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.

The Birth Machine, Elizabeth Baines

the-birth-machine-bainesThe Birth Machine, Elizabeth Baines (1983)
Review by Joachim Boaz

“Ladies and Gentleman: The age of the machine” (p 11).

Zelda, described by others as a “good girl” who made a good marriage, enters a hospital for what appears to be a routine pregnancy. Her doctor husband Roland, preoccupied with his upcoming membership exam, ignores and dismisses her worries as those attending her imply they want to induce labour with a new machine: “This machine will revolutionise care on these wards” (p 12). She soon discovers that Roland might have a hand in offering her to his superiors as a potential test subject. At the very least he is complicit. But first she must struggle with her own past that rears up as the drugs are pumped in.

Roland is more concerned with her attractiveness than her experiences before and during her C-section birth:

“‘Oh,’ says Roland. ‘Marvellous.’ Marvellous. Especially for Roland. ‘We’re getting it nice and low, below the pubic hair-line.’ Oh, good. This surgeon must consider she wears very brief bikinis. This patient is a very sexy patient. Or so he flatters Roland” (p 77).

And there are past (well-hidden) struggles between the couple, that must be confronted if Zelda is to assert herself.

Beautiful and powerful moments populate the pages. Zelda’s memories of her family feel like memories. They focus on sensory cues and searing images – things you would remember! Her mother prepares a rabbit:

“She pushed it into the mincer, it choked, she churned hugely at the handle, and slapped back the little arms that flailed; purple bits flew off and stuck like leeches. The air was filled with the high metallic stink of blood” (p 17).

In another passage Zelda and her sister attempt to fix a broken doll – a physical state of the doll forms a recurrent image throughout the novel: “The green-brown liquid dripped through the holes in the skewered head” (p 37).

The hospital embodies the impersonal: “The sheets and pillows are grey, these days no longer boiled, but steeped in disinfectant distilled in some industrial laboratory, a process which leaves them antiseptic but grey” (p 10). Baines’s touches, the plastic sheet doors, the condescending child-talk offered by the nurses make these scenes distinctly unnerving.

Chapter 4 features Baines’s most adept weaving of parallel stories. Three strands interlock: Zelda’s dehumanizing experience in hospital, her personal memories that lead up to the traumatic moment, and the experience of birth abstracted out as university lecture. Baines, predictably, links Zelda’s husband’s medical experiments on hormones in rats with the experience of Zelda, also a test subject unaware of the exact nature of her predicament:

“Everyone waits. Zelda waits. Waits for bread and jam. Waits for her husband. Up at the centre for Medical Research a rat technician takes up a pin and drives it through the pale pink palm of the first rat for dissection” (p 22).

I must confess, I was at a loss about many of fairytale elements of the story due to my lack of knowledge about them. Someone else out there should give it a go! However, they provide some of linking themes and images. For example, a large black bird – “like a mechanical bird” with its breast lit up “with iridescent colours, the fluorescent light of underworld” (p 59) – embodies the forces of oppression that beset her. The cover artist, Hannah Firmin, narrowed in on the visceral essence of the story!

In a discussion with Megan, over at From Couch to Moon, she mentioned that SF about birth has the tendency of “alienifying” the woman’s body. For example, Judith Merril’s ‘That Only a Mother’ (1948) and the countless horror films about women giving birth to monsters (ie, 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby)… Baines in The Birth Machine positions her narrative and polemical aims counter to this tendency. Rather than presenting the birth as unnatural, Zelda struggles against attempts to “alienify” her body by the medical establishment, the patriarchal forces in her life, and the growing technological transformation of the birth processes. In addition, she moves past the tendency to blame herself for the flaws and faults of others. And via her resistance to these forces she comes to grips with her personal trauma.

Note: Although described in the SF encyclopedia as “dark semi-surrealist sf,” The Birth Machine takes place in the 1970s. Perhaps an alternate recent past? The machine itself is never described in much detail nor do I know about experimental 1970s machines to facilitate birth, if they existed at all… But the feel surrounding the device is otherworldly, alternate, sinister.

