Dianne Newell and Victoria Lamont
Daughter of Earth: Judith Merril and the Intersections of Gender, Science Fiction, and Frontier Mythology
Human space flight was already a well-established subject in American science fiction by the time it became a real possibility in the 1950s, but with the launching in 1957 by the Soviet Union of the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik-1, the re-opening of the frontier—famously declared closed by historian Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893—seemed to the public no longer mere speculation. Judith Merril, who entered the sf field as a writer in the late 1940s, seized upon the occasion of major cultural debates in space travel and new narratives of frontier expansion that speculated about mythical futures and alternate presents, rather than idealizing a mythical past. Like many sf writers, both men and women, Merril’s space-travel narratives borrowed familiar themes of exploration, adventure, conquest, and colonization from the popular American western. Merril departed from the conventions of space-travel narratives, however, by creating female- , family- , and generation-centered stories of space exploration.
This paper analyzes a selection of Judith Merril’s post-WWII stories set in space, situating them in the context of space-frontier mythologies and gender ideologies of the 1950s and bringing useful attention to the fiction of a writer best known as a critic and anthologist. Merril (née Grossman, 1923-1997) was a central and socially radical powerhouse in the “man’s world” of mid-century science fiction, first in New York City in the 1940s and 1950s, briefly in London in the mid-1960s, and finally in Toronto, her permanent home after 1968. As a young war bride and mother living in New York on her own during World War II, she discovered the rebellious, talented band of sf fans and budding writers of the Futurian Society of New York and began writing for publication (see Cummins’s “American SF”). Aside from a few detective stories written for Crack Detective (1945-46, most as Judy Zissman, her married name at the time) and stories for sports magazines (as Eric Thorstein and Ernest Hamilton), Merril’s earliest genre stories—both as a ghost writer producing “unusual fact” material on the old West and as a writer (“pulp-style”) of regular features for different books and magazines—were written mostly for the western pulps. These included tall tales out of the Old West, “Injun” stories, and stories of the “Real West,” the “Working West,” and the law (frontier justice, vigilantes, and railroad wars). For these, Merril wrote under various bylines: “The Cowpoke,” “The Pilgrim,” and “El Amigo” (“To Noah Sarlap”). As Eric Thorstein, she published dozens of stories in the magazines Blue Ribbon Western, Double Action Western, Famous Western, Real Western Romances, Western Action, and—as Ernest Hamilton—in Cowboy (see Cummins’s “Bibliography”).
That Merril had an early link to the popular western genre is fascinating, considering her development into one of sf’s most eloquent voices for style and originality. Under the influence of her Futurian friends, as well as writer Theodore Sturgeon and editor Robert Lowndes, she decided in 1947, at the age of twenty-four, to be a writer of science fiction, writing short stories for magazines such as Astounding, Startling Stories, and Worlds of Tomorrow. She took as her permanent surname her daughter’s given name, Merril. By 1950 she was a full-time writer, editor, and anthologist in the sf field (see Merril and Pohl-Weary, 66-100). As she later reflected, this was an exhilarating period for American science fiction, with its expanding postwar mass markets: “new writers had poured into the field, and new ideas as well as new techniques emerged in every issue of the proliferating magazines” (Merril, “Editor” 5).
Over her professional lifetime Merril would take on successive, multiple roles as writer of sf stories and novels, editor, anthologist, mentor, critic, and reviewer; and after her permanent move to Canada in 1968, radio and television free-lance producer and broadcaster, college lecturer, translator, and finally, memoirist. She is best known as a critic and an anthologist, especially for her celebrated Best of the Year sf anthologies that ran from 1956 to 1968.1 The annuals, and her monthly review column in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the 1960s, earned her a reputation as an sf connoisseur and experimentalist. Yet it is for her fiction, all of it produced between 1948 and 1963, that she wished to be remembered (Mermelstein 8). She wrote mainly short stories and novellas (see Cummins’s “Short Fiction,” Stableford’s “Short Fiction,” and Merril’s Homecalling) and the bulk of her short work is solo-authored as Judith Merril. There are 28 stories and novellas in all, and most concern space travel and exploration. Merril’s treatment of the sf theme of space travel has not until now been subjected to scholarly analysis.2
Space flight was the classic sf theme into the 1960s, especially in cinema, culminating with 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).3 Merril once recalled that “[in the 1930s and 1940s] science fiction and space flight were almost synonymous: to be a fan of one was to be an enthusiast for the other” (“Books” 38). Space travel was one of the central myths in American sf before the actual Apollo II moon landing in 1969 demystified the subject. At first, the emphasis was on escape from Earth, on transcending imaginary boundaries, and the stories were of young venturesome males attempting with rockets to break free of older generations and other earthly restraints. By the 1950s, when Judith Merril was writing space fiction, the best stories from sf writers were not so much about space flight as they were commentaries on the myth itself, on “imaginative horizons rather than hardware” (Stableford, “Space Flight” 1135). The spaceships were no longer the simple rockets of the interwar stories that would take young men to the moon or to the nearest planet, but were a constellation of ships of diverse capacities and great spatial range that in the hands of a writer such as Merril became powerful symbols of scientific discovery and sites of social reorganization. These ships enabled fresh beginnings for troubled societies.
Merril’s move into science fiction from the western was not a tremendous leap given how sf writers of the 1950s represented the coming age of space travel as the next phase in the history of the American frontier (Newell and Lamont 72-74). As David Mogen has argued, the link between sf and westerns has not been well studied in sf scholarship, because overtly “western” themes have been assumed to be a sign of poor aesthetic quality (Wilderness 11). Although this attitude is still in evidence, several literary scholars have begun to explore more seriously the links between frontier mythology and science fiction.4 The focus, however, has been on male-authored writing and on fiction written after 1970.5 Yet the 1950s were pivotal in the cultural history of the space frontier. Although the links between the frontiers of science fiction and those of American myth and history were already well established, as Gary K. Wolfe has demonstrated (248-49), real technological advances in space flight in the 1950s meant that the space-frontier theme could lay claim to the level of realism demanded by the trendsetting editor of Astounding Science Fiction, John W. Campbell (Wolfe 254): space-frontier narratives had the status of real social commentary rather than merely escapist, romantic adventure. Indeed, the closer international powers came to actual space travel, the more obsolete became the romantic interwar model of space travel.
Thus, whereas the depiction of exotic worlds, even of whole galaxies, was the focus of the planetary romance stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs and the classic space operas of E.E. “Doc” Smith (Wolfe 251-54), post-WWII space-frontier fiction increasingly speculated about the future of American social, political, and economic institutions that were and are deeply embedded in frontier myth (as Abbott, Slotkin, Wrobel, and others have demonstrated). Authors of post-WWII space opera envisioned a future in which Earth was governed by a single western-style world government—the culmination of America’s Manifest Destiny. They depicted outer space as serving the same “safety-valve” function that Frederick Jackson Turner’s western frontier played in the nineteenth century: outer space provided, at least in theory, the natural resources to fuel limitless industrial expansion and space for the excess population and new ideas that this expansion produced (Wrobel, American Exceptionalism 47). They saw scientists as the central agents of this new age of frontier expansion: whereas nineteenth-century pioneers have been mythologized as having tamed the landscape through sheer strength, character, and will, fictionalized space explorers relied on specialized scientific and social science knowledge and training, intellectual ingenuity, and modern technology to do the same.6
Merril in particular took up these themes in the 1950s with the critical and imaginative approach that Carl Abbott would attribute to later New Wave writers of the 1960s and 1970s (“Homesteading” 250-51). She effectively challenged the prevailing science-adventure (“hard”) sf mode, with its concern for getting the science right. As she reflected on the 1950s from a late 1960s vantage point, “the industrial, political, and technological Space Age meant the beginning of a new period of explorations in the ‘human factor,’ as opposed to the hardware, for both science and science fiction” (Merril, “Editor” 5). Merril was among the leading sf writers of the early postwar era who emphasized the “soft” sciences rather than hardware: health sciences and the expanding and evolving fields of anthropology, linguistics, sociology, and, most prominently, psychology (including such peripheral mental powers as ESP and psi).7 She was also the only sf writer of the period to focus her space-travel stories on unabashedly domestic themes, settings, and characters. Just as domesticity, in the analysis provided by Amy Kaplan in “Manifest Domesticity,” played a crucial role in nineteenth-century American imperialist discourse, it played an equally crucial role in 1950s narratives of space colonization—an idea that we have explored elsewhere in relation to women’s mid-century contributions to the space-opera subgenre as “traveling domesticity” (Lamont and Newell). In their space operas—a term commonly used as a pejorative label for pulp-sf stories too imitative of so-called “horse operas” or B-Movie westerns—writers such as Merril powerfully interrogated conventional gender ideology and, in the process, helped to advance new images of women, families, and domesticity.8
Pamela Sargent’s pioneering 1975 anthology Women of Wonder did much to revive interest in women’s early science fiction, although she tended to portray the authors as victims of a male-dominated field (“Introduction”). Influential essays by feminist writers including Joanna Russ, Sarah Lefanu, and Lisa Tuttle promoted, although in divergent ways, the idea that women’s science fiction only became meaningful with the publication of feminist sf beginning in the 1970s. Subsequent important challenges to this position over the past fifteen years now form an important body of revisionist work: these include Connie Willis’s key 1992 commentary, “The Women SF Doesn’t See,” as well as contributions by Farah Mendlesohn, Helen Merrick, Brian Attebery, Justine Larbalestier, Larbalestier and Merrick, and the recent critical work of Lisa Yaszek, all of whom reject in various ways the idea that women’s early sf was confined to “sweet little domestic stories” (Larbalestier, Battle 172) about housewives, babies, and suburbia. As Larbalestier argues, “[t]he coding of the work by women of this decade as ‘domestic’ is part of the same move that sees women coded as the ‘love interest’” (Battle 179).
Merril’s fiction is included in these revisionist studies, but usually only with reference to her brst-known story, “That Only a Mother,” and/or her novel, Shadow on the Hearth, which takes up a post-atomic holocaust theme (but for treatments beyond these two stories, see Yaszek’s Galactic Suburbia, 27-40, and Cummins’s “Short Fiction”). Merril’s space-travel stories have received less critical attention. We suggest that overlooking women’s early space narratives perpetuates Lefanu’s erroneous conclusion in 1988 that prior to the late 1960s, women writers were marginalized in the genre largely because of the dominance of space exploration as a theme:
science fiction reflected, in its content at least, what could be called masculinist concerns, based around the central theme of space exploration and development of technology: masculine concerns because access to these areas was effectively denied women in the real world, and science fiction, like all writing, is written from within a particular ideology. (“Chinks” 3)
In “House Opera,” we argue that women writers of space opera began to challenge the masculine world-view as early as the 1930s, and that, although their writing does not always challenge gender stereotypes as explicitly as early feminist readers might like, it capitalizes upon the classic identification with the feminine to create alien beings and landscapes that function as less obvious, yet still potent, sites of identity subversion (71-72). Here, in looking specifically at Merril’s space-travel narratives of the 1950s and early 1960s, we attempt to point out the breadth, complexity, and contradictory nature of her treatment of gender in space rather than to canonize specific works. The purpose of this present study is in part to shift the focus away from Merril’s life to her writing in order to counter the assumption that what matters about Merril is not her writing but her editorial work and her relations with the sf community. Women writers pre-1970 should be treated as writers—in context—not, as with Abbott’s otherwise excellent monograph on science fiction and the American West, slighted as precursors, as bridges to so-called better writers of the 1970s and later who ostensibly deal with more sophisticated and complex themes.
Merril’s approach to writing about space exploration is very reminiscent of the nineteenth-century women writers treated in Annette Kolodny’s groundbreaking The Land Before Her (1984), in which Kolodny argues that critical assessments of American frontier writing have failed to take women’s writing into account. Although Kolodny’s work takes a somewhat essentialist standpoint in its thesis that women writers figured the frontier as a garden and its (white) female inhabitants as friendly domesticators (161-77), it nonetheless paved the way for further feminist critique and revision in the field of American frontier literature.9 It certainly provides a more productive approach to the domestic concerns that pervade Merril’s work than does Brian Stableford’s dismissive characterization of “Daughters of Earth” (“Short Fiction” 2016). Merril’s “female” viewpoint is not merely a superficial addition to a “common science fiction theme,” as Stableford asserts; it provides a substantially different vision of space travel from the predominant—but hotly debated—view that “women, love, and sex have [no] place in science fiction” (Larbalestier 104). As Larbalestier argues in her analysis of debates about the place of the feminine in science fiction between 1920 and 1975, an idea with particular currency during this period was that the inclusion of women in sf would compromise its scientific objectivity by shifting the focus from science to sex (104-43; 177-78; see also Yaszek, Galactic Suburbia 22-24). In this context Merril’s successful placement of women and families at the center of her stories should be regarded as among the most innovative treatments of women and gender in science fiction before 1970. This resonates with Elizabeth Cummins’s 1992 reassessment of Merril’s short fiction, that “placing family issues at the center of her space-travel stories was a bold assertion, a reevaluation of what really matters in human society” (206).
In Merril’s fiction, the spaceship conflates the home space with the workplace.10 Consequently, relationships between men and women, husbands and wives, work and family, and public and private are reconfigured in surprising ways. Merril’s spaceships take many forms: rocket-like “first-ships,” designed to make the first forays into space; intergenerational “mother-ships” with names like the Survival, designed for century-long voyages spanning several generations of space explorers; and “starships” such as the Newhope and the Arc, charged with the task of finding new homes for refugees from an increasingly polluted and overcrowded Earth. Conversely, we have the disreputable “tramp ship,” the Lady Jane, a well-past-its-prime merchant jump-ship—so-called because it is capable of jumps through holes in outer space to complete its rounds of commercial space ports. On these various ships, new social formations emerge to adapt to the requirements of space colonization, which involves both scientific exploration and the reproduction of the colony’s population on the new planet. The conditions and objectives of space exploration and colonization transform not only the relevance of physical sex differences, but also traditional sexual mores and conventional structures of family, community, and systems of communication. Hence, in Merril’s space-frontier stories, women and families figure more prominently than the individual male adventurer, and work and domestic life are completely intertwined aboard the confining spaceships. Married couples who double as scientific teams perform both the reproductive and scientific labor necessary for the success of the colonial mission. Communal family structures involving surrogate parenting, or even polygamy, and matriarchies prove better suited than the nuclear family for the collective and sustained endeavor of space travel and colonization. Indeed, the vulnerability of the nuclear family in space is suggested by the stories “Wish Upon a Star,” “Dead Center,” and “Homecalling,” in which Merril’s central human characters are children of dead or otherwise absent space-explorer parents navigating their situation in space more or less on their own and without sentimentality.11
Viewed in this light, women—individually and in collectivities, as mothers and daughters, and as scientists and lovers—emerge as central characters in Merril’s space-frontier narratives, a feature noted in the 1970s by Virginia Kidd, Merril’s literary agent and a close friend from their old New York Futurian days: “Back when women were being regarded as mere props to be rescued from bug-eyed monsters, Merril was addressing the question of what it might really be like to be a woman in the future, a woman in space” (10). Merril’s sometimes quite radical rethinking of 1950s gender ideology furthers the work of early women writers of the American frontier such as Emma Ghent Curtis, Frances McElrath, and B.M. Bower, who also saw the frontier as a space for reworking gender categories. Curtis published a western titled The Administratrix in 1889, well before the genre was supposedly “born” in 1902 with the appearance of The Virginian. In this novel a schoolteacher cross-dresses as a cowboy and experiences release from the constraints of “True Womanhood.” McElrath places the woman reformer at the center of The Rustler, her account of cattle rustling in Wyoming; Bertha Muzzy Bower published 40 westerns, yet was virtually forgotten soon after her death in 1940. The gradual “forgetting” of Merril’s contribution as an sf writer—there have been no major treatments of her stories since Elizabeth Cummins’s brief 1992 essay and checklist, “Short Fiction by Judith Merril”—replicates the fate of these earlier women writers of the American frontier.12 Merril’s feminist interventions in science fiction preceded by at least a decade the work of well-known authors such as Joanna Russ and Ursula K. Le Guin, who began publishing feminist and feminist-friendly work in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Her unique contribution to feminist sf during the period 1940-1960—a time when sf reached, in the words of Lisa Yaszek, “its stylistic and thematic maturity” (“Domestic Satire” 29)—through her space-travel stories, although acknowledged, has yet to be fully incorporated into the field of sf studies. We attempt to address this state of affairs in our readings of her space-travel stories set in outer space, which represent the breath, complexity, and contradictory nature of her treatment of gender and the frontier myth: “Survival Ship” (1951), “Daughters of Earth” (1953), “Homecoming” (1956), “The Lady Was a Tramp” (1957), “Wish Upon a Star” (1958), and “The Lonely” (1963).13
The Stories. “The Lady Was a Tramp” (1956) is one of Merril’s more provocative visions of gender relations in the context of space travel, and perhaps for that reason, it is the only story that Merril included in every one of her collections of short fiction. ”Lady” takes up the well-established tradition that represents the boundless frontier as no place for a “lady,” but as a good place for prostitutes and other “bad” women. This edgy, humorous story of sexual dynamics on spaceships was originally published under the pseudonym Rose Sharon to protect Merril’s reputation during her child-custody battle with her first husband (Merril and Pohl-Weary 159).14 As if to express dissatisfaction with the strictures on female conduct that prevented her from publishing in her own name, Merril penned a story in which a female medic commands authority over not only her own body, but also those of her male crew. As medical officer aboard a merchant spaceship, Anita Filmord, a “hippy blond who was nobody’s visiting daughter or friend,” has for practical reasons to be all women to the otherwise all-male crew of this necessarily “small ship [where] the payload counts” (“Lady” 51, 61). Her job as medical officer involves maintaining optimum physical and psychological health in the all-male crew throughout the dangerous maneuver of jumps through “holes” in space, which take the ship through uncharted territories. Sex is just another physical need to be met, and thus just another item in the medical officer’s job description. Anita delivers sex to the ship’s crew with the same professionalism with which she meets their other medical needs. Anita is closely identified with the spaceship itself, which is dubbed a “tramp” ship:
She [the ship] had been lovely once, sleek-lined and proud, with shining flanks; and men had come to her with hungry hearts and star-filled eyes, and high pulse of adventure in their blood. Now she was old. Her hide was scarred with use, her luster dulled; though there was beauty in her still it was hidden deep. A man had to know where to look—and he had to care. (47)
This identification implies that the professional woman is, like the “tramp” ship, sullied by her involvement in the vagaries of commerce. And yet, both Anita and the ship itself perform vital economic roles: the ship transports commercial cargo in space, while Anita’s ministrations to the crew members, including regular bouts of medicinal sex, keep them working productively: “[He] drank from the flask when it nuzzled his lips, and swallowed the pills that she put in his mouth, and gave back what she needed: the readings and scannings and comps and corrections that went to the driver’s seat, to the pilot’s board” (66). As a scientist and a professional, Anita does not let her own desires interfere with the task at hand: “Which one do you want?” Terry, one of the crew, asks Anita, as she leads him to her cabin, to the “door where the light would be flashing red outside.... Which one? How could she possibly tell… As well ask, Which one needs her?” (66; emphases in original).
The story is told, however, from the point of view of Terry, a newcomer to the ship, whose response to Anita’s sexuality is aligned with conventions more familiar to Merril’s 1950s readership. As the new computer officer, Terry is responsible for both manipulating the abstract mechanical brain whose function it is to permit the “dance of escape” (65) from the bounds of Earth, and plotting coordinates for the crucial and potentially fatal space-warp jumps. “Tramp work was the toughest” (53), thinks Terry, who is tortured by the sight of the decrepit ship and the cocktail lounge-like atmosphere of life on board, by his sense of masculine competitiveness in the presence of its medic’s seemingly seductive behavior and her sexual intimacy with one of the men, and his need to do well in this assignment in order to win a top post elsewhere. Resembling as he does the lone male adventurer of much space opera, Terry’s presence in the story highlights the threatening aspects of Anita’s professionalized sexuality: referring to her as a “bitch,” a “whore,” and a “tramp” (66), conventional terms for women who assert their sexual autonomy, Terry feels threatened by a woman whose sexuality is not owned and controlled by any one man. Anita’s sexual authority is made possible by the fact that space travel deprives people of “natural” sexual outlets, making sexuality the purview of technological intervention rather than natural determinism. Traditionally reviled, the “professional woman” is now a highly prized expert. Similar situations exist in westerns such as the 1939 John Ford film Stagecoach, in which the prostitute Dallas delivers a baby during a harrowing stagecoach journey. In this example, the shortage of “respectable” women creates a demand for the “womanly” skills that prostitutes are called upon to perform. In Merril’s 1950s version of this plot, however, the professional woman retains ownership of her body and sexuality, whereas the prostitutes in many westerns are exploited by men.
While 1950s sf tended, like its western predecessor, to emphasize themes of male adventure and escape from the bonds of civilization, Merril countered that centuries of domestic confinement would make women more suitable than men for the confinement of space travel. In its exploration of sex and sex-role behavior in space, the short story “Survival Ship” (1951) posits a scenario almost the opposite of that in “The Lady Was a Tramp”: an orderly, government-approved, space-colonization voyage in a mother-ship, organized around unorthodox sexual and family relations. The launch of the Survival is well-publicized: it is regarded as “the greatest spaceship ever engineered. People didn’t think of the Survival in terms of miles-per-second: they said, ‘Sirius in fifteen years!’” (“Survival” 9). Heavy secrecy surrounds the identity of its crew, however; these are the “Twenty and Four” young, robust single male and female engineers who have won coveted places “with the object of filling the specially equipped nursery and raising a second generation for the return trip” (9). It turns out that the crew has been expressly conditioned to overcome the sexual mores of Earth and to adapt to the necessarily experimental and dangerous “system” in which children are born to small groups of adults outside of “normal” family groups and are raised communally. In fact, the expedition consists of twenty women, including all the officers, and four men. These women have been chosen because
we are stronger and, in our social placement here, more fortunate. We must be accustomed to the fact that [the men] are our responsibility. It is because we are hardier, longer-lived, less susceptible to pain and illness, better able to withstand, mentally, the difficulties of a life of monotony, that we are placed as we are—and not alone because we are the bearers of children. (15)
The monotony and confinement of space travel and the necessity of reproduction make space colonization the purview of women rather than of the male adventurers preferred by Merril’s contemporaries. To create the trick ending of “Survival Ship,” Merril began by experimenting with writing a story that used no personal pronouns; she found in the end that it was a story with almost no gender pronouns (Merril and Pohl-Weary 156).
