core of the tale. That micro-story about a small, intimate post-apocalyptic community feels grander, all-encompassing. The tension affects us. This could be us. Alternately, the protagonist in Welcome, Chaos is one woman, one damn lucky woman, who stumbles into an unlikely situation, is likeable enough to be welcomed and supported in said situation, is loved by multiple men, and who ultimately aids in the survival of humanity.

But the overarching theme is essentially about big decisions about life, love, survival, and, primarily, the female self. Taney, initially a doormat by modern standards, develops to become a more modern woman. The text, feminist from the get-go with Lasaster’s relentless blasts of condescension, (“Maternal devotion, security, money, revenge, that was what [women] understood” p20), makes it obvious that Taney will choose to defy Lasater and abandon her meek life.

But that’s part of what keeps this novel from being just a generic grocery store thriller. Over thirty years before Ancillary Justice, Kate Wilhelm plays with language degenderification by gender swapping character names, like Lyle, Carmen, Hilary. Even [Lass]ater is an appellative joke, as the vain, needy detective demonstrates his inability to drive. She takes gender relations further, introducing Taney to a household of scientists with open romantic relationships, but without sexualizing anyone. When Taney’s physical appearance is complimented, she is full-cheeked, bright-eyed, with soft hair. Her multiple men love her for who she is. In dangerous situations, Wilhelm’s slight hints at rape tension are oddly and abruptly abandoned—perhaps as a statement on this tired plotting cliché.

But overall, major parts of the narrative are hard to swallow. Lasater locates Werther’s Pennsylvania hideout by simply driving around the entire Delaware Valley region. He plays cat-and-mouse with Taney all over the East coast and finds her in a highway traffic jam during a blizzard. I can’t even find my grandma in the local, rural mall on a weekday morning.

Also, common in thriller fiction is the large cast of (assumed to be) white men as law enforcement and elected officials. Some scenes act as ‘who’s who’, only to become ‘who the hell is who’? Really more of flaw with this particular subgenre, than a criticism of Wilhelm, but difficult to follow, nonetheless. Also, those ethical questions that are primarily posed to drive tension fail to do so, and the only real tension revolves around the true identities and motivations of Werther and Carmen – interesting, yes, but are resolved by the middle of the novel. The rest of the novel serves as playground for Taney’s risk-taking, but her evolution as a strong, independent woman is complete by then. We believe in her, so there’s no real reason to worry.

Just looking at Wilhelm’s bibliography, it’s apparent that her body of work has changed over time, with her psychological sci-fi giving way to mystery fiction. Welcome, Chaos serves as a clear transition of Wilhelm’s interests in this regard, where the serious treatment of scientific advancement takes a backseat to detective chases and scientific scheming. Given Wilhelm’s vocal frustration at the publishing industry, this may be a financial decision for this award-winning and celebrated author. But this is no Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.

So maybe Welcome, Chaos does read like a novel from a grocery store shelf, but it’s top shelf grocery store fiction because Wilhelm knows what she’s doing in this format, she does it well, and she doesn’t cater to formula or cliché. Generic flavor, but with natural ingredients, it’s not satisfying in the sense that it will thrill or provoke, but it does compel page-turning. Wilhelm’s Taney is a unique female voice, it’s fun to watch her grow, and the arc unfolds in an unusual way. Categorize this one as a mainstream follow up that straddles subgenres, while being alternately dubious and unputdownable.

This review originally appeared as a guest post on Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations.