Memoirs of a a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
Review by Ian Sales
The narrator, Mary, is a communications specialist on missions to visit planets inhabited by alien races. She uses her knowledge and skills – and, it is implied, some telepathic ability – to communuicate with the natives of planets previously unvisited. Memoirs of a Spacewoman recounts some of the missions the narrator embarked upon. And their consequences. It is a book clearly not written by an author steeped in science fiction, which lends the whole more of a fabulism air than a science-fictional one; but in contrast, it also covers areas not generally explored by actual genre writers.
The book is structured, more or less, as the reminscences of the narrator, often referencing later events, or commenting on the incidents being described. It does not really feel like a written memoir, as you’d expect from the title, as it’s far too chatty. And yet, although it has a sense of verbal narration to it, the prose is too clear and controlled to convince as speech. If anything, it makes the book a… friendly read, making it likeable even if other elements of the narrative might be hard to like.
There’s something very haphazard about the expeditions described by Mary, although the way her story-telling drifts from breathless to calm and considered from one page to the next probably makes the missions seem less organised than they actually were. (Although some of the events described were clearly the result of bad planning and/or bad leadership.) The aliens she meets are certainly inventive, and most definitely alien – there are no corrugated foreheads in Memoirs of a Spacewoman. Martians, however, are described as “in some ways so like ourselves”, but they communicate tactilely, even using their sex organs… a fact which makes human-Martian relations somewhat strained on expeditions… Among the aliens Mary meets are a race who are “distressingly like centipedes” and who live in transparent houses; a weird protplasmic blob which she has grafted onto her body; and, the mission which takes up the most of the book, a planet that is home to a race of caterpillar-like and butterfly-like aliens.
It’s these last aliens which Mitchison uses to illustrate the point at the heart of Memoirs of a Spacewoman. On first arriving on the planet, the expedition members find the caterpillars and determine they are sentient because of the patterns they make using their colourful droppings. Mary manages to communicate with the creatures, and they prove to be an unsophisticated race. Some time later, the caterpillars are attacked by butterfly-like aliens. The members of the expedition find this aggression baffling. (It doesn’t take them long, however, to discover that the caterpillars undergo metamorphosis to become the butterflies.) Mary manages to make herself understood by the butterflies, and learns that sometimes one of their number breaks out of its chrysalis with deformed wings. While the butterflies have lost all memory of their lives as caterpillars, they do know that they came from. And they blame the caterpillars’ habit of wallowing in stagnant bogs and making patterns with their droppings for causing the incomplete metamorphoses.
It’s hard not to read it all as an allegory for religious creeds and their concept of heaven. The caterpillars fear the butterflies, and yet they’re supposed to stop doing what comes naturally to them because the butterflies promise they will lives of joy after their metamorphosis – despite not presenting any evidence of this to the caterpillars. It’s not exact but the point is clear. And it’s reinforced by the rest of the book’s general message of peace and understanding.
Having said that, Memoirs of a Spacewoman is by no means a religious book, and presents its thesis in a form that is clearly science fiction – alien planets, telepathic communication – and was, in fact, first published by Gollancz, who put the phrase “her first science fiction novel” on the cover. Mitchison’s science fiction, however, owes more the British tradition from Lewis and Wyndham, than it does the US tradition which grew out of the pages of Amazing Stories. It lends the book, as noted earlier, a fabulist air, rather than scientific tale of derring-do the actual plot would normally suggest. But Mary’s breezy narration of events, and the almost child-like depiction of alien worlds, do not detract from the many serious points Mitchison makes.
Some of the attitudes in the book read a little dated, some are almost prescient. It’s an entertaining book, and a deal more thoughtful than its prose suggests. Mitchison went on to write two more science fiction novels – Solution Three (1975) and Not By Bread Alone (1983); but she wrote over forty novels, and around ninety books in total, between 1923 and her death in 1999 at the ripe old age of 101.