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10 July 2012

Naomi May Margaret Mitchison lived a very long and interesting life. She was born Naomi Haldane in Edinburgh on the 1st of November in 1897 and died on the 11th of January in 1999 at the age of a hundred and one and she remained writing until well into her eighties. Mitchison came from an educated and comfortably-off family. Her father (J.S. Haldane) was a well-known and respected scientist and her uncle (Richard Haldane) was a British cabinet minister during WW1. Her books aren’t so well known in America, and some USA SF readers may find them odd in style. If you like historical novels, I recommend her book THE CORN KING AND THE SPRING QUEEN, which has been printed and reprinted endlessly since it was first published in 1931, I believe that Soho Press still has it available under their Hera Series which includes novels by Cecilia Holland and Gillian Bradshaw.

But my favorite of her works and the one in my permanent library is Memoirs of a Spacewoman (Victor Gollancz,1962, my copy is an ex-library book, a first edition hardcover of this.) Memoirs is a slightly peculiar book, not so much in the content, although that too was definitely unusual for the times and is still so but also in the style. It reads like a diary although it isn’t in specific diary format, but more, as the book title suggests, in a meandering memoir of the sort that any modern editor would probably reject on sight. Mary is a Alien communication expert (women are highly regarded in this specialty for their ‘sympathy and adaptability,’ so much so that you receive the impression that almost all, of not all, communication experts in Mitchison’s world, are women) which can involve some very strange going-on, in the course of one of which she becomes pregnant to the Martian, Vly, with which she is communicating urgent information and as a part of that communication. In fact sex in some aspect and of some sort pervades the book, not in any prurient fashion, but as a part of the life of both humans and aliens and of human observation and the communication between them.

An extra in Memoirs, is the use of ‘time blackout’, this is the way Mitchison describes the contraction of time for explorers traveling deep into space to meet new cultures. Such explorers, (and Mary as communications expert for an exploration team) may be gone a generation, and return to find old friends, who have not been traveling this way, aged or dead. Nowadays this is a commonplace detail in SF, but Mitchison dealt with it obliquely through both Mary’s mother’s absences and then Mary’s own and discussions as to how careful Mary is not to take on such employment until her children are of an age to cope with this. One thing to notice too, Mitchison had The Prime Directive in this book, and in more detail than Star Trek, and, since she was writing this book for quite a number of years before publication, it would definitely predate ST’s use of that. Memoirs has some very strange moments, the stories are not at all in the usual line of (male-written) space exploration, but they remain involving after almost fifty years and I recommend the book to those who can cope with this and to those feminists who may enjoy a work written well before sex and a female space explorer were much at all on the American SF book scene.

Fiction

The Blood of the Martyrs

Cleopatra’s People

Cloud Cuckoo Land

The Conquered

The Corn King and the Spring Queen

 

SF:

Memoirs of a Spacewoman Science fiction. London: Victor Gollancz, 1962; reprint, New York: Berkeley, 1973

Solution Three Science Fiction.Written in 1970.

Two notebooks containing corrected drafts of “The Clone Mums,” in The National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh, Acc. 5831.
Originally published: London: Dobson, 1975.
Reprinted 1995 with an afterword by Susan M. Squier. The Feminist Press at The City University of New York, 311 East 94 Street, New York, NY 10128. ISBN 1-55861-097-9; ISBN (paperback) 1-55861-096-0.

\We Have Been Warned. London: Constable & Co., 1935.

When the Bough Breaks and Other Stories

Separate Short Stories:

“Mary and Joe” (written 1962) reprinted in Harry Harrison’s Nova 1 (1970 and part of Memoirs of a Spacewoman.

“Words” in Jan Green and Sarah Lefanu’s “Despatches from the Frontiers of the Female Mind” (1985)

 

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