We Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ

wewhoareWe Who Are About To…, Joanna Russ (1975)
Review by Bart

After finishing a book, I usually read up on other reviews and stuff before starting my own. There’s no use in repeating what others already have written. When I came across a review by L. Timmel Duchamp – an SF author herself – published in the February 2006 issue of the New York Review of Science Fiction, it quickly dawned on me it was no use of even starting the review I had in mind, as her text said about everything I wanted to say – references to Robinson Crusoe included – but better. It also opened up my understanding of the novel. Not that I had totally missed one of the political messages of the book, but I hadn’t perceived its full importance:

As I read it, the soliloquy not only allows the narrator to put herself – once a “Neochristian” – on trial for murder, but also explores enough of her history to make it possible for the reader to understand her series of responses to the situation following the crash. Through the soliloquy we discover that the narrator’s despair is not so much existential as political in the most fundamental sense of the word. At the time of the crash, the narrator was in full flight from a life of political activism and idealism that had smashed on the rocks of discursive politics. As part of a burgeoning movement of dissent, she learned the painful lesson of who may speak in a polis controlled by vast political and financial machinery (which these days we generally name “global capitalism”).

The main gist of what I want to say is that We Who Are About To… is a lot more than a feminist novel. Framing the novel only as such – an easy mistake as Russ is the author of the better known The Female Man, and maybe even more importantly as identity politics is important in today’s discourse on culture – does the novel a tremendous disservice. Not that its feminist stance is not important, on the contrary, and well-done at that. But I’ll refrain from elaborating further, and urge you to read the entirety of Duchamp’s take – if you’ve read the book already that is, as the first experience of this book suffers badly if you’ve had too many spoilers.

What’s left for me to say? I thought maybe of writing a text on how the unnamed protagonist of this book is a kind of opposite to the childbearing character in PD James’s Children Of Men, but doing so would also focus on the feminist side of the novel, and that wouldn’t be in sync with what I wrote above.

For that same reason I’ll refrain from elaborate comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale, a book that’s about forced pregnancies as well. Atwood’s book is 10 years younger, but it’s a lot less radical in conception. More importantly: as a social analysis, it is also a lot less believable.

Then Lord Of The Flies popped into my head, and sure, there are parallels aplenty, if you just look at what Wikipedia has to say about Golding’s themes:

At an allegorical level, the central theme is the conflicting human impulses toward civilization and social organization—living by rules, peacefully and in harmony—and toward the will to power. Themes include the tension between groupthink and individuality, between rational and emotional reactions, and between morality and immorality.

What’s maybe left underdeveloped in Duchamp’s review, is the existential, philosophical aspect of We Who Are About To… Not that I have a lot to say about that either, just that at certain times the main character seems to live out her life simply being – and explicitly referring to Eastern modes of thinking: acceptance, the works, including Tao – yes, Tao, again. I think it’s one of the important themes in the book, and I could quote a few bits here and there, but ultimately it would be like reading a rehash of stuff you’ve already read on all those millennial lifestyle blogs – I know they didn’t exist in the 1970s, but hey, what kind of reader of speculative literature would you be if you’d object to a bad time-travel paradox?

There’s one final thing I want to highlight, and that’s Russ’s visionary power. Certain aspects of male chauvinist psychology are brilliantly evoked in the following passage, and without a lot of words Russ nails a part of the reason why movements opposing the importance of identity politics have gained so much traction recently.

Alan looks happy. I mean it: not triumphant, not overbearing, simply happy. He glows. The twenty-first century can’t have been kind to this enormous fellow, and now he’s discovering other interesting things to do: chopping down trees, lifting rock with his bare hands, fighting, knocking down women. Too bad he’s so young…

It might read like caricature, but I’m quite sure it isn’t. The increased empathy of the last couple of decades indeed hasn’t been kind to the mindset of those people that reserve their moral concern for a circle that’s less expanded than the circles of the progressive discourse that was dominant before Trump got elected.

I guess I’m only left with a quick assessment. The prose is snappy and confident. Russ shows keen psychological insight more than a few times. As far as plot and structure goes her choices are awesome: this book is not what you think it will be when you start reading it with only the feminist-planet-crash blurb in mind. Russ made some radical decisions, and it’s best those aren’t spoiled.

