Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison

memoirsofaspacewomanMemoirs 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.

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Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison

memoirsofaspacewomanMemoirs 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.

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.

Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison

memoirsofaspacewomanMemoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
Review by Joachim Boaz

Naomi Mitchison’s first science fiction novel, Memoirs of a Spacewoman, is a brilliant episodic rumination on the nature of non-violent interaction with alien species that challenge (and transform) conceptions of ourselves and others. The first sentence of the novel narrows in on Mitchison’s central themes:

“I think about my friends and the fathers of my children. I think about my children, and I think less about my four dear normals than I think about Viola. And I think about Ariel. And the other. I wonder sometimes how old would be if I counted the years of time blackout during exploration” (p 5)

Technological change (the crews of FTL spaceships experience time-dilation called “blackout”) yields a unique set of sociological problems. The conception of family is forced to evolve as the relationships between explorer parents and children who do not accompany them on voyages – and how each experiences time – generate distinctly different ways of living. Society also transforms as humankind contacts bizarre new lifeforms, attempts radical communication experiments, and interacts with neighboring aliens for prolonged periods of time.

Highly recommended for fans of thought-provoking 1960s social science fiction (especially of the feminist bent). For those who are willing to read along the more esoteric and unjustly forgotten fringes will discover a wealth of worthwhile SF by women authors pre-Le Guin.

Caveat: Do not expect pulp heroes, space battles or political intrigue. This is social science fiction at its best.

Judith Merril’s radical and inspiring short story ‘Daughters of Earth’ (1952) traces the history of the space program – from the first spaceships to the first colonization program attempts – through women scientist/astronaut descendants of a single family. Memoirs of a Spacewoman follows similar lines: The narrator, Mary, is a communications officer who follows in the footstep of her explorer mother on a series of expeditions to alien worlds with their unique biological organisms and communication problems. Despite the loss of her mother on one of these voyagers she is irresistibly drawn to the challenges of space. Likewise, her daughter Viola, although physically disabled after her mother experiences an unusual pregnancy, feels the allure of scientific discovery.

Most appealing about Mary is her incredible devotion to her own area of expertise and her empathy, regardless of differences she encounters, with others. She has the credentials and experience to be the leader of new expeditions but refuses to take them: “I know I would forget about my expedition if I came on a really interesting communications problem” (p 5). Although some of her fellow astronauts (mostly women) cannot help but judge the aliens she attempts to be openminded: “one reads and watches, one steeps oneself in 3D and 4D; one practices detachment in the face of apparently disgusting and horrible events; one practices taking bizarre points of view” (p 7).

Of course, it is never that simple: Mary’s experience with her “daughter” Ariel is case in point. In one of the novel’s many episodes – often attached to a particular expedition/biological puzzle – scientists bring back a life form that might not be sentient. This being regenerates from the smallest fragment: “if kept in a suitable environment, they developed into the whole animal, but on a very small scale and barely viable” (p 41). Initially they decided to graft the animal on other non-human animals. They discover that they survive and flourish, at least for short periods of time, and before detaching from the host.

Mary decides that she will take on a graft to learn more about the creature. The experiment is transformative: “I can still remember, past any memory of my later children’s fathers, the peculiar feel and taste on my tongue of Ariel’s pseudopodium, something altogether of itself” (p 49). Ariel grows on her body, Mary experiences similar physical experiences linked to pregnancy, she becomes deeply attached to the unusual form attached to her… With time dilation blackout and long periods away from her children she is less able to form parental connections with them. But she can with Ariel who is attached to her body and soon some elements of communication become possible. But Mary’s joy is short lived as the grafts detach they wither and die.

Other episodes deal with forms of loss. On a world with a deep muddy chasm caterpillar-like aliens seem to spend their lives eating, arranging their multi-colored rock-like fecal matter in brilliant patterns, and rooting around in the mud. Mary and the other scientists feel deep attachment to the caterpillar creatures. Francoise, one of the scientists, goes to extraordinary lengths to communicate with them. But the biological deepens when butterfly-like creatures descend and slaughter some of the caterpillars: it appears that the “butterfly had no maternal feelings, could not have” (p 117). But Francoise becomes too attached, too willing to intervene, to willing to judge and alien species that seems distinctly alien…

Despite Mary’s frequent concerns about her children whom she can only maintain brief contact with, her all consuming career, her infrequent interaction with her lovers (often male colleagues) due to constantly shifting assignments, her strange experience with time (years and years go by on Earth while the astronauts age only when they are out of blackout), and the loss of her “daughter” Ariel she finds solace in her work and the valuable interactions, however brief, that she is able to form with others.

A powerful vision.

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