“Survival Ship” is one of a loosely connected series of stories in which Merril charts successive generations of woman-centered expeditions. Her interest in the cycles of everyday life situates her fiction in the tradition of pioneer women’s diary writing, which offers us a very different version of the frontier myth from the male-authored tradition. In contrast to the adventure-narrative’s focus on the resolution of an antagonism between hero (for example, Leatherstocking, the Virginian) and alien (Magua, Trampas), pioneer women’s diaries, and the domestic fiction that is a closely related fictional form, focus on the minutiae of everyday life and the psyches of those who live it (Schlissel 16).15
“Survival Ship” is the first in a loosely connected trio of stories written over the course of several years that includes “Wish upon a Star” (1958) and “The Lonely” (1963). “Wish upon a Star” is told though the eyes of a teenage boy born on the Survival, the colonizing ship that we learn in “The Lonely” was launched during the “brief Matriarchy at the beginning of World Government on Terra, following Final War” (“Lonely” 227). Like the other boys, his job is to care for the younger children. After years in space, the women are still in charge of the voyage: “women were considered better suited to manage the psychological problems of an ingrown group, and to maintain with patience over many years, if needed, the functioning and purpose of the trip” (“Wish” 27). The few men on board have been “indoctrinated” into obedience to their female leaders. But as the ship is finally about to land on a seemingly uninhabited and habitable planet, the boy ponders the possibility of the return of the “Earth-type” nuclear family, and the masculine independence that traditionally goes with it: “House. Family. Inside-outside. They were all words in the books. Hills, sunsets, animals. Wild animals. Danger. But now he wasn’t afraid; he liked the thought. Wild animals, he thought again, savoring it. Houses, inside and outside; inside, the family; outside, the animals. And plants. The sunshine ... daytime ... and night ...” (30; emphases in original). By sympathetically depicting her protagonist’s growing resistance to matriarchal rule, Merril complicates the reversal of the sexual hierarchy that she has thus far established in the story. The vision she offers of the future of gender relations is not one of finality but one of uncertainty and possibility.
“The Lonely” (1963) completes somewhat pessimistically the saga of the “Matriarchy” and the “Mother-ships” of “Survival Ship” and “Wish Upon a Star.” The far-future story unfolds as a text written long after the original voyages were launched. Its very different narrative form—that of an exchange of memos between two apparently male authority figures—signals that patriarchal rule and culture have been restored. As opposed to the internally focused, private discourse of “Wish Upon a Star,” the tragic fate of at least one of the “Mother-ships” is disclosed from the impersonal, institutional point of view of a memo from a senior anthropologist. The memo relates a broadcast from an alien civilization light-years away that witnessed the last days of the expedition: “[T]he first females born on the trip came to maturity, and could not conceive.... Three male infants were born to females of the original complement—less than half of whom, even then, were still alive and of child-bearing age” (“Lonely” 223). Despite this tragic end, we are reminded that four similar ships were launched; the possibility of success remains even though Merril has called into question the viability of the experiment she set in motion in the first story of the trilogy.
Whereas the Survival trilogy entertains the idea of a future matriarchy in space, only to all but abandon this possibility in “The Lonely,” Merril’s 1953 novella “Daughters of Earth” envisions a more equitable reorganization of gender relations. Again, the focus is on the mundane details of what it might be like to be a woman in space. “Daughters” is a foundational text in the Merril canon. Its protagonists span six generations (Martha, Joan, Ariadne, Emma, Leah, and Carla) in direct descent, one generation staying close to home, the next emigrating farther than the previous travelers, eventually advancing the frontier into the far reaches of the galaxy, faster than the speed of light—“all different, all daughters of Earth, though half of them never set foot on the Old Planet” (“Daughters” 97). Writing during the immediate postwar period, in which the workplace was once more very much a male-dominated sphere, Merril envisions the co-ed workplace as one populated by professional couples with complementary skills. For example, on Emma’s first-ship of 500 humans in search of a habitable planet, married couples work in overlapping shifts; one couple at a time is thawed out from its deep freeze every few months to constitute the ship’s six-member crew. As a medic Emma is specially trained to thaw out the ship’s inhabitants upon landing, while her husband, Ken, is a construction expert. As a sign that Merril does not in her fiction completely transcend 1950s discourses about gender and the work place, she still privileges heterosexual marriage as the fundamental form of partnership between men and women, and does not envision them working together on equal footing outside of that relationship (see also Cummins’s “Short Fiction”). Nonetheless, her vision of gender relationships and roles in space is a significant departure from the dominant sf paradigms of her day.
The shift-partners live in a communal cubicle and interact, in a sense, with their frozen counterparts through a logbook filled with sociable observations. The shift-change nights are
big events.... When we woke up, the Levines were ending their shift: it was their last night out. We shared the first six months with Ray and Veda Toglio, and the Gorevitches. Six months later another couple replaced the Toglios.... Later, the new couple would read the Log, and catch up on everything, but that first night everything would come out in a jumble of incident and anecdote, gossip and laughter. (“Daughters” 116-17)
In this passage, the juxtaposition of the formally managed “Log” and the spontaneous “anecdotes” signals the reorganization of social space as public and private realms are now conflated on the spaceship. “Soft” scientific technologies facilitate this social reorganization: the careful planning of a psychologist ensures that each “shift” of couples will be socially compatible as well as having complementary professional skills.
