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Memoirs of a Spacewoman, by Naomi Mitchison Book Review | SFReader.com
Memoirs of a Spacewoman, by Naomi Mitchison Genre: Science Fiction Publisher: Berkley Published: 1962 Review Posted: 6/7/2008 Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: 7 out of 10
Memoirs of a Spacewoman, by Naomi Mitchison
Book Review by Anna Potts
Have you read this book?
Memoirs of a Spacewoman is often considered an under-recognised science fiction classic. Despite its quirks of style and structure, that accolade is highly deserved. Mitchison has succeeded where many others have failed in creating other worlds and life forms which are truly alien, and along the way posing some searching questions about our own species.
The premise is simple enough: Mary, the title character and narrator, is an expert in 'communication' -- a type of telepathic interaction. As one of the 'explorers' -- which are closer to being a culture or society than a mere occupation -- she travels into space on assignments to gather information about the inhabitants and geological make up of various planets.
The aliens Mary encounters are no humans with different coloured skin, either physically or psychologically. Few are humanoid and many bear no relation to any known life-form. And yet they are not random. Though their biology may not be fully explained -- the story is, after all, told from Mary's point of view and we can only know as much as she does -- there is always a process of attempting to understand their various characteristics, why they may have evolved in such a manner, and how they interact with their environment, including other species.
And their thought processes? Definitely not just exaggerated human personality traits. Mitchison is well aware that alien thought patterns are likely to be incomprehensible to humans. To attempt to bridge that gap, Mitchison shows Mary's own thought processes being affected by those of the creatures. After communicating with the star shaped entities she refers to as radiates, and how, instead of thinking in terms of a choice between two distinct possibilities or options, she now thinks in terms of five options (corresponding to the radiates number of appendages) and is unable, until the effect wears off, to make a simple yes or no choice. This is, of course, a simplification -- several pages are devoted to her attempts to understand, and then her experiences of, the radiates' thought processes and the implications they have.
Which brings me to the subject of communication. Science fiction - particularly on TV, but also in many books, often chooses, often choose the easy way out when humans have to communicate with new species -- either everyone already speaks English for no apparent reason, or there is a handy translating device which simply needs to be switched on. The telepathic communication could be a similar cop-out, and perhaps it is to some extent, but it is shown as a complex and skilled process, during which the communicator (usually Mary) generally begins by working out what is important or central to the species she is working with, or something fundamental about their interests or the way they think.
Overall the position of Mary and her colleagues as outsiders is well portrayed, although the ethical dilemmas around non-interference are somewhat simplistic in their execution even though the emotional impact carries them through. The portrayal of sexuality is at a similar level; it sits comfortably within the overall context of the book, exploring in particular Mary's relations with Vly, who, like all Martians, changes sex, and it deliberates a little on the reasons and consequences of this, sometimes in depth, but this is only one concept of many explored. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but if you were expecting a novel focused on "erotic entanglements" and a woman exploring her sexuality, as the blurb suggests, you may well be disappointed. Memoirs of a Spacewoman is much broader than that -- it is an exploration of humanity, based as much on what we are not as on what we are.
If you are looking for fast paced adventure and a tight plot then you will not find it in Memoirs of a Spacewoman. Though some elements do converge towards the end of the book creating a level of suspense, as the title suggests the novel more takes the form of memoirs or an account, and the
overly explanatory style of the first chapter in particular may make it hard to get into. But for a thoughtful and imaginative envisaging of alien life and culture, there is little better.
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