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Memoirs of a Spacewoman by Naomi Mitchison

Memoirs of a SpacewomanI first read this book probably in the late '80s or early '90s. I have the Women's Press edition that was published in 1985, but it appears I bought it used, so I'm not sure exactly when I read it. In any event, I remember being very impressed, and I was just as impressed the second time. It's a truly remarkable science fiction novel, and I can't think of anything else like it, although it does have a flavor of Olaf Stapledon now and again. It was originally published in 1962, when Mitchison turned 65, and it has an air of the wisdom of age about it. It is a reflective story, looking back on a life and career and lessons learned along the way.

Mitchison wrote over 90 books, but mostly they weren't science fiction. In other words, she wasn't a genre writer, but rather a literary writer dabbling in genre. Yet she had studied genetics as a young woman and was the daughter of John Scott Haldane and sister of J.B.S. Haldane, so no doubt she was well grounded in the scientific method. It shows in the novel, which concerns the experiences and expeditions of a scientist named Mary who studies communications with alien life forms. The "memoirs" are structured around several of these expeditions, most often covering them in a single chapter but giving greater focus to two special cases. Interwoven with these stories about the scientific expeditions are stories about the Mary's various children by a number of different partners of a number of different species, not all of them terrestrial.

Part of what makes the novel so remarkable is that its view of sexual and family relationships is still pretty radical 50 years later. Relationships between parents and children -- the nuclear family -- are not very close, since parents are frequently away on trips to far off galaxies that involve time dilation, so children will have grown by the time the parents come back. Multiple sexual partners are the norm, although taboos on incest still exist and Mary implies that it's normal to settle down with a single partner as you age. Mary has children by two different human men, but she also has one by a Martian "father" (Martians are hermaphroditic, but can become monosexual for brief periods) that doesn't involve an exchange of genetic material. The haploid child is in a way Mary's genetic clone, but is only half as big as a normal human. More disturbingly Mary consents to two different experiments in which an alien life form is grafted onto her and becomes a kind of parasite on her body -- or perhaps "of her body" is the more accurate prepositional phrase.

Joanna Russ developed a theory at one point that in the fantasy field male writers tended to conceive of magic as an instrumentality separate from the magician, where female writers tended to conceive of magic as something the magician only exercises at a price to themselves. There is something of this in Mitchison's approach to science. Mary's practice of science seems to flow out of her bodily existence in the world. There's a description late in the book of the grafted organism being cut off of her in which it's clear that she herself is what is being cut. The emphasis on reproduction and relationships drives home this sense of the bodily nature of experience and knowledge in the world. Humans have a doctrine of non-interference, but Mary doubts that you can be in the physical presence of another life form without causing interference. The moral crises of the novel hinge on the relationships the scientists inevitably form with the subject of their studies. Another aspect of this is the relationships Mary forms, via her communication skills, with terrestrial life forms of limited intelligence, such as dogs. The empathy she shows for these animals is extraordinary, and I suppose in some ways it connects with the telepathic communication with animals one sees in other science fiction and fantasy novels such as Andre Norton's Beast Master.

As the Science Fiction Encyclopedia notes, this novels seems to grow out of the British tradition of scientific romance more than out of American genre science fiction. Part of this is the focus on scientific knowledge rather than adventure. Not that there's no adventure whatsoever, but the adventures aren't the focus of the story. It's more reflective and contemplative; more about knowledge than power. As I say, it has aspects of Stapledon in it, although it's less focused on evolution than on simply the vast array of biological difference and adaptation. Some of the speculation on alien biology may seem a little tame or too familiar, but it's always complicated by Mitchison's astute sense of the intimate connection between the observer and the observed. It's that feeling of living connection that gives this story its remarkable charge.

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