Out of Bounds, Judith Merril

otfbnds1960Out 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 The story is brilliant in part due to a remarkable metafictional twist, the story itself is compiled from historical documents to serve as an instructional template for future generations of women.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.

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The Tomorrow People, Judith Merril

tomorrow_peopleThe Tomorrow People, Judith Merril (1960)
Review by Ian Sales

Two men flew to Mars, but only one, Johnny Wendt, returned. Now he lives in self-imposed seclusion with his girlfriend, famous dancer Lisa Trovi. For reasons not made entirely clear, although it has something to do with jolting Johnny out of his funk and the suspiciously good psychological health of the people living and working in the USAA (United States of All the Americas) lunar dome, Johnny and Lisa are invited to the Moon.

Meanwhile, General Harbridge is trying to trick a Chilean congressman who is opposed to the space programme into actually backing it, by offering him a free trip to the Moon.

Despite being a science fiction fan – and a member of the Futurians – Merril started out writing for detective and Western pulp magazines and it was a number of years before she tried her hand at sf. Some of her genre short stories and novels now deserve to be considered classics, although she is perhaps best remembered as an editor and anthologist. Her Shadow on the Hearth (1950) is generally reckoned as one of the best post-apocalypse novels of its time, even if it doesn’t have the high profile of similar male-authored works. Some of her short fiction too, particularly ‘Daughters of Earth’, ought to be much better-known than they actually are. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of The Tomorrow People. The pulp style, sort of like Robert Heinlein on speed, tries to carry the story in dialogue, but throws so much speech across the pages it’s often hard to keep up with the plot in among all the phatic conversation.

A few days after Johnny and Lisa arrive on the Moon, they fall out, so Johnny returns on the next flight as planned, but Lisa stays on. While Johnny mopes about on Earth, often drunk, Lisa starts work on a low-gravity dance routine to be performed on the Moon. In order to extend her stay, she is then offered a job as an assistant to the dome’s psychologist. Unfortunately, this only convinces Johnny his girlfriend has dropped him for the psychologist, which makes him even more determined not to reconcile with her.

Meanwhile, Lisa has been spending time observing some “bugs” bought back from Mars and which are currently under study in “the Shack”, an open shelter some distance outside the Moon Dome. As a result, she seems to know things, and understand people, considerably better than anyone else. Something similar is apparently happening at the Soviet dome too with a female pilot. And Lisa is also pregnant – yes, Johnny is the father – so she wants to get back with him, but doesn’t know how to do so…

In a review of the novel in his 1967 work In Search of Wonder, Damon Knight accused the book of being written from the “woman’s-magazine viewpoint” and declared it hard to read because of its “coyness, feminine overemphasis and an unaccountable sprinkling of 1960 jive talk” in the dialogue. While the dated slang does often feel anachronistic – especially given the novel’s clear dateline of 1975 to 1977 – Knight’s other criticism are far from fair. Lisa Torvi is a  strong character, and is perhaps more of a protagonist than Johnny, who actually doesn’t much convince as an astronaut. Although he does as a drunk. And even from 1960, missions to Mars, moon bases, and the unification of all three American continents into one nation by the mid-1970s seems not so much far-fetched as completely fantastical.

However, where The Tomorrow People really does fall apart is in its plot. The book opens with a mystery – what happened on Mars – but then can’t make up its mind if it’s about Johnny and Lisa’s relationship, the politics surrounding the space programme, a Cold War on the Moon between the USAA and Soviet domes, or the strange good-feeling the inhabitants of the USAA dome are experiencing. And it is only after bouncing around between these stories for much of its length that the novel swerves abruptly back on course and resolves the Mars mystery – with a page of flashback and two pages of exposition.

