Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
Review by Bart
Each and every contemporary review of Memoirs Of A Spacewoman I have found is overall positive, if not glowing. That’s understandable, as an obscure 60ies title by an author that is not generally known in the SF community takes a special kind of reader: the lover of “vintage scifi”. One does not coincidentally read this kind of book.
I’m not a total, unconditional vintage SF fan. I read older SF for two reasons: to broaden my view on the history of the genre, and as a part of my search for SF that has endured the ages, and still does the job in 2018 as well. I’m a lenient reader as far as the first reason goes, but hard to please in the latter. Schizoid inner conflict being the result, it makes certain reviews harder to do.
This book can be considered partly as feminist writing, yet it was not marketed as such back in the days: publishers used to stress the sexual content, as Memoirs of a Spacewoman “explores with compassion and wit the infinite possibilities of erotic relationships between a human space-traveller and the bizarre incumbents of the planets she visits” according to my 1976 edition.
Mitchison does a few things I have not come across often, if at all, and as such this book has a radical quality to it.
For starters, she imagines a far future in which humanity has evolved to be uncompromising ethical beings: vegetarians that are even unable to use violence in times of need.
We can’t any longer put our full hearts into violent restraint of another human being.
Peaceful utopias are nothing new, but I haven’t read anything that envisions a future that is so radically peaceful and strictly ethical as this. Mitchison adds to this communication between humans and animals that resembles human-human communication, most animals turning out to be full conscious actors. Such conversations are partly achieved via telepathy, or so it seems – Mitchison is not fully clear on this.
However, I myself would not classify this society as fully utopian. Concepts of the 60ies are thought trough, and free, uncommitted love – coupled with the time relativistic effects of space travel – ends up having an effect on familial structure and love and friendship, ultimately leaving people to be less connected.
‘I wasn’t leaving you, Mary, the way you were.’ I didn’t know what to say. One doesn’t expect an adult colleague to behave in this kind of way.
I wonder what Mitchison felt about all that herself. Not so much the parts about love & relationships, as that’s clear: she and her lifelong husband agreed on an open relationship indeed.
What’s more puzzling are Mitchison’s true feelings about the parental aspects of this novel, as in it mothers leave their children with their peer group after a year. Mitchison gave birth to 7 children, and raised five of them to adulthood.
I did not know about this before I read the book however, and rereading the parts in which an alien ‘child’ of the protagonist dies, gain an eerie vibe because of it – Mitchison wrote Memoirs Of A Spacewoman at 63, about 20 years after her daughter died shortly after birth, and 30 years after she lost a 10-year-old son.
There is emotion, and numbness, and yet at the same time, “I myself was completely unchanged. I had almost hoped I would not be. That was the measure of my grief.”
The opening lines of the book explicitly talk about thoughts of her living children and the two alien ones she lost, and the rest of the opening chapter is dotted with conflicting meditations about parenthood – there is both the perspective of motherhood – a loving, biological urge – as that of sympathy with youngsters wanting to break free from authority.
Some other reviewers tend to highlight the “complex moral problems” this book presents, as Mitchison herself has her protagonist proclaim in the first chapter. I have to rain on that parade, I’m afraid.
The main ethical conundrum of this book is the question whether an alien race, resembling butterflies, is justified in killing some of their caterpillars, as according to these butterflies, some of the caterpillars engage in behavior that the butterflies feel is harming their chances of transforming into healthy butterflies. This causality is not proven however. Mitchison doesn’t leave it to the imagination of the reader, and spells things out clearly:
‘Isn’t it more like what has been done in human history in the name of religion? When people were tortured and burnt alive in order to save their souls in another life, which most of them, perhaps, did not believe in. But the torturers did. (…) So far, I have always found these actions inexplicable, and singularly revolting, but now I think I begin to understand them.’
I do not see the “moral complexity” here. A fair amount of the book’s 160 pages are devoted to the butterfly world, but in the end it’s all pretty straightforward: sometimes people do things because they think they are doing the right thing. Big deal.
The other main philosophical issue is not really of a moral nature, but similarly aims at depth, and again fails. It is more interesting, admittedly. It is about the fact that the human tendency for dichotomies and either/or thinking is a result of our bi-symmetric bodily form, but I’m not sure whether this theory would hold up to careful scrutiny. Mitchison sets up humans against aliens that resemble starfish: their radial body would stimulate other forms of thinking. In the end, it’s all just armchair theory of mind, as the starfish are clearly outclassed by humans, radial thinking notwithstanding. Thinking things through, in reality the starfish might be just as dichotomy-prone as bipedals, as a dichotomy like dead/alive would matter to them too. As such, these metaphorical parts of the book are sloppy.
Not that this matters: Memoirs Of A Spacewoman is set up more as a parable, not a rigorous hard SF story, and Mitchison’s main point – that our thinking originates in our body, stressing the corporeal nature of humans – can’t be refuted, regardless of the fictional simile she uses.
What I did feel worked 100% was the outrageous sexual satire. Some reviewers claim this book is not about sex at all, and stress the book is ultimately about Empathic Communication with the Other. This empathy is indeed important in Memoirs, but sex is a theme too. It’s approached liberal and open-minded, and the highlight of the book for me was a scene wherein the spacewoman gets possessed by something resembling the wild need to be fertilized by an alien phallic outgrowth. Again Mitchison stresses the bodily, instinctual needs of humans. The fact that the phallic outgrowth also doubles as a dead child makes these parts only more baffling, if you would like to release your inner Freud.
The fact that part of this book is satire seems hardly noticed by reviewers. Maybe my reading was influenced a review of Sirius by Olaf Stapledon. That review highlighted the comic significance of a scene I didn’t perceive as comedy at all, so that may have sharpened my senses a bit. This next quote more or less puts all the deep thoughts about empathic communication in a different light.
We used to take our rations and eat them where the creatures could observe us. This roused their sympathy, though they wanted to see the results of the digestive process. I believe Françoise obliged, but they found the result aesthetically disappointing, and tried to express to her their pity and even some thoughts on how a better results could be achieved. This was a first important point of higher communication between our groups.
For those who missed it: they are talking about the aesthetics of shit, as the alien creatures’ main occupation is shitting in patterns. The book is worth the price of acquisition for this passage alone, and with it Mitchison brilliantly subverts her own set up.
I should mention this is not really a regular story with a beginning, an arc, and an end – it could have been easily marketed as a collection of short stories and novellas, sharing a protagonist. This vignette form for worked and did not work. It made the reading light and open, without the burden of a full construct. On the other hand, I hardly felt an emotional connection with any of the characters, not even with Mary, the protagonist – but I would be surprised if that was Mitchison’s main intention.
While this book has many strengths – there’s a ton of big and small imaginative ideas – I have to say I was not fully convinced by its total value as a work of literary art. Novels use language as their medium, and Mitchison’s prose is not remarkable. It’s not that it’s bad, but it simply doesn’t compel. She is not a smith of sentences. So while the content is remarkable, the verbal form not so much.
Then again: not every story needs to be a poem, so is there any redeeming value to reading this, or would a thorough summary suffice? I guess there is: Mitchison manages to utterly surprise a few times, and that by itself is no mean feat.
Still, I didn’t love this as some others do. I’m not inclined to check out Mitchison’s other books – she wrote over 70, in diverse genres – nor to read this ever again.
If you are interested in brave, quirky vintage SF, this book is 100% recommended. Readers interested in an escapist story with a nice plot – wether driven by character or action – should look elsewhere.
This review originally appeared on Weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it.