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.
However, ‘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.
Overall, 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. She wrote two further sf novels, Solution Three, and Not By Bread Alone, which I’ll be reviewing later in the autumn. I feel a Mitchison binge coming on.
* After Ian reposted this review on sf mistressworks, several readers wrote in to suggest these names:
Molly Gloss, Karen J Fowler, David Mitchell, Cecelia Holland, Marge Piercy, Paul Anderson, L Sprague de Camp, Thomas M Disch, and John Brunner.