In short, We Are About To… is a brave book, not an easy, generic read. It’s definitely recommended for fans of vintage scifi that do not mind their stuff a bit different.

This review originally appeared on Weighing a Pig Doesn’t Fatten It.

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The Hidden Side of the Moon, Joanna Russ

hidden_side_moonThe Hidden Side of the Moon, Joanna Russ (1987)
Review by Ian Sales

There can be little doubt by now that Joanna Russ was one of the most important figures in American twentieth-century science fiction, although for many years, particularly afterward, her contribution to the genre was downplayed or ignored. Much, in fact, as she described in her important work, How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Of course, she was not the only female sf writer to be “forgotten”. From the twenty-first century it seems like there was a concerted effort from the late 1970s through the 1980s to write female authors out of science fiction history. Only a few managed to hang on in there – Ursula K Le Guin, of course, who is often the only woman writer on so-called lists of “classic sf”. And this despite a huge number of female mid-list writers publishing throughout the 1980s, some of whom went on to bestseller status, like Lois McMaster Bujold.

Joanna Russ won four major genre awards, and was nominated 41 times, during her career; and yet by the turn of the century she seemed to be known only as the author of a little-read classic, The Female Man. In part, I suspect this was due to the fact she was a vocal feminist and feminist writer, and conservative sf fans, echoing a move in wider US culture, tried to demonise feminism and feminist sf. Fortunately, science fiction is a progressive genre, and many of its fans fought against this reactionary rewriting of sf history.

Having said all that, I still think Russ is under-appreciated. While her novels now often appear on “classic sf” lists, much of her short fiction output has been overlooked. And she wrote a lot of short fiction – fifty-six stories between 1955 and 1996. The Hidden Side of the Moon, a collection from late in her career, contains twenty-six stories published between 1959 and 1984. Some are less than a page long. Not all were originally published in genre venues.

Twenty-six stories is too many to cover individually.  Overall, they give an impression of fierce intelligence I don’t recall getting quite so strongly from other Russ collections (although certainly from individual stories). This is especially odd given I don’t believe the collection was curated, or its contents chosen for particular reasons. It may simply be a consequence of the fact that not all of the stories are science fiction or fantasy.

The opener, ‘The Little Dirty Girl’, is a chilling ghost story, told in epistolary style. In ‘Sword Blades and Poppy Seed’, a female writer rails against society, before being told she should, in fact she will, use the nom de plume George Sand. ‘This Afternoon’ describes a play in a park, in which one of the actors plays a satyr, only he may not be an actor…

‘”I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!”‘ is a Cthulhu story. In fact, a number of the stories in The Hidden Side of the Moon play with, or reference, other literary works, something Russ did throughout her career. Given that ‘Window Dressing’ was originally published in 1970, in New Worlds of Fantasy 2, I suspect it’s not referencing the film Mannequin, although it shares the same story.  ‘The Clichés from Outer Space’ is about a friend of the writer who is an anthologist of science fiction stories and, well, the title says it all. After reading the slushpile for the anthology, the narrator: “… that pile of rejected mss must have been the vehicle for a curse … How do I know? I began to write trash.” Some of which is then given.

‘Nor Custom Stale’, published in 1959, is the oldest story in the collection. It’s a variation on ‘The Machine Stops’ by EM Forster, although here it’s the reverse which is true, and which leads to a strange, inexplicable result. ‘The Experimenter’ is a sort of fantasy, but ‘Reasonable People’ is definitely science fiction. Russ’s stories – and these two are good examples – often seem to end on single lines which question everything has gone before. The final three lines of ‘Reasonable People’, for instance, go:

Isn’t it a lovely world?
And so it is. It is.
For reasonable people

 

Both ‘Visiting’ and ‘Visiting Day’, titled here ‘I. Visiting’ and ‘II. Visiting Day’, although originally published in 1967 and 1970, and ‘Old Thoughts, Old Presences’, which contains two stories, ”The Autobiography of My Mother’ and ‘Daddy’s Girl’ are more literary experiments than genre fiction. And yet, genre reading protocols still work on them – if anything, Russ’s genre fiction had a tendency to confound genre protocols more than her non-genre work did. Or rather, ‘Old Thoughts, Old Presences’ can be read as genre; but something like ‘The Mystery of the Young Gentleman’ (collected in Extra(Ordinary) People) is clearly genre but resists an obvious read.

