Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) by Naomi Mitchison

MemoirsofaSpacewoman1Hats off to Joachim at Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations for his promotion of this underappreciated sci-fi jewel from the early 1960s. 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, 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.

MemoirsofaSpacewoman3Themes 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” (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 (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.

MemoirsofaSpacewoman2Lots 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” 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.

Advertisements

36 thoughts on “Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) by Naomi Mitchison

  1. Hestia says:

    Did you find Mary a somewhat unreliable narrator? I couldn’t decide. Either way, it’s an amazing book that should be on all the “best of” lists.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      The more I think about it, yes. I guess that’s pretty typical in “memoir-style”/fic, but Mary is so disconnected from humanity. Her work with alien beings seems to draw her further away from her relationships, so her depictions of people around her feel odd. Plus, she loses touch with reality during those two skin graft pregnancies, and you have to wonder if she ever fully recovers.

      Like

  2. wildbilbo says:

    I do like some genuinely ‘alien’ aliens, this sounds great.

    I don’t share your aversion to weird pregnancies, and I think it can be done well – although it *is* an overused trope and can be just a lazy plot device. That said, I’m probably biased having had a weird pregnancy sci-fi book idea floating in my head for a while now.

    Anyway, great review. 🙂
    KT

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      You should read “The Clichés from Outer Space” by Joanna Russ (if you can find it). It’s in the DESPATCHES FROM THE FRONTIERS OF THE FEMALE MIND anthology that I’m currently reading. Very funny story about the stuff that keeps popping up in SF slush piles.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. libbycole007 says:

    Like you, I usually avoid weird SF pregnancy stuff… But this book sounds decent, might have to check it out.

    http://libbycole.wordpress.com

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think this might be a fun read. The Lady Trent series is a favorite I currently reading, and feels like there might be a few similarities between the two, except this feels one more weird… a lot more weird.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I don’t know much about The Lady of Trent series, but if it involves a quiet exploration of other beings, it might seem familiar.

      Like

  5. You know, I don’t think I’ve ever read any “weird pregnancy” SF. Where have you read it so far? Just curious. I don’t know if I would run screaming from it or not. Guess it depends on the schlock factor.

    Speaking of which, oo oo, I haven’t read either of the books mentioned in that last paragraph, but I bet I know which one is likely to come across as schlock!

    Anyway, this sounds so weird and interesting. Though after reading your review I am still not sure about whether I want to read it or would be likely to enjoy it.

    Like

    • Joachim Boaz says:

      Judtih Merril’s seminal story “If Only a Mother” (1948).

      Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I think a lot of the weird preg stories come from the horror genre, and I just remember some of my childhood friends being kind of fascinated with them. Plus, it seems like every SF TV series has at least one weird pregnancy/violent birth/special offspring episode, so that gets kind of tiring. And I think I’ve read at least three different interviews with editors who basically say they’re tired of weird preg stories in their slush piles. Joanna Russ’ very funny story in DESPATCHES FROM THE FRONTIERS OF THE FEMALE MIND says about as much, too.

      I think you would like this story. It’s weird, it’s unusual, and there’s a quiet detachment about it that, while feeling very sci-fi, rejects the brash, arrogant spacefaring sci-fi pulp that you (and I) hate so much.

      Like

    • http://io9.com/the-most-ridiculous-mystical-pregnancies-in-fiction-1444515141

      A more common theme in horror and TV shows, but there it is. ROSEMARY’S BABY, THE MIDWICH CUCKOOS, LILITH’S BROOD, etc. It’s a cheap shot, and not just because it’s overused; it’s using ye olde cliche where women and children represent innocence and vulnerability, so a pregnant woman is an easy way to make someone like double vulnerable or something.

      Like

      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        I see lots of ugly messages in weird preg fic: Vulnerability, yes. Also, “woman stuff is so gross and fucked up.” Also, “you ladies better behave yourselves or this might happen to you.” It’s a dangerous place to go.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Don’t know if you read the io9 article, but it links one of Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women videos which hits a lot of those points… It’s singling out women based on their biology, for being female. It’s making a natural process into something terrifying, but to be honest that’s kind of what horror does. And then there’s the whole “male pregnancy” thing, used to terrify men by giving them unnatural feminine traits… Because ew cooties. 😐

          And I swear I’ll comment on the actual book eventually 🙂

          Like

          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            And I swear I’ll click on your link eventually. Not in a situation where I can do much surfing this week.

            Liked by 1 person

          • Uh oh, nothing serious I hope.