Reading the novel, it often seems the prose style doesn’t quite suit the material. Perhaps at a shorter length, it might have worked better. But page after page of wise-cracking and/or emotive dialogue gets wearying after a while. In fact, The Tomorrow People reads pretty much like a 1940s screwball comedy with a thin, albeit mostly convincing, wrapping of science fiction. Seen in that light, it’s mostly successful… except for the fact it badly overstretches its material.

Judith Merril was an important figure in the history of the science fiction genre, perhaps more important than the bulk of sf fans give her credit. None of her works are currently in print, and her membership in, and contribution to, early fandom is often overlooked. If the genre must choose figures from its past to revere, we could do a lot worse than pick Merril – even if not everything she wrote is worthy of classic status.

Shadow on the Hearth, Judith Merril

shadowonhearthShadow on the Hearth, Judith Merril (1950)
Review by Admiral Ironbombs

The 1950s were chock-full of science fiction novels on the horror of prospective nuclear war and Soviet attack, after-effects of Hiroshima and Potsdam that rattled the collective consciousness for decades. Merril was one of the Futurians, a “family” of New York science fiction fans; she collaborated with fellow Futurian Cyril Kornbluth, and for a few years was married to another Futurian, the late Frederik Pohl. While she’s best remembered for her series of SF anthologies in the mid-1950s, Judith Merril had a long and distinguished writing career that dates back to the late 1940s.

When her maid calls in sick, Westchester housewife Gladys Mitchell is forced to stay home and do the laundry and chores herself – a fact that saved her life, given that New York City is obliterated in a surprise atomic attack. Urged to stay indoors by radio announcers, Gladys struggles through the day despite crushing uncertainties about the fate of her husband Jon. When her daughters – teenage Barbara (“Barbie”) and toddler Virginia (“Ginny”) – arrive home from school, Gladys must overcome the obstacles of living in a post-nuclear United States. Isolated and with only themselves (and an ever-growing, rag-tag group of neighbors and acquaintances) for support, Gladys must keep her family safe from radiation and hostile looters until they can be evacuated from the danger zone.

In our age of news saturation – twenty-four-hour cable news, social media, RSS feeds, the internet – it’s strange to be thrust back to a time where radio and newspaper was the primary news source. With no papers being delivered, Gladys must rely on over-enthusiastic radio announcers, who read off status updates and casualty lists, along with trite updates of retaliation by remote-control planes. Her obnoxious neighbor is convinced it’s all propaganda, but the Mitchells remain confined to their home, giving the book a constricted setting that Merril thrusts tension and conflict into. Barbara’s possible radiation sickness carries a lot of the burden, as does her teacher, a blacklisted atomic scientist hunted (?!) by the authorities for predicting an atomic attack. Gladys’ maid is a suspected enemy agent, one of the human targets (!?) used to direct the incoming atomic missiles. There’s a gas leak in the cellar, threatening to blow the house up. And there’s the fear of looters and contaminated survivors mobbing the suburbs…

I wouldn’t say that the book is tense or thrilling due to its isolation, though, existing in a vacuum outside of space and time. Some parts read like Civil Defense literature, urging calm and patience until some semblance of government can restore order while explaining the basic details of radiation poisoning and the threat of atomic attack. A pair of rescue workers arrive on occasion to do just that. Merril’s writing is very good, but her plotting is merely competent. Some of the crises stretch the realm of credibility – the “wanted” high-school teacher/physics professor, and her “sick” maid/survivor of the New York holocaust, are character backgrounds I found nigh on hyperbolic.

I expected a female protagonist, written by a female author, in a world relatively devoid of men, would be an exemplary character and rise to the challenge. Instead, Gladys is a hot mess of emotion. She’s often confused, and will panic or become overwhelmed; that’s somewhat realistic given the extenuating circumstances she finds herself in, but it’s more pointed when several bit characters badger and berate her (such as when she calls asking for the fire department, due to the gas leak, and is savaged by the telephone operator). She does take charge and do what needs doing for her family’s survival, and she does learn and grow during the novel; she exists in a world where men are either missing or acting against her best interests. But I’ve seen stronger female characters by CL Moore and Leigh Brackett, and found Gladys overwrought and disappointing – not quite the feminist paragon some reviews had me believe. It’s a shame when the teenager daughter Barbara can hold her own better than her mother.