Publication note: I read the original 1983 edition published by The Women’s Press. Apparently Baines was displeased with the ordering of chapters in the first edition and in 1996 released a self-published restored version. I have not compared the two. However, with this in mind I too found the chapter ordering in the beginning of The Birth Machine slightly odd. It did not detract from my overall perspective on the novel.

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

The Two of Them, Joanna Russ

two_of_themThe Two of Them, Joanna Russ (1978)
Review by Ian Sales

Irene (apparently pronounced I-ree-nee “in the British way”, which, er, isn’t true) was taken from 1950s USA to a parallel universe where humanity has spread out into the galaxy and settled many planets – and many other universes. Her rescuer is an agent of the Trans-Temporal Authority called Ernst Neumann. The name is obviously a pseudonym, perhaps indicating that Ernst hails from a similar background. He chose Irene because she did not fit in her milieu, too headstrong, too tomboyish, too “masculine”. And so he took her away with him. And now the two of them are partners, and lovers, sent on missions to various planets.

The Two of Them opens with Irene and Ernst on the world of Ka’abah – or rather, inside the world of Ka’abah, as the inhabitants live and work in tunnels beneath the inhospitable surface. They are also Muslims. Well, caricatures of Muslims. The women have the social and legal standing of chattel, are kept in purdah, and are apparently so content, and indeed complicit, with their lot they spend all their time beautifying themselves and developing their “feminine personality”. A way of life to which Irene vehemently objects. And because she is so unlike the women of Ka’abah, she is often mistaken for, and treated like, a man.

When Zubeydeh, the twelve-year-old daughter of their host, states she wants to be a poet, an occupation forbidden to women – in fact, all occupations are forbidden to women: Irene even has an encounter with a celebrated female impersonator who plays women on stage… When Zubeydeh is forbidden to become a poet, Irene decides to take the young girl with her when she and Ernst leave. She also wants to take Zubeydeh’s mother, who is almost permanently medicated, and Zubeydeh’s aunt, who was a poet, and is now an inmate of an asylum. But she can’t; and only Irene, Ernst and Zubeydeh depart Ka’abah.

Onboard the spaceship taking them from the world, Zubeydeh “adopts” a young boy who seems to have been abandoned by his parents or guardians. When Irene realises that Ernst plans to institutionalise her on their return to Center because of the events on Ka’abah, she runs away – and takes both Zubeydeh and the boy with her. Back to the world she left. Although now, of course, she is much changed:

You’re in a dress and and coat, although you’ve drawn the line at high heels; you’re wearing penny loafers with your nylons. (p 219)

The depiction of Islam in The Two of Them would only play today on Fox News. It is ignorant and Islamophobic. Russ may have been writing a feminist sf novel about the role of women, but she has cherrypicked common misconceptions about women in Islamic societies as part of her argument, and ignored everything else. This is not an Islamic society, it’s a made-up society based on anti-Islamic myths and clichés.

Russ’s worldbuilding is not helped by her decision to use her own latinisation for Arabic names – perhaps in an effort to render them more accurately. So علي, Ali, Russ spells through the novel as ‘Alee. Which just looks plain weird. Arabic words that are quite common in English, such as wazir, are also given variant spellings.

There’s a good story in The Two of Them, and the prose shows Russ at her best. Toward the end, Russ even begins breaking the fourth wall and directly addressing the reader. The narrative also discusses alternative outcomes of Irene’s story, probabilistic worlds and events that would naturally arise out of the premise of the Trans-Temporal Authority. Her depiction of Irene, contrasting both her lack of agency in 1950s USA and her agency in the Trans-Temporal Authority, makes an effective argument. But the attempt to contrast it with Islam is a definite mis-step. The ending at least ties back to Irene’s origin, and not her adventures in the first half of the novel.

