In 2017 I will be trying to post as much as possible about science fiction written by women. So far all the books and television series I have posted about since I started this blog have been written by men, which reflects the nature of the genre for much of the first half of the twentieth century. But things began to change slowly in the 1960s.
One example is Memoirs of a Spaceman by Naomi Mitchison (1897 – 1999), published in 1962. At the age of 65 this was Naomi’s first venture into science fiction: prior to this she was known for her many novels, travelogues and frank autobiography.
Let’s imagine for a minute that you are a man in your early 30s who is a science fiction “aficianado” (not a “fan,” much too vulgar). You have read and enjoyed the work of Wells, Wyndham and Hoyle, men who showed you the Earth threatened by Martians, airships, Triffids, “Bathies”, not forgetting an interstellar gas cloud. On television you have watched and enjoyed 1984, the Quatermass serials, A for Andromeda and its sequel The Andromeda Breakthrough.
Nothing you have read or seen has shaken your view of society or marriage or sex in the slightest. So you buy a copy of Memoirs of a Spacewoman, hoping perhaps for a racy tale of ray-gun toting young women in spacesuits and you sit down in your favourite armchair by the fire, with your favourite pipe and a glass of your favourite malt whisky, and you begin reading… and after a few seconds your world starts to tilt sideways, like the Tardis caught in a tractor beam.
The novel begins reflectively:
I think about my friends and the fathers of my children. I think about my children, but 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 I would be if I counted the years of time blackout during exploration. It would be an alarming thought if that kind of thought happened to alarm me. Then I begin to wonder how many more voyages I should undertake, supposing of course that i don’t get killed.
Mary is a communications expert whose role on her various voyages to other planets is to establish communication with the alien species they encounter, sometime easily, sometimes traumatically. The space travel involve “time blackouts,” so that many years pass before the space explorers return to Terra (Earth), a phenomenon which at first created problems as she recalls:
Naturally we did not realise at once that time blackout was going to make difficulties. It took a few major scandals to clear that up, and after all the Terran incest taboo has a quite sensible biological basis. Nowadays the parent-child relationship is rather strictly organised so we are not tempted to fall in love with our sons, however much they have grown up during our time blackouts; sometimes, I feel, we are over-conditioned, so that we are not even normally attracted to them in an affectionate way. I should hate that to happen to me. but of course there are also one’s friends’ sons.
However, I know as well as the rest that one shouldn’t let oneself be attracted, and at least all my children’s fathers were in my age group or older. One ought to leave the young alone. How many times I’ve said that to myself! And usually, I will say, acted on it.
Her companions on her voyages include Martians – not the death-dealing monstrosities of Well’s vivid imagination, but highly intelligent, sympathetic small humanoids – who communicate mostly through touch, and change gender depending on circumstances. Mary forms a close relationhip with Vly, who rescues her after an explosion on a planet they are visiting;
Dear Vly was communicating all over with his tongue, fingers, toes and sexual organs. I felt so grateful; it was so kind, so kind of him. More especially when one realises that on a mixed expedition the Martians never wish to communicate with the humans except for strictly technical and scientific purposes. It was with this feeling of gratitude towards him, of tensions easing, that I came to waveringly. Or was it only gratitude? Might it have been something more physiological, less ethereal? Difficult to ascertain.
Mary’s interaction with Vly leads to her ovaries being stimulated, and she gives birth on the journey home to a girl she calls Viola. “This happy and delightful small entity, not entirely human, and yet mine – I remember so well the stab of tenderness towards her! And strangely, oddly, the same tenderness towards Vly.”
This is not the only unorthodox child she has. Mary agrees to a scientific experiment involving grafting alien tissue onto her thigh, which grows into a living organism she calls Ariel after the spirit in The Tempest.
By now Ariel was over three feet long. It liked to be as close as possible over the median line reaching now to my mouth and inserting a pseudopodium delicately between my lips and elsewhere…its effect on me was somewhat disconcerting.
Eventually Ariel separates completely from Mary as though she had given birth. The experiment seems to be a success, but then Ariel dies, and Mary feels grief for the dead organism.
In between her voyages Mary also has children with Terrans, choosing the fathers sometimes for their intelligence, sometimes for sensuous reasons. She is attracted, for instance, to T’o M’kasi because of his hair : “the delightful heather spring of the different hair tensions tingling against one’s digital nerves as no flaccid blond hair does.”
Mary recounts her exploits on various planets and on Terra in chatty and frank way, as though you were having lunch together in a Cheltenham teashop. Memoirs of a Spaceman is an intellectually dazzling exploration of relationships (human and alien), sexuality (human and alien) and the joys and difficulties of communication (human and alien). Naomi Mitchison’s novel bears almost no relationship to the kind of novels being produced by her male contemporaries: put simply, it’s decades ahead of them and it’s unsurprising that it was reprinted in 1985 by The Women’s Press in their science fiction series. You can find a complete list of the novels in that series here.