Assessing Naomi Mitchison by her science fiction is a bit like assessing Charles Darwin by his golf game. But her 1962 standalone Memoirs of a Spacewoman is the only work of hers I have read, so … here we are.
The humans who set out to explore the rest of universe are a far more mature lot than the explorers who landed on Mars and Venus. In its youth, humanity was aggressive and expansionist. Now humans and their Martian partners take a more enlightened and dispassionate view of the universe.
That’s the theory, anyway.
Mary is one of the elite, those few who embrace time blackout so that they can roam the galaxies, exploring and researching. This means alienation from the time-bound mass of humanity on Earth. To the explorers, this seems a fair trade. They roam until old age or misadventure overtake them.
Mary’s specialty is communication, a challenging field when the gap that needs to be bridged is not between humans and humans, but humans and beings entirely dissimilar.
Mary tells her story, or rather stories, in a calm, serene tone that mutes the challenges she faced, from: alien cultures enigmatic beyond comprehension to others all too familiar in form. There are also personal challenges that range from mere romance to unexpected experiments in parenthood.
Complicating matters is the explorers’ belief that they have neither the wisdom nor the right to tamper in alien affairs. Their credo is “observation only.” A fine ideal. Unfortunately, some of the situations the humans and their partners encounter seem to demand intervention. It is also sadly true that it is impossible to observe without interacting with the observed in some way — an interaction that affects all participants.
The University of Waterloo’s Dana Porter Arts Library has still has the 1976 New English Library’s hardcover reprint that I first read way back in the Disco Era. Not the same edition: the very same book! I wonder how many times other people have signed it out since I last read this book? Enough that it was not retired from the shelves but not so many that it wore out.…
This edition was published in Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison’s SF Master series . It was (as far as I can tell) the sole book written by a woman that those two luminaries felt worthy of inclusion in their rather eclectic selection 1 . It is no surprise that the edition comes with a glowing introduction by Hilary Rubinstein explaining why (against all expectations) Mitchison was worthy of inclusion in the series. He praises in particular Mitchison’s sexual frankness, unusual in science fiction in general in 1962, let alone in science fiction written by women authors (who, Rubinstein seems to think, were as rare as painite)2.
Perhaps the most memorable passage in the introduction is the section in which Rubinstein assures the reader that while Mitchison may not have been a scientist herself, she “through birth, upbringing and the company she has kept, has an instinctive understanding of scientific method and scientific values” and that the accomplishments of her sons show that “inherited scientific genes have clearly been passed on to the next generation.”
In fact Mitchison was a scientist, at least in the early part of the century. See, for example, “Reduplication in Mice.” But she was not all that interested in writing diamond-hard SF, it would seem… or perhaps it’s that her protagonist, Mary, is not all that good at translating technical detail in something a non-expert could understand, The setting of this novel is also remarkably vague: humans and Martians can travel to other galaxies, and this involves a lot of time. There are a lot of intelligent aliens out there. Don’t ask for details (chronology, maps, star names).
Modern readers may find Mary’s take on gender roles rather essentialist. But do consider that while Mitchison’s protagonist was suggesting that perhaps women might be better suited to the biological sciences than physics, Randall Garrett was proposing that women would be easier to manage if only they were lobotomized. I’ve certainly read Tiptree-award long-listed books from previous decades that evinced a similar gender essentialism.
Mary is straightforward and frank about her desires. She’s quite matter of fact about the outcomes of her various affairs, deliberate and otherwise. She’s not indifferent when her friends and loved ones die, as explorers so often do, but neither is she incapacitated by grief. This may be a side-effect of the author’s age: anyone born when she was born, who lived through what she did, would have had to come to terms with mortality. This may come across as cold-bloodedness, but I do not think it is.
Memoirs isn’t really a novel as such so much as a series of anecdotes from Mary’s career to date. Not only that… the book is short. Only 160 pages in hardcover. Yet, despite its brevity and the lack of structure, the novel made quite an impression at the time , and is still considered important enough to keep in print.
Memoirs of a Spacewoman is available here.
1: The full list of titles, as far as I can tell, was
Brain Wave by Poul Anderson
Lieut Gulliver Jones: His Vacation by Edwin Lester Arnold
Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement
Other Worlds by Cyrano de Bergerac
Martian Time-Slip by Philip K. Dick
No Man Friday by Rex Gordon
The Paradox Men by Charles L. Harness
A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! by Harry Harrison
The Strange Invaders by Alun Llewellyn
The Mind of Mr. Soames by Charles Eric Maine
The Caltraps of Time by David I. Masson
Memoirs of a Spacewoman by Naomi Mitchison
Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore
Land Under England by Joseph O’Neill
Ring Around the Sun by Clifford D. Simak
Borderline by Vercors
2: Rubinstein is particularly impressed because Mitchison was born in 1897 and wrote her novel before Women’s Lib got going, which suggests to me perhaps the author was not quite as up on the history of sexual liberation as they might have been. It seems to me people who came of age in the Jazz Era, as Mitchison did, were not all sheltered traditionalists where sex was involved.
3: For example, Larry Niven gave Naomi Mitchison’s name to the damsel-in-distress featured in his 1980 The Patchwork Girl .