Gladys’ naivete about “radiations” and post-war hazards brings to mind the elderly couple in When The Wind Blows – Gladys also soldiers through government-issued mimeographed sheets to comprehend the attack’s after-effects. This naiveté reveals the era’s limited scientific knowledge of radiation poisoning and fallout. Which, to be honest, is nowhere near as comprehensive or advanced as it is now, making the novel less grim than if it were written in the 1980s. The characters make several comparisons to Hiroshima – a recent memory for 1950 readers, as would be the first Soviet nuclear test in 1949. But the authorities are more worried about “clouds of hot stuff” blowing around and take a duck-and-cover, “stay inside and you’ll be fine” approach. Rescue crews are scouring New York for (seemingly unaffected) survivors, seemingly unaffected by a radioactive rain; Gladys’ maid survives because she was swaddled in several blankets.

Granted, there’s a running undercurrent that the authorities are overwhelmed and lying to prevent a panic, and the weapons used are Hiroshima-scale and not Reagan-era MIRV ICBMs, which would have flattened New York and saturated lower Westchester County in radiation. The novel is a good case-study of the limits scientific knowledge had about atomic attack. Some elements remain valid, others foreshadow Civil Defense educational films… which this book was made into, for ABC in 1954.

The titular shadow could refer to a number of things: the shadow of atomic attack, the shadow of enemy agents used to direct the incoming missiles, the shadow of Gladys’ missing husband, the shadow of strange men – potential looters, dubious Civil Defense squadmen – looming at her front door. But most clearly it’s the shadow of radiation poisoning, something which may or may not be afflicting Barbara. She was outside and exposed to potentially radioactive rain while on a school field trip; her teacher already knows he’s suffering from radiation poisoning—though it doesn’t seem to affect him in any way – and he and figures Barbara may have taken a strong dose of rads as well. It’s the fear of radiation sickness afflicting her children that drives Gladys to the novel’s darkest point, a hospital used as emergency triage for Manhattan’s survivors. It’s the only time Gladys leaves the security of her home, and it’s a memorable scene.

Merril had a very good idea for a book, which turned into an interesting and well-written novel. However, some of the story elements are chintzy or downright implausible, such as several of the unrealistic characters and their convenient back-stories. As a character piece in the immediate aftermath of a nuclear war, the domestic life thrust into the front-lines, I found the novel partially succeeds. Rather than following a general, scientist, or politician, the book views the aftermath of atomic war from the isolation and fear of a housewife, her daughters, and an oddball cast of friends. That down-to-earth perspective makes it more unique, even realistic despite its aforementioned failings. Yet it falters with Gladys’ portrayal, and is now a bit dated.

While a decent novel, Shadow on the Hearth is not a perfect one; its domestic perspective is a brilliant idea, and Merril’s prose keeps the reading moving along despite the straightforward plot. But I think I’m biased in favor of darker, grittier apocalyptic novels. On top of that, it’s a hard book to find; it took me a while to get a copy at a decent price. Shadow on the Hearth may be of interest to the serious completist, but for the average sci-fi reader it’s probably too much effort for too little reward.

This review originally appeared on Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.

Daughters of Earth, Judith Merril

Daughters of Earth, Judith Merril (1968)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Judith Merril was not only an important early science fiction author of novels and short stories but a political activist and a member of the influential 1940s sci-fi group known as the Futurians (members included her husband Frederik Pohl, James Blish, Damon Knight, David A Wollheim, CM Kornbluth, et al) Her fascinating collection, Daughters of Earth (1968), contains three novellas from the 1950s: ‘Project Nursemaid’ (1955), the highlight of the collection — ‘Daughters of Earth’ (1952), and the underwhelming ‘Homecalling’ (1956).