I don’t honestly know if The Two of Them is, well, salvageable. Strip out the depiction of Islam, and use a completely invented society, and the novel would be much stronger. And far less offensive. True, the book is forty years old. And written by an American, at a time when American sf was generally considered the only mode of science fiction… because so little sf from other languages was translated, and then often presented as a curiosity – cf 1970s anthologies of translated Soviet science fiction – and the most successful British sf was transatlantic in flavour… So, it’s no real surprise The Two of Them saw publication – although I am surprised The Women’s Press reprinted it eight years later.

And yet… According to Gwyneth Jones in her collection of critical essays, Imagination/Space, Russ’s The Two of Them was written as a deliberate response to Suzette Haden Elgin’s ‘For the Sake of Grace’, a Coyote Jones story, first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction in May 1969. In Elgin’s story, also set in a society based on Islam, poetry is the only route to fame and fortune available to women. Zubeydeh (Russ even uses the same names in her novel) remains determined to become a poet, even though failure caused her aunt to go “mad”. Russ was not responding to Elgin’s depiction of Islam, but to her central premise of the failure by women to reach male-imposed standards driving those women insane – which in turn harkens back to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’. This, at least, explains Russ’s decision to create the society of Ka’abah – although it does not, I would argue, excuse the hash she made of it. Ka’abah was not necessary to continue the conversation begun by Gilman, although it was to directly address Elgin’s story.

I suppose it could be argued Russ’s invented society is peripheral to the main argument of The Two of Them. And it’s certainly true there’s more to the novel than just Ka’abah… It might also be argued the sections set on Ka’abah are intended to be humorous – it’s not a commentary on Islam, it’s certain elements of the religion exagerrated for comic, and/or parodic, effect. Except it doesn’t read funny, and it doesn’t feel funny. And that interpretation only really works if the reader is aware of the Elgin story (even if they have not read it, which I have not), which I was not until beginning this review.

The Two of Them does some things really well, things that were characteristically, er, Russ-ian (Russ-esque?). It’s a much cleverer book than it initially seems, and much more experimental narratively as it progresses. Irene is a great character (although I was less impressed by Ernst). But there’s that massive hurdle in the first third of the book to get over. And I don’t think the novel makes its case well enough for it to be forgivable.

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 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

Skirmish, Melisa Michaels

skirmishSkirmish, Melisa Michaels (1985)
Review by Ian Sales

As a general rule, we prefer not to review books published as YA on SF Mistressworks although, of course, there has been a long tradition of “juveniles” in science fiction and many genre writers who wrote successful sf adult (ie, not YA) novels also wrote works aimed at a slightly younger audience. It might even be argued that, for example, the works of Andre Norton, although not published as such, qualify as juveniles. Indeed, some genre works originally published for an adult audience have in the past few years been re-released as YA – David and Leigh Edding’s Belgariad is a good example.

Skirmish, however, is the opposite. It was originally published in the US by Tor as a sf novel for adults, the first volume of the Skyrider quintet. In the UK, however, it was published by The Women’s Press science fiction YA imprint Livewire – which only ever published two books, Skirmish and Gwyneth Jones’s The Hidden Ones (which was written specifically for Livewire). Which makes for an odd YA line, as Skirmish is arguably not YA.

Melacha Rendell, AKA the Skyrider, is a pilot in the Belt. A recent war between the Company and the freelancers has left relations between the two somewhat strained. While Melacha, who is the best pilot in the Belt, works for the Company, she also smuggles supplies to freelancers. Nor did she fight during the war – a fact which some people hold against her. After a run-in with the Company’s Patrol, Melacha only just makes it back to Home Base in one piece, although her shuttle is wrecked on landing. She’s far from happy about this, especially since she might have made it if another shuttle hadn’t jumped the line to the launchpad. Melacha takes an immediate dislike to the pilot of that shuttle, Jamin… But the two are thrown together when the Company asks them to rescue a space liner with sabotaged engines currently falling into the Sun – Melacha because she’s the best pilot and the only one capable of docking with the runaway liner, and Jamin because he’s qualified to pilot a liner. Meanwhile, Melacha’s feelings toward Jamin have softened somewhat since she discovered that a) he’s a freefall mutant, who can only survive in a gravity environment thanks to a severe drug regimen, and b) he has a six-year-old son, Collis, who can’t survive in freefall.