The more of Russ’s fiction I read, the further I want to explore her oeuvre. From what I have seen to date, it is variable but, to borrow from Longfellow, “when she was good, she was very, very good”. But more than that, there was a fierce intelligence driving her fiction – and her non-fiction too, of course – and a fierce commitment to feminism evident in pretty much every word she wrote. As I have said before, the giants of twentieth century fiction we have been lumbered with are Heinlein, Clarke and Asimov; when the true giants were, and are, Russ, Delany and Le Guin.

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.

The Female Man, Joanna Russ

thefemalemanThe Female Man, Joanna Russ (1975)
Review by Megan AM

“Everyone knows that much as women want to be scientists and engineers, they want foremost to be womanly companions to men (what?) and caretakers of childhood; everyone knows that a large part of a woman’s identity inheres in the style of her attractiveness.”

“Laura is daydreaming that she’s Genghis Khan.” (p 60)

Joanna Russ’s 1975 turbulent treatise on female oppression, The Female Man, begs for interaction from the reader. It taunts with its candor. Even as a forty-year-old book, it dares you to disagree. For the modern reader of this not-really-tale, side effects may include chest tightening “buts”, understanding “ohs”, and flustered “oh come ons”.

In a recent article with ShelfAwareness.com, Kim Stanley Robinson describes Russ’s The Female Man as the “book that made me laugh the hardest while slapping me in the face”. He couldn’t be more precise.

The lives of four women collide: the uber-feminine doormat Jeannine, the rough-and-tumble person Janet, the agro-reactionary murderer Jael, and the rational, scholarly Joanna, our dear author, who communicates her own internal arguments and confusions via these four women. On the face of it, the women are presented as coming from four alternate worlds, but one infers quickly that the characters are non-entities, and that Russ is essentially arguing with herself, and with society, via these personalities. She conveys a divided female psyche that despises the status quo, yearns for gender equality, yet doesn’t want to annoy people, and feels guilty for achieving her own version of equality by essentially giving up her femininity in the academic world.

Four women. Four J names. Different facets of Russ. Different facets of womanhood. Sometimes the narrator refers to “the Weak One” and we don’t know who that is. Is it Jeannine, the young and naïve girly girl, who wants ever so much to get married, but for some reason she won’t? But she’s the quickest to accept and justify violence.

Uncertainties like that define the relative amorphousness of this novel. Its structure is as fractured as the author’s identity, with chapters ranging in length from one sentence to one paragraph to ten pages. Storylines bounce to and fro, interrupted by personal statements, poems, anecdotes, and uncomfortable revelations about self and society.

This is a book of harsh truths, stylized in biting, provocative, funny ways:

In 1975, Russ reminds us, “There are more whooping cranes in the United States of America than there are women in Congress.” (p 61)

She takes on marriage: “You can’t imbibe someone’s success by fucking them” (p 65).

She discusses social conditioning:

There is the vanity training, the obedience training, the self-effacement training, the deference training, the dependency training, the passivity training, the rivalry training, the stupidity training, the placation training. How am I to put this together with my human life, my intellectual life, my solitude, my transcendence, my brains, and my fearful, fearful ambition? …You can’t unite woman and human any more than you can unite matter and anti-matter… (p 151)

She posits a world without men by introducing Janet, from Whileaway, which is ten centuries ahead in an alternate future, where men have been long ago wiped out by way of disease: “And about this men thing, you must remember that to me they are a particularly foreign species; one can make love with a dog, yes?” (p 33)

Russ’s witty cantankerousness is hard to put down, even if some of her references feel outdated to younger readers. Her portrayal of a typical party includes inane social chatter that illuminates the patronizing gender games people play (“His Little Girl” and “Ain’t It Awful”), which seems ridiculous to this late-born Gen-Xer, who hopes no one still talks that way today. It’s hard to believe people ever talked that way.

Even if some of her portrayals might not quite mesh with today, enough truths bubble up to make this a relevant and influential discourse on gender relations. The majority of women I encounter still view marriage as a goal and career, their identities exist through their kids, and the career gap is still gaping.