Contemporary adventure narratives such as Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950) and Robert Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky (1950) stress the high frontier of space exploration designed to overcome various crises on Earth. While they pay some attention to home life and women’s roles, even across generations (see Abbott’s “Homesteading” and Wolfe’s “Frontiers of Myth”), the intergenerational theme of “Daughters,” sketched from the woman’s perspective, depicts women’s responses to space exploration as especially ambivalent and complex. The novella’s six generations of “daughters” are among humanity’s first interplanetary colonists; the second generation sets out to establish a new colony on Pluto. Motivating Earth’s space program is a need to build a starship on a site located on the outer edge of the System; this will eventually travel to another planetary system in search of uranium supplies for the atomic fuel for more advanced space journeys. Pluto is only on “the way out,” a first “step to the stars” (“Daughters” 85). The story’s first point-of-view character is Earth-bound Martha, who watches with mixed anxiety and pride as her daughter Joan departs for Pluto. The next chapter is in the form of a letter from Emma, a fourth-generation descendant of Martha’s, to her granddaughter Carla, who is preparing for yet another voyage further into space. This letter frames the remainder of the story, a third-person narrative about Carla’s predecessors written by the now very elderly Emma, interspersed with Emma’s epistolary asides to Carla. This form of narrative marks the story itself as a means of maintaining ties among generations of women otherwise separated in time and space: “I am putting this together for you as a sort of goodbye present for your trip,” Emma tells Carla in her letter. “There is little you will be able to take with you, and when you leave, there will be no way to foresee the likelihood of our meeting again” (“Daughters” 101). This desire to maintain connections to previous “homes” is in tension with each woman explorer’s decision to leave. Joan Thurman, “a famous pioneer, one of the first-ship colonists,” rejects the “normal” life for a women of Earth: “In the normal course of events on Earth, Joan would have taken her degree that spring, and gone to work as a biophysicist until she found a husband. The prospect appalled her” (103). Joan’s granddaughter, Emma, is driven to leave a settled Pluto because of the sheer challenge of it: “new problems to conquer, new knowledge to gain, new skills to acquire” (111). Her mother, Ariadne, meanwhile, is rooted in Pluto but is also drawn to her ancestral home on Earth, and she fulfills her dream of “a trip to Earth; she saw the sights and institutions and museums, made all the tourist stops, brought home souvenirs enough to keep her content for her remaining years” (112). Similarly, Ariadne’s grandmother Martha has remained on Earth, but once in her lifetime went to the moon. Merril’s female space pioneers are neither superwoman adventurers nor tragic figures of sacrifice; rather, they are complex characters with conflicting desires for both the safety and familiarity of home and the unknown possibilities of space.
As a story, “Daughters” was not what Merril had hoped for, but it did represent her early transition into experimental writing within the genre. As she wrote in the summer of 1952 to Fritz Leiber, she was juggling her contentious divorce from her second husband with the considerable pressures on her to write, given deadlines to meet, two small daughters and a dependent mother underfoot, and bills to pay; but at least she had finished “Daughters of Earth”:
the silly-sil-story is not only done but typed, turned in, and liked.... The story is good on account of being (you should pardon please the conceit) awful goddam well-written; as a story, I’m afraid it leaves much to be desired. So here I sit, turning to termites and sex [stories] once more, with nothing to fret about except the bills that should have been paid.... (“To Fritz Leiber”; emphases in original)
Merril’s correspondence reveals that the “flaws” she detected in her own writing were not necessarily due to her limitations as a writer; rather, her experimental writings were less welcome in the popular American sf marketplace than sensational stories about “termites and sex,” and financial pressures limited the number of risks she could take. (When she did take risks with sexual topics, as in “The Lady Was a Tramp,” her personal circumstances forced her to publish under the shield of a pseudonym). Yet the creative and personal environment in which “Daughters” took off was especially fertile for Merril: “This fall and winter, I guess, is/has been a sort of coming-to-a-head period—much of my thinking, hoping, working of the past year-and-a-half is beginning to solidify or show results or something,” she added, in her letter to Leiber.
The main storyline of “Daughters of Earth”deals with Emma’s life with fellow colonists on Uller, a “distant planet with an alien sun.” The colonization phase of the expedition deals with themes common in American frontier literature: encounters with an unfamiliar landscape populated with alien and threatening inhabitants, part of a larger Western-European tradition of colonial narrative which pits a Eurocentric “civilization” against an exoticized, orientalized “other” (Said 1-31). As Susan A. George observes of certain 1950s sf films, “Daughters” is critical of the colonial enterprise and in particular resists orientalizing its aliens (77-83). Emma’s first husband and fellow traveler, Ken, is killed without fanfare by an “Ullern” during the settling-in period, before humans begin to understand the intelligent native species—the “aliens” in the eyes of these colonizers. Subsequent developments, however, are quite different from traditional narratives of colonization and conquest insofar as the colonists are forced to redefine their own understanding of what constitutes an advanced civilization. There is no retribution for the killing of Ken. The initial scientific observations of the planet by Emma and others had revealed flora and fauna adapted to noiseless conditions, sparking a heated epistemological debate over the measures involved in determining the presence of non-human intelligent life. Most of the colonists refuse to believe that intelligence is possible without sound. Nor is there any way for most of the colonists to imagine mediating the ensuing encounter with the Ullerns other than with loud noises and deadly weapons, so completely unprepared are they for the presence of aliens in their midst. The colonists’ assumption that intelligence cannot evolve without sound—a precondition for language—is reminiscent of European colonists’ assumption that Native Americans’ languages—and therefore their level of intelligence and civilization—were inferior to those of Europeans. Merril’s colonists eventually learn that the Ullerns communicate by means of radio waves undetectable as sound by the human ear. Rethinking their definition of intelligence, Merril’s colonists win the trust of the Ullerns, whose cooperation proves crucial to the success of the colony. In this aspect Merril’s narratives of space colonization are in keeping with a pervasive trajectory of American frontier mythology—famous examples of which include the Pocahontas legend and Natty Bumppo’s partnership with Chingachgook in Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales (1823-1841)—which, rather than questioning the colonial enterprise, inscribes a version in which the colonized willingly cooperate.
