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Memoirs of a Spacewoman Paperback – July 1, 1985
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
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Naomi Mitchison does not, apparently, really understand the elasticity of time we learned from Einstein. And she also does not understand what the word "galaxies" means.
Yet, her fictional view of Terran history and the adventure of exploring other worlds and meeting other species intelligent in ways different from humans is compelling and fills the reader with that sense of wonder so important in a good science fiction novel. Her view of the future in terms of women's sexuality is fresh and daring, and has been rarely surpassed by subsequent books in the field. She was brave enough and far-seeing enough to consider the possibility of an alien male trying so hard to communicate with her that he stimulated one of her eggs to grow parthenogenically. Which is a more realistic look than most SF writers at possible "cross fertilization" between sapient species from different planets.
I read this book as a child, and have always hung on to a copy of it, reading it every several years with much enjoyment. Unfortunately, she evidences no understanding of the existence and the normality of homosexual desire, but that is not strange in a book published in 1962. Otherwise, much of her outlook on human beings in the future, and the wonder of communication with other intelligent species was far far ahead of her time.
Her story is strange and other-worldly because she is a writer who is not an SF "insider," and I think, because she is woman concerned with women's issues.
Barbara G. Louize
The author shows an exaggerated fantasy as she invents bizarre worlds and aliens, and weaves unpredictable plots within each episode narrated. The main character is Mary, an expert in communications who has the opportunity to put into practice her knowledge in various ways. The style is conversational, giving the impression that Mary is telling you her life, while you have a good conversation.
In general I liked the book, otherwise I would not have given four stars, but there are some aspects that prevented me to add the fifth.
Unfortunately the passing of time is evident (the novel is from 1962), especially in the absurd way in which sex life is imagined in the future. Apparently, it is considered “modern” or “futuristic” for people to have sex with the only purpose to procreate, but not necessarily to create a stable relationship (someone else takes care of the children), and that the entertainment part related to sex is out of fashion, because everyone is busy exploring worlds and doing scientific research. Sex for women becomes a pastime that serves to make children in large numbers (it’s not clear how this could be acceptable, given the overpopulation) by various fathers. And that’s all. The maximum you can expect is that, after a certain age, when they retire, they decide to take one of these fathers as definitive companion.
What a sad thing!
Additionally to this aspect that made extremely difficult to me to suspend my disbelief, there is the colloquial style, which doesn’t favour your identification with the protagonist’s mind.
It is still an interesting and enjoyable read, especially for those who love to immerse themselves in a bit naive and “vintage” science fiction, and realise how much this genre can be varied and how it has evolved over the years.
Rita Carla Francesca Monticelli, author of Red Desert - Point of No Return
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 (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 60s 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.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
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” (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” (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” (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” (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” (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.