But most compelling about this novel is the intimacy Russ shares. She splays out her soul, a psychic vivisection for the world to see. Blood pumping, heart beating, eyes agape, and mouth roaring. Sometimes it’s too much and we feel embarrassed for her. Its cringe-inducing roughness is a little too roar-full. Younger generations like myself may balk at the more extreme portrayals of casual sexism, or find this mid-century roaring tiresome. (Women of my generation don’t roar. We death-stare. Much more effective.) Most surprising for me is realizing that this was written only four years before I was born. I was born into this society???

But even if society has progressed beyond the immobile social roles of Russ’s generation, and even if younger generations can’t completely relate to the society Russ depicts, The Female Man still gives us kernels of familiar insidiousness that peek out from the corners. Today, social media has allowed us to see more brash displays of dangerous misogyny, but it’s the subtle sexism that’s most overlooked, and easiest to ignore. Russ reminds us of those places where our standards have been calloused, where our vigilance has waned.

Although The Female Man is a product of its time, we are not quite living in its desired legacy. This should be required reading for all. We should never become comfortable enough to allow this novel to be forgotten.

This review originally appeard on From couch to moon.

Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

02_herlandHerland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915)
Review by Jack Deighton

This is one of the earliest pieces of feminist Science Fiction, an attempt to imagine what a society without men might look like. In its form it is perhaps rooted in its time; on an expedition three men from the US hear rumours of a land of only women somewhere in the upper reaches of “a great river” – a land which no-one has ever seen but was said to be “dangerous, deadly” for any man to go there; and from which no man had ever returned – in other words a similar scenario to “Lost Worlds” of dinosaurs. That this is merely an authorial device to entice the men (and the reader) into Herland is revealed when they in fact travel by aeroplane into that mythical place, cut off by earthquake in the long ago, and find no danger but rather an initial sequestration along with a tolerant acceptance mediated by a kind of amusement.

As tends to be the way of these things all is couched as a remembrance by one of the three men, Vandyck Jennings, tracking his progress from a belief that there must be men somewhere in Herland and that social organisation without men must necessarily be lacking to an understanding of the dynamics and motivations of this strange country. But there are no men. The women in Herland reproduce parthenogenetically (how this happened is rather skipped over, being more like a miraculous occurrence than a demonstrable process but there would have been no Herland without it.) Social relations in Herland are such that violence and criminality do not occur. In effect they have been bred out. Roles – including childcare and education, though the latter is something of a life-long endeavour – are performed by those who have an aptitude for them and who specialise in that field. The contrast with the outside world is stark, especially in regard to the valuation of each member of society.

Initially the three are bemused by the appearance of their captors, “In all our discussions and speculations we had always unconsciously assumed that the women would be young. Most men do think that way, I fancy,” and – a telling aside – “‘Woman’ in the abstract is young, and, we assume, charming. As they get older they pass off the stage, somehow.”

The three do eventually form relationships with inhabitants of Herland (somewhat oddly the three women whom they first encountered on arrival) but with the difference in societal norms things do not go smoothly. Of the three intruders Terry O Nicolson is the one who thinks women like to be mastered. “His idea was to take. He thought, he honestly believed, that women like it. Not the women of Herland! Not Alima!” This conflict drives the novel’s conclusion and his banishment.

In his explanations of his world to those in Herland, Vandyck realises that, “Patriotism, red hot, is compatible with the existence of a neglect of national interests, a dishonesty, a cold indifference to the suffering of millions. Patriotism is largely pride, and very largely combativeness. Patriotism generally has a chip on its shoulder,” and religion’s “common basis being a Dominant Power or Powers, and some Special Behaviour, mostly taboos to please or placate.” His leads his companion Ellador to envisage sex as Vandyck describes its place in the outside world not, as with animals, for the one purpose of procreation but as specialised to a “higher, purer nobler use”.

Books such as this cannot be subjected to the usual reviewing criteria. The central focus of a novel about a utopia is that of the nature of the society described and how it differs from, and reflects on, ours. The idea is the substance of the novel. Though illumination of the human condition is not, such considerations as plot and character are secondary. Not that there is no character development in Herland: two of the three male adventurers who venture into this world come to their own terms with it. Nicolson the macho man of course does not. (Arguably he cannot, and without his following his instincts the events which led to Jennings providing us with this account would not have occurred.)

It might be argued that Herland is not Science Fiction. But if Science Fiction is the literature of ideas (often a reason for why some SF fails to produce rounded characterisation, but the SF background can be as much of a character as any humans in the story) then Herland definitely counts. Whatever, one hundred years on from its first publication Herland can still be read with facility. It still stands up. It still marks a contrast between what our society is and what it might aspire to.

This review originally appeared on A Son of the Rock.

Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison

memoirsofaspacewomanMemoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)
Review by Megan AM

First published in 1962 by Gollancz, then reprinted by The Women’s Press in London in 1985, it’s no argument that this novel has experienced swings of attention at times, yet without a place on any of the major SF lists, and despite Mitchison’s long literary career, its memory as a critical piece of genre is threatened.

In Memoirs of a Spacewoman, we meet Mary, a communication specialist for Terran interstellar missions in the far undetermined future. She writes about some of her more memorable experiences in this capacity, describing the strange planets and beings she has visited, including her struggles to decode the various unique ways other beings communicate, including by touch and telepathy. Her memoirs also reflect upon her relationships with former lovers, a couple of unusual pregnancies, and the way in which parent/child affiliations have changed in the far future, particularly when interstellar space travel is involved.

A kind of anthropologist, Mary inserts herself into these strange alien civilizations to decode the mostly nonverbal communications of lifeforms drastically different from humans. Ambigendered Martians. Psychic radiates. Centipede-like creatures with brain matter smeared on their sides. Oozy tissues that symbiose with Terran hosts in a kind of pregnancy. Giant butterflies in need of some surgical lessons on C-sections. Mitchison presents a wide variety of strange lifeforms, all encapsulated in this little novel, making this the most creative book I’ve read about alien cultures.

Themes of blame and guilt are touched upon in each of Mary’s stories, starting with her bungled operation with the blood-thirsty Epsies, where her objectivity as a scientist is colored by her own surprise at their disturbing behaviors and her guilt over her subsequent judgment of these creatures. She learns from her mission leader, “humiliation, however it was produced, was a necessary stage in exploration” (p 45). Following chapters hint at her guilt over a couple of misguided pregnancies, which produce a haploid Martian daughter, and a couple of unsuccessful alien grafts. She sometimes regrets the estrangement that life among the stars causes between herself and her children and lovers (although this is the norm for her society).

Then, the longest of the tales, Mary introduces us to a planet where happy, innocent caterpillars engage in fecal art displays and group sexual wallowing, until angry butterflies attack with a psychic guilt ambush:

The wretched caterpillars curled up or crept aside, the colours paled, the eye spots dimmed. They seemed to shrivel as from an inward searing. We watched with intent sympathy,… Yet we were also aware of the attackers, the whirl and flurry of wings, the colours beyond anything I have ever perceived on any planet of any sun, the antennae stiff and pointing like weapons of offence, the legs glittering and jointed as strange armour might have been.

… Even if one is not directly under it, such a torrent of blame is unnerving. (p 92)

Clearly a commentary on emotional abuse and the paralyzing guilt it creates, as well as an absurdist reframing of moral attitudes toward idleness and sexuality, but it’s also a cool alien depiction that is both bizarre and ambiguous. The scientists soon figure out this strange and puzzling situation, but find themselves at odds with their objective constraints and moral inclinations to intervene and educate the butterflies, and it’s never clear whether the butterflies’ behavior, disturbing as it is, is appropriate. As one of Mary’s colleagues takes decisive action, serious consequences occur and the mission is terminated early.

Lots of focus on sexuality and weird pregnancies put this book in the danger zone of bad SF cliché, and I’ll be the first to admit I run screaming from weird pregnancy fiction, so I can understand why some people might choose to ignore this book. It doesn’t help that Mitchison’s narrative embraces many of the deterministic gender values of the day, when valuing women means reinforced gender coding (“I always feel that biology and, of course, communication are essentially women’s work, and glory” (p 18)). But ignore that because Mitchison touches all the right sci-fi buttons: she captures the imagination without the neon-colored message flags one might expect from feminist science fiction. This is pure science fiction: weird, wondrous, and way out there.

Speaking of alien communication, sexuality, and gender determinism, I also view this as a suitable companion piece to its timeline peer, the 1961 award-winning Stranger in a Strange Land. Read both and tell me which one feels more relatable, relevant, and genuinely “of the future”, and which one feels like poorly-aged, sixties schlock.

This review originally appeared on From Couch to Moon.

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.