            Like

          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            Only as serious as “professional development.” Long days. Much people. So talkingest.

            Liked by 1 person

          • “It’s making a natural process into something terrifying, but to be honest that’s kind of what horror does.” Indeed, it’s simpler to accomplish that with pregnancy (the “invader”) because it’s such an obvious physical state. Which is not to say that millennia of misogyny haven’t fed the trope. Regardless of the author’s frame, though (e.g., “women are icky”), the essential message is the same: How the individual may feel alienated from his or her own body.

            Liked by 1 person

          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            Yeah, I get the alienation thing, but it’s been done a thousand times before and readers and editors are tired of seeing it.

            … And what’s this I’m about to read? A Tiptree-winning novel… written by a literary scholar… about a weird pregnancy…? (The Kappa Child) Hmm, we’ll see about this.

            Like

          • Everything’s been done a thousand times before. We’ve had this conversation 280389203019120qad203890 times.

            Like

        • Absolutely. Being on the Kate Wilhelm binge that I am, I did find myself cringing at what might happen when a pregnant character appeared (I think this is a sign that I also will run screaming from the SFF preggo stories discussed), but of course, its Kate Wilhelm so she does it well and the pregnant woman is strong and awesome and pregnancy isn’t depicted in that “this is a warning” or “look at how gross female biology is” way. She is also really good at showing how the men in the story try to make pregnancy into that gross thing so many SFF stories do, but with female characters who just disprove their bullshit time and again. Go Kate Wilhelm, go.

          Like

          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            Yeah, I won’t say women authors get a free pass with weird preg fic, but at least it comes from a less insidious place, albeit maybe a bit naive if they think it’s an original idea.

            Not that I’m much better about the insidiousness. I have personally cursed my own reproductive system since I was 12 years old because what an annoying, unwanted burden. Sexist oppression by my own organs, damn them, why didn’t biology ask me first.

            Like

    • Hestia says:

      Octavia Butler’s story “Bloodchild.” *shudders*

      Like

      • fromcouchtomoon says:

        What’s funny is, I really, really like that one, but I can’t put my finger on why that one is special. I guess the oppressive element helps?

        Like

    • PS Your use of the word schlock appears to be contagious. I found myself tossing it around yesterday just after reading this. Heh.

      Like

  6. Joachim Boaz says:

    I am glad you enjoyed it! I did find the interpersonal relationships between characters more appealing than the interactions with the aliens — but, Mitchison is very purposeful in having the interactions with the aliens reflect on her characters. Thus, the entire work feels preconceived and thought out (which can be rare in SF!) — great novel/review!

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I noticed a parallel between the butterflies and the colleague in the final tale, but I didn’t see anything like that in the previous tales. I should go back and look at it again.

      There was so much about shame and guilt throughout the entire novel, and she made it feel so oppressive and personal. The memoir style helped to foster that, but it made any human interactions feel so much more distant than anything else, which reinforced my sense of her disconnect and regret.

      Like

  7. unsubscriber says:

    Love that Four Square cover… envious! All the best.

    Like

  8. Joseph Nebus says:

    Wow; this sounds like a deeply fascinating book. I don’t remember having heard of it before and I’m sorry for that.

    Like

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Yeah, and you’re in the UK, right? I figured this one is better known in the UK and it’s us dumb Americans who are acting like it’s an ignored relic.

      Like

  9. Kate says:

    Mitchison scholars tends to see her as a feminist visionary, so Memoirs has always been regarded with respect in that (admittedly v small, mostly Scottish and feminist) community. Haven’t read it, because I keep failing to find a copy!

    Like

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I had the good fortune to read Mitchison’s short story in DESPATCHES FROM THE FRONTIERS OF THE FEMALE MIND yesterday. She plays with the idea of brain chemistry and perception, which is kind of cool, but I especially liked the way her narrator celebrates imagination. “our imaginations are better at turning the ordinary world into something genuinely pleasurable…”

      But more interesting than that is the intro blurb where it states, “She finds herself ‘somewhat out of sympathy with mainstream feminism. I have never been treated in any sense as an inferior by my male friends or relatives, but do prefer them to do car repairs and work out VAT…” I found the same sort of theme in Memoirs, although a lot of female characters were in leadership roles.

      I’m assuming her opinion evolved over time.

      Like

  10. […] This review originally appeared on From Couch to Moon. […]

    Like

  11. […] this observation did bring to mind the unfair comparison of Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of the Spacewoman (1962), which has the coolest assortment of non-humanish aliens […]

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s