All three contain a plethora of female characters that challenge the traditional roles women were often relegated to in science fiction of the time. ‘Project Nursemaid’ and ‘Daughters of Earth’ are highly recommended for fans of the more intelligent 50s works touching on social science issues. ’Homecalling’, despite a rather outlandish premise, is readable and at moments affecting.

‘Project Nursemaid’ (1955) (89 pages) — The powers that be on Earth desire to establish a moon colony. However, due to the effect of low gravity on the human body, women are unable to give birth on the moon without complications for both the mother and the child. Instead, the army has developed a technology to remove the child from the mother before it comes to term — these unborn children are sent to the moon in surrogate wombs where they are able to adapt to the low gravity before “birth.” It is up to a Colonel (trained as a psychologist) not only to convince women to have their children removed (often women who would have an abortion or aren’t married) but also screen older women to serve for a year at a time on the moon as nurses for all the babies in their surrogate wombs. This task proves incredibly difficult. Despite a few melodramatic moments with his young interviewees, the Colonel proves to be a good man who sincerely wants to help both the women who give up their unborn children and see the project through successfully.

The novella at moments feels like a piece of later social science fiction (deals tentatively with issues such as pre-marital sexual relations, young motherhood, abortions, etc). At other moments, ‘Project Nursemaid’ comes off as a rather dry “how do we do it” pseudo-manual for birthing moon babies and calming young Earth women. How the children will be raised on the moon with only a few “mothers” and no fathers (well, some of the nurses might eventually be men) is only touched on for a page or two.

‘Daughters of Earth’ (1952) (68 pages) — is the standout novella of the collection. The first lines:

Martha begat Joan, and Joan begat Ariadne. Ariadne lived and died at home on Pluto, but her daughter, Emma, took the long tripe out to a distant planet of an alien sun. Emma begat Leah, and Leah begat Carla, who was the first to make her bridal voyage through sub-space, a long journey faster than the speed of light itself (p 97)

Although plagued with some unfortunate tendencies of the pulp era (silly aliens), ‘Daughters of Earth’ traces humanity’s exploration and colonization of the galaxy over multiple generations through the women of one family. Merril adeptly inverts the Old Testament Biblical trope of tracing generations through the fathers (à la “and unto Enoch was born Irad: and Irad begat Mehujael: and Mehujael began Methusael: and Methsael begat Lamech” Genesis 4.18). She also weaves between the plot driven fragments a fascinating metatextual element — the novella is an admittedly rewritten collection of family documents for the education of future daughters of the family — the work itself conveys the lessons necessary for the family’s future generations of intelligent daughters who will undoubtedly set off on grand adventures, invent new technologies, and discover new planets. ’Daughters of Earth’ contains extremely positive portrayals of female scientists who are often simultaneously mothers, intrepid pioneer women willing to set off on their own, and tender relationships with men whom they happen to meet (often, of lower occupational levels which inverts the common 1950s portrayal).

‘Homecalling’ (1956) (90 pages) — I initially was put off by the beginning of the novella because the premise, was well, too unbelievable. However, as the work progresses, Merril is careful never to be too over-the-top in her portrayal of her young precocious child protagonist and as a result, the work is often believable and moving.

Eight year old Deborah and her baby brother are the only survivors of a spaceship wreck on a forested planet. For a few days Deborah takes care of her brother in the wreckage of the ship (most of it is still intact except for the piloting compartment where her parents were). After a while she decides to explore the vicinity and comes into contact with intelligent human child sized insect aliens — with a large queen and are telepathic. Deborah learns to communicate with the aliens after her initial fright. The novella is successful because it is narrated from both the perspective of alien Queen insect — who exudes “motherness” — and Deborah, who cares deeply for her brother. ’Homecalling’ is a readable story about first contact despite the nature of the aliens.

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