The ability to communicate with alien species rivals technology in its importance to the success of space colonization projects. Indeed, returning to Merril’s 1963 story, “The Lonely,” we find that too much emphasis on “hard” scientific knowledge leads to disaster. “The Lonely” explores, among other things, what happens when the indigenous population that could help the settlers cope is not recognized because of the physiological limits of human perception. We revisit this story at the point where the survivors of a colony of humans, known in the galaxy as “Terrans,” land on the planet Aldebaran IV, having scientifically detected evidence of intelligent life. The Terrans, however, are “psi-blind,” that is, incapable of psychic communication. As a result, they fail to recognize the indigenous intelligent life on the planet, the Arlemites, who originated as a social-colonizing lichen, then developed as a highly psioid culture, communicating telepathically (“Lonely” 4). In this instance, the psychologists who prepared the voyage have “ingeniously bypassed their most acute psychosocial problem” for the mother-ship by sending an all-female crew with a supply of sperm into space (240).
Unable to successfully reproduce in space, and unable to recognize the Arlemites, however, the Terran colonists perish. Because of their inability to recognize the Arlemites, they do not benefit from the wisdom of “one of the oldest and most psioid of peoples ... [with] virtually all the accumulated knowledge of the Galaxy at their disposal” (241). In a humorous twist—no doubt influenced by the fact that the story was written as a cover assignment, based on an illustration of a giant statue of a woman holding a rocket in her lap (author’s story note, “The Lonely” 228)—the Arlemites decide to warn future human colonists against attempting to colonize the planet. A single-sex species, the Arlemites do not understand the notion of two-sexed creatures and so construct, by reading the brain of a dead Terran female child, a warning beacon in “the shape of the strongest fear-and-hate symbols of—a female” (243). The image is of the idealized version of womanhood that the Terran women space travelers have rejected: “The Woman waits, as she has waited ... always? ... to greet her sons, welcomes us ... home? ... She sits in beauty, in peacefulness, perfect, complete, clean and fresh-colored.... Allmother, Woman of Earth ... enveloped, enveloping, in warmth and peace.... Unquestioning womanhood” (243). Unfortunately, the next ship to arrive in the vicinity of Aldebaran IV is populated by an all-male crew who of course view the image as a sign of welcome, and are lured to the deadly planet instead of warned away from it. The breakdown of communication that has led to this tragedy is twofold. First, overemphasis on the “hard” sciences has impaired the psychic ability of the Terrans, who view “the principal of unity underlying all successful communication ... [as] an almost mystical quality” (221). Second, the rift between the sexes causes men and women to interpret the Arlemites’ idealized female image in opposing ways that lead to disaster for both: the women who flee Earth to escape it perish, as will the men who are lured by it to Aldebaran IV. This and other stories of the space-frontier by Judith Merril highlight the limited point of view of human explorers: their fundamental assumptions about life, intelligence, and so on, prevent them from recognizing the most basic realities of the worlds they visit. In this way, Merril’s fiction criticizes a tradition of American frontier writing in which the indigenous inhabitants of so-called “new worlds” tend to interpret reality from a limited, primitive, perspective.
Finally, in the novella “Homecalling” (1956), which is important as an even earlier first-contact story, the “principal of unity underlying all successful communication” originates in the mother-child bond. It is the story of two children from Earth—Deborah, who is eight and a half, and her baby brother Petey—who alone survive when the spaceship their parents are operating crashes on an unfamiliar planet during a geological exploration mission. The planet’s telepathic natives resemble giant bugs. At first, contact between the human children and the native species is, as in “Daughters of Earth,” fraught with complications and miscommunication. Gradually, a mother-daughter relationship develops between Daydanda, the queen of a colony on the alien planet, and Deborah, who with youthful innocence accepts Daydanda and her people without prejudice: “The bugs were really pretty nice people, she thought, and giggled at the silly way that sounded ... calling bugs people ... [but] once you got used to how they looked (And how they looked at you too: it still felt funny having them turn their backs to you when you talked to them, so they could see you), it was just natural to think of them that way” (“Homecalling” 239; emphasis in original). Although their physical differences also mark a communication gap, the mother-daughter relationship that develops between them transcends these differences: “When the Mother-bug laughed, it tickled in her mind; when the Mother was angry it prickled. When the Mother called to her, it was a feeling that came creeping; when she didn’t want to hear, it came seeping anyhow” (225).
Although the fiction we have discussed in some detail here is as invested in the project of exploration and colonization as are conventional earthly frontier narratives, Merril’s emphasis on contact through communication rather than violence and on personal communication rather than technological gadgetry distinguishes her colonization narratives from both popular westerns and from the pulp-fiction-like tales of “termites and sex” that still dominated the popular sf market. Merril’s perpetual focus on women, children, families, and other “feminine” themes, and her experimentation with new social structures, distinguishes her work not only from male-authored fiction of the 1950s and early 1960s, but also from the fiction of most other prominent “pre-feminist” women sf authors. Writers such as C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett, although innovative space-travel authors in their own right, did not write so brazenly about topics—such as families, children, marriage, home, and everyday life—that were conventionally marked as “feminine” and “domestic” and eschewed by advocates of a more “manly” science fiction. In its day, a leading critic and colleague, Damon Knight, dismissed some of Merril’s later fiction as sentimental, romantic, and, in the extreme view, “sweat-and-tears-and-baby-urine variety,” “kitchen-sink” science fiction (100).
