Thursday, September 22, 2011

Opening Thoughts on Judith Merril

This is a little bit of my chapter on Judith Merril  I thought that I would toss it up here to see what folks thought.

The opening passage of Judith Merril’s “Daughters of Earth” offers a useful entrance into her understanding of the history of science fiction, as well as her intervention into that genre. The gesture towards meta-narrative wasn’t new to the genre. Authors, publishers, and fans have produced as many manifestos and genealogies of the narrative as any branch of the avant-garde, through fictional narrative as well as through manifestos and polemics. Early editor Hugo Gernsbeck produced a set of technologically driven claims about the genre, which were challenged by the radical vision of the Futurist created Michelism[1]. But, the unique aspect of Merril’s intervention is its critical linkage of the concept of gender to these narratives. The novella, published in 1950, immediately linked its story with a chain of other narratives.

      “Martha begat Joan and Joan begat Ariadne. Ariadne lived and died at home on Pluto, but her daughter, Emma, took the long trip out to a distant planet of an an alien sun.

      Emma begat Leah, and Leah begat Carla, who was the first to make her bridal voyage through sub-space, a long journey faster than the speed of light itself.

      Six women in direct descent—some brave, some beautiful, some brilliant; smug or simple, simple or compliant, all different, all daughters of Earth, though none of them set foot on the Old Planet.

     This story could have started anywhere. It began with unspoken prayer, before there were words, when an unnamed man and woman looked upward to a point of distant life, and wondered. Started again with a pointing pyramid; once more with the naming of a constellation; and once again with the casting of a horoscope.

     One of its beginnings was in the squalid centuries of churchly darkness, when Brahe and Bruno, Kepler, Copernicus, and Galileo ripped off the veils of godly ignorance so men could see the stars again. Then in another age of madness, a scant two centuries ago, it began with the pioneer cranks, Goddard and Tsiolkovsky, and the compulsive evangelism of Ley and Gernsbeck and Clarke. It is beginning again now, here on Uller. