Stevie Carroll (stevie_carroll) wrote,
Stevie Carroll

EasterCon Bonus Post: What Naomi Mitchison Got Up To

This is the second of my posts focussing on individual EasterCon panels. The panel in this case consisted of Caroline Mullan, Nic Clarke, Lesley Hall and Andy Sawyer, although the way I remember it Caroline Mullan did most of the talking (not certain that was a timing bias, so much as her being pretty damn compelling on the subject).

Memoirs of a Spacewomen was published fifty years ago (coth's review of it here), but is still relevant today, as are Mitchison's other books (which take up a good six feet of shelving in at least one panelist's house). Another book, We Have Been Warned, a contemporary novel, was heavily censored by its publisher at the time.

Mitchison herself was one of the Haldane family, and the younger sister of JBS Haldane. This may have influenced her work what the Human Race is Up To about the competition of sciences and social science, and she was certainly the instigator of some of her brother's early experiments.

Mitchison was educated at the Dragon School in Oxford until puberty, and then by a series of incompetent governesses (she did, however, publish her first book at the age of 13). She also studied at St Anne's College, although she never graduated, and was an active member of salon society as well as continuing her studies alone. She also corresponded with James Watson, and this dialogue inspired her to write about clones.

In 1916 Naomi married Gilbert Richard Mitchison, whjo later became a Labour MP and then a peer. They had seven children together, and were in an open marriage for many years with various longterm lovers on Naomi's part as well as shorter relationships. Mitchison lived in England, Scotland and Africa and was very widely travelled elsewhere (she lived to the age of 101). She worked with opressed socialists in Vienna in 1934, then much later gained a foster son in Botswana with whom she worked to build schools, women's networks and improved agricultural systems. Her home from 1939 was at Carradale in Scotland, where she took in refugees and became involved in Scottish nationalism and regional politics as well as writing several books about herring fisheries and agriculture. Her first properly Scottish novel was The Bull Calves

Her writing was very plain in style, but highly thought-provoking., with one of her autobiographies being The Nine Lives of Naomi Mitchison is a biography by Jenni Calder, published in 1990. She was very involved in the birth control movement from the 1930s onwards, and very influenced by Marie Stopes' Married Love. She also, later in her life, went on an organised tour of Russia with Dris Lessing which inspired yet more books.

Back to Memoirs of a Spacewomen, which was a story of exploration, contact with alien peoples, communication issues, emotional engagement with other cultures and the effects of time dilation. Narrated in the first person, there is no explicit or external worldbuilding, yet we learn much about this speculative future. Taken in the context of its time, the book speaks about the Cold War era and tackles the then common themes of alien invasion. It is also a very sexula novel (unusual for SF of the time) and is sensual and tactile in the descriptions. There is also discussion of the issue of disability in a utopian society.

Mitchison's other works include poetry, pacifist writing (The Fourth Pig), children's fiction, historical novels (The Earth Takers, Early in Orcadia, The Green Ribbon, Corn King and Spring Queen), anthropolgy and archaeology, and meta on the Arthurian saga (To the Chapel Perilous). Yet she was financially unstable for the last third of her life.

More of her titles include: Solution 3, Not by Bread Alone, and Travel Light (currently published by Small Beer Press).

One note that currently perplexes me: 'she wrote letters to Stapleton and told him that he made God too masculine'. Can anyone shed some light on that one?

All in all a fascinating panel and a fascinating topic. I can see I need to read more.

[ETA:] Kennedy and Boyd are republishing many of Naomi's books, details are here:

Thanks to coth for that addition and my other correction.
Tags: eastercon, feminist sf, for reference, truth stranger than fiction
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