For Merril, the space frontier involved exploring not only new terrains and life-forms, but also new social roles and structures, especially with respect to gender. Through her emphasis on the “soft” sciences—anthropology, health sciences, psychology—Merril privileged the role of the feminine in space exploration by highlighting the importance of traditionally “feminine” virtues such as empathy, caregiving, and intuition in encounters with unfamiliar terrains and peoples. Merril also suggested that constraints upon gender, sexuality, and reproduction—natural or social—were as subject to technological intervention and progress as the constraints of gravity upon the limits of human exploration. If men and women could transcend the boundaries of space and time to discover new worlds, surely the boundaries of sex and gender, family structure, and reproduction were permeable as well. Hence, Merril’s space travelers discover new social worlds as well as new planets: from the matriarchal dictatorship of “Survival Ship,” to the asexual world of Aldebaran IV, to the utilitarian sex of “The Lady Was a Tramp,” the willing cooperation of the colonized on Uller, and the mother-daughter telepathic relationship of “Homecalling.” We can only speculate about the impact that these imaginary futures of the 1950s have had on the world as it is.
1. Of the twelve Best of collections edited by Merril, 1 through 4 were published by Dell between 1956 and 1959; 5 through 9 were published by Simon & Schuster between 1960 and 1964; and 10 through 12 were published by Delacorte between 1966 and 1968.
2. Merril’s atomic war/Cold War novel, Shadow on the Hearth (1950), and a short story on that theme, “That Only a Mother” (1948), have received considerable critical attention, however. See mentions of the relevant critical literature in Dianne Newell and Victoria Lamont (“Rugged” 423-41), which examines Shadow on the Hearth.
3. This section of our discussion draws on Brian Stableford’s “Space Flight.”
4. For example, David Pringle describes space opera—a term commonly used to denote the most overtly “western” kind of science fiction—as a “degenerate [form] of true sf” (45). In an essay on Iain M. Banks’s sf, William Hardesty asserts that only in the hands of this exceptional writer can space opera be “genuinely extrapolative or thought-provoking” (121). As Mogen points out, the tendency to associate western themes with bad sf has meant that the comparison of the two genres “has never been made with much precision” (11), because “true” sf—and therefore the sf most worthy of study—is the antithesis of space opera.
5. Most recently, Carl Abbott focused on frontier themes in novels published primarily after 1970, particularly those by Ray Bradbury, Greg Bear, William Gibson, and especially Kim Stanley Robinson; but his study does not consider the work of women writers. This excludes early work by women writers in general and all of Merril’s space-travel fiction in particular (see Abbott’s Frontiers Past and Future).Gary Wolfe’s 1989 essay “Frontiers in Space” charts the development of space-frontier narratives from the early twentieth century to the contemporary period, but without attention to women writers prior to the 1970s. Mogen’s Wilderness Visions is an important serious treatment of the frontier metaphor in science fiction that takes account of the work of Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ but fails to address 1950s work by women other than Leigh Brackett’s post-armageddon novel The Long Tomorrow (1955). Given that recent writings on early women’s sf seldom explore women’s contributions to space opera or space narratives, the recent interest in women authors does not overrule Justine Larbalestier’s admonition that the story of women’s contributions to the history of sf before 1970 remains largely untold (2). See also Newell and Lamont.
6. See, for example, Robert A. Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy (1957). For an overview of how sf takes up the frontier metaphor, see Mogen (Wilderness 23-38). Discussing Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky (1950) and Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950), Abbott, among others, points out that while space pioneers relied on “pluck,” even more important was “big science and state action” (“Homesteading” 243-44).
7. See the discussions by Attebery (chapter 3) and Larbalestier (169-71). Larbalestier’s survey of the history of science fiction found that truly “hard” sf was, contrary to popular belief, always underrepresented in the genre; indeed, the absence of science in science fiction was lamented within fandom well before the 1950s, and certainly well before the so-called “invasion” and “influx” of women’s sf in the early 1970s (171).
8. The term “space opera,” coined by Wilson Tucker in 1941, was based on “horse opera,” a term the actor William S. Hart used to refer to his western movies. “Horse opera” was itself derived from domestic radio dramas dubbed “soap operas.” See Stableford’s “Space Opera.”
9. Examples include Tompkins, who argues that the western developed in a reactionary relation to the female-centered sentimental fiction of the nineteenth century; Georgi-Findlay, a critique of nineteenth-century white women writers’ investments in western expansion; and Comer, an account of contemporary women writers’ figurations of western landscapes.
10. While the same might be said of the contemporary female author, Leigh Brackett, Brackett’s hardboiled approach and maverick hero Eric John Stark can be read as a refusal to “write as a woman.” Merril, on the other hand, eschewed masculinist conventions and placed family considerations and relationships at the center of her stories.
11. Merril’s sf stories and novellas have recently been collected in Homecalling and Other Stories: The Complete Solo Short Science Fiction by Judith Merril.
12. See Cummins’s recent reference work, “Bibliography of Works by Judith Merril,” and the recently published Homecalling and Other Stories. These works, as well as Merril’s recently published memoir, Better to Have Loved, will, it is hoped, stimulate further attention to and new interpretations of Merril’s contributions as a writer.
13. Merril’s stories about space that are set on Earth are not included in this present study. These include her well-received “Dead Center,” which was included in Martha Foley’s The Best American Short Stories (1955), and “Whoever You Are” (1952), “So Proudly We Hail” (1953), “Stormy Weather” (1954), “Pioneer Stock” (1955), and the novella, “Project Nursemaid” (1955). See Yaszek’s Galactic Suburbia (24, 25, 25n5) for discussion of the recognition bestowed on Merril for “Dead Center,” “That Only a Mother,” and Shadow on the Hearth.
14. In author’s notes written in 1973 for the collection Survival Ship and Other Stories, Merril writes, “I was worried about my authorship of a ‘dirty’ story being brought up in court” (qtd. in Merril and Pohl-Weary 159). The battle was over her daughter from her first marriage, Merril Zissman (see Merril and Pohl-Weary, chapter 12).
15. See James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826) and Owen Wister’s The Virginian (1902).
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