Book Review: Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)

(Vincent Di Fate’s cover for the 1973 edition)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

Naomi Mitchison’s first science fiction novel, Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962), is a brilliant episodic rumination on the nature of non-violent interaction with alien species that challenge (and transform) conceptions of ourselves and others.  Although R. S. Lonati’s cover for the 1964 Four Square edition suggests a pulp adventure—replete with flashy spaceships, explosions, and traditional adventure—Memoirs is cut from an altogether different cloth.

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.

A powerful vision.

For more book reviews consult the INDEX.

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(R. S. Lonati’s cover for the 1964 edition)

(Tim White’s cover for the 1978 edition)

34 thoughts on “Book Review: Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Naomi Mitchison (1962)”

    1. As long as you’re in the mood for something ruminative… I have to admit, was not enthralled with the sometimes lengthy discussions of alien biology (I preferred the sociological elements they were paired with) but that’s more my own preference (she did pursue a science career before WWI).

  1. I’m soooo glad you reviewed this. I had just read it, about two books ago, and was delighted by it’s mature and detailed descriptions of the imagined social interactions and communicative prowess of dedicated woman from an obviously more evolved human race. The insights are often quite profound. It almost convinced me to break the silence in my own, long dormant blog!

    Like you, my copy has the same rather generic cover, though I won’t complain much because I found it in a thrift store for 50¢, and in good shape yet!

    She’s a new writer for me. Have you read anything else by her?

    1. Go for it! Break your silence! Mine has unfortunately slowed due to progress on my dissertation….

      I have not read any other books by her. I’m not sure she wrote more than one or two other SF novels.

  2. Naomi Mitchison’s first science fiction novel

    I was not previously aware that she wrote another… the Great Gazoogle has introduced me to the existence of “Solution 3”.

    I have the 1978 edition. The Lonati cover appears to feature a giant Pikachu. It deserved its place in the ‘Master Series’.

    As an bonus challenge, see if you can acquire a copy of “The Man with Two Memories”, by Mitchison’s brother J.B.S. Haldane.

  3. Finally read it! Loved it! I enjoyed it all: the alien interactions as well as the human culture and relationships. Very imaginative, very thematic, with themes of blame and guilt running through the entire piece, but not nearly so heavy that it burdens the plot.

    Great recommendation, as always!

    1. I had the feeling you’d enjoy it! (Did you manage to find an inexpensive copy? I have no clue why it’s so pricey online.) I can’t think of a novel (or perhaps there are one or two more) that deserve a reprint more than this one.

      1. My copy was above what I would normally pay, but it doesn’t look like the prices will ever drop and it was well worth it. This definitely deserves a reprint and digitization.

  4. The stunning cover of the NEL edition published MOAS in 1978,leaves me mildly amazed that it was published then in Britain.I probably wouldn’t have noticed it back then,in my early sf reading days,and was only just getting to know of Ursula LeGuin.

    Today I would have snapped it up I think.

  5. The stunning cover of the NEL edition of MOAS published in 1978,leaves me mildly amazed that it was published then in Britain.I probably wouldn’t have noticed it back then,in my early sf reading days,but was just starting to read Ursula LeGuin.

    Today I might have snapped it up.

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