Melacha demands a Falcon-class shuttle as payment, and in this spacecraft, newly named Defiance, Melacha and Jamin – and stowaway Collis – head off to save the liner. But a series of events threaten to sabotage the mission, and Defiance, and Melacha puts two and two together and realises that it’s not the Insurrectionists who sabotaged the liner as claimed…

While Melacha is an adult protagonist, and there’s little in Skirmish which is self-evidently YA, I can see why it might be seen as such since it really is quite simplistic. Melacha may be an engaging protagonist, but her love-hate relationship with Jamin runs on well-travelled lines. Her maternal feelings toward Collis, however, are a nice touch, and not so common among heroines of her ilk. The background, on the other hand, is a standard Wild West in space – the pilots even wear guns, although, bizarrely, despite only being stun guns it’s considered taboo to actually fire them. Otherwise, the politics are of the sort seen all too often in US heartland science fiction – bad Company, good pioneering freelancers, and the sort of “Rand lite” economic structures that are far too prevalent in the genre.

One piece of silliness in the book, however, involves those “freefall mutants”. In the universe of Skirmish, humans are split into three types: Fallers, Grounders and Floaters. Fallers have a gene which allows them to live in zero gravity, and they need drugs to survive in a 1G environment. Grounders, conversely, can live in zero-G for short periods, but need regular bouts in 1G. Floaters are equally at home in both, without penalty. Melacha is, of course, a Floater. It’s all complete nonsense, of course; and it was in 1985, when this book was originally published. The Asteroid Belt is also treated as though the asteroids were no more than a few thousand metres apart, rather than thousands of kilometres.

Skirmish is a light and quick read, and though Melacha is a likeable female protagonist with a great deal of agency, the science fiction furniture is a bit too well-worn for the book to stand out. The other YA novel published under the Livewire imprint, Gwyneth Jones’s The Hidden Ones, which was original to Livewire, is much the better book.

Correspondence, Sue Thomas

Correspondence, Sue Thomas (1991)
Review by Ian Sales

There is Rosa and Shirley and you and Mr Johnson and Marie. You are a cyborg; you are also the person consuming the fantasy produced by the cyborg. Marie is your guide. Mr Johnson would sooner the fantasy went the way he wanted. Rosa and Shirley are the fantasy; they have been friends for years.

Right from its opening chapter titled ‘Who Are You?’ Correspondence tells us it is not a novel which is going to follow typical narrative forms.

Now, if you look under your seat you should find a starter pack containing guilt, loneliness and desire. It’s there? Oh good, at least someone has been doing their job properly. Now on this trip we are also fortunate to have been givenm a free sample of wish-fulfilment, although I must warn you to use it in single doses only. (p 3)

So says Marie, introducing the reader to the “fantasy” which will follow. And certainly there is plenty of “guilt, loneliness and desire” in Correspondence. And not just in the fantasy featuring Rosa and Shirley. There is a woman who has had parts of her body replaced with machinery, chiefly so she does not have to engage with the world and the people in it, but which also helps her construct a fantasy by plugging into a computer terminal in her home. Both her transformation and her job are attempts to expunge an incident from her past. Her narrative is written in the second person.

The fantasy on which this woman is working features two women called Rosa and Shirley. They are of an unstated age, live opposite each other, and are close friends. That is until Rosa suddenly decides she belongs in the country, and promptly moves there. The two characters are introduced in “Datablocks” A through E, and it is the last which begins the narrative which is the fantasy. Rosa has travelled to Ireland in the company of a man, Conal, she believes to be the love of her life. She is a serial romantic. And like her other affairs, this one comes to an abrupt end. The magic simply evaporates. And so Shirley comes to fetch her.

At intervals, Marie pops up with a *BREAK* to keep the readers on the straight and narrow – Mr Johnson, the only reader named, has a habit of bending the storyline in directions he wants it to go. His changes are not necessarily bad – but they are not Rosa’s story, they are not Shirley’s story. And while it may be implied there is a degree of freedom in the experiencing of the fantasy, the story-line as such is fixed – or rather, it is the responsibility of the cyborg woman.

Correspondence is also interspersed with “infodumps”, mostly about the parent corporation for which the cyborg woman works, Regis, though one does reproduce lines from Andrew Marvell’s ‘The Garden’ (p 79).

Science fiction’s pulp adventure beginnings have left it with a preference for traditional narrative structures. The genre has its share of experimenters, true – Samuel R Delany springs to mind – but typical examples of structural experimentation in sf novel-length fiction include Iain M Banks’ Use of Weapons, with its reverse-chronology narrative, or Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, with its non-linear alternating chapters, and neither are especially unconventional. Correspondence is far more adventurous – there’s that second-person, for a start. And not just addressing you as reader, but also you as creator of what is being read.

Correspondence experiments too in its approach to genre and genre tropes. It is not science fiction qua science fiction. Rosa and Shirley’s story, a fantasy created by the science-fictional narrative of the cyborg woman, is closer to magical realism than it is to any other identifiable mode of fiction. When Shirley visits Rosa in her country cottage she finds her friend has become some sort of Earth Mother. While finding this repellent, Shirley is also drawn to Rosa, a turning-over of their relationship up to that point. When her affairs ended badly, Rosa leant on Shirley; now Rosa is Shirley’s balm.

Rosa had ceased to think. Shirley wished that she could do the same, and she knew that she couldn’t, but she also knew that she wished to remain silent for the rest of her life.

And so it was that Shirley crept out of bed, and entered the garden at the dead of night to find a young bloom of a rose which might live for a while. She placed the flower upon the dewy grass, put Joey in the car, and drove seventy miles through the remaining dark until she came to a dawn-lit beach just as the seagulls awoke. (p 123)

But then the two women, and their histories, are fabrications. Their creator is in need of a balm, as she explains to two door-stepping religious evangelists. She tells them her story – her life, not the fantasy she is creating for Regis – and then reveals the transformations that have been wrought on her body. But there is one last transformation she does not discuss: the presence of seemingly-malign code in her machine mind. This code is a virus, and it calls itself Rosa.

So what exactly is going on in Correspondence? We are explicitly asked to identify with Rosa and Shirley by Marie, but what of their creator, the cyborg woman? She has as much guilt, loneliness and desire as her two creations – if not more, given that their emotional landscapes, and the situations in which they find themselves, are her invention. Yet they are also a way of holding onto her humanity, or re-identifying with a race which she feels will no longer accept her. She was driven to transform herself by an incident in her past – a car accident which killed her husband and child. Her grief has made an automaton of her, and she is busy literalising the numbness which has resulted. Yet she creates the lives of Rosa and Shirley, and in them she finds some small form of redemption… but one which she can never herself partake of.

And why “Correspondence“? It is not a conversation between persons by means of letters, it is not an agreement of situations with an expected outcome. One narrative is the output of another, which is in turn glossed and annotated by yet more narratives. Is a fantasy a natural consequence of insulating yourself from emotional pain? Is it a pre-requisite? It is, after all, the cyborg woman’s transformation which allows her to generate the fantasy, it is a consequence of the transformation.

Some books are not easy reads because they ask a lot of the reader. In Correspondence, there is no compact between reader and writer because the relationship is not implied but baldly stated by Maria – especially to Mr Johnson. There is still the cyborg woman, with whom we are asked to identify by Thomas using the baldest possible technique for doing so: the second person. Correspondence is not immersive, it does not present a world which can be unquestioningly experienced. It does not possess a clear linear plot, in which effect follows cause. The reader must do more than parse the words on the page to follow the story. Correspondence is not an easy read, it is a book that demands thought. How rewarding that makes it depends on how closely you engage with it. But it is at least a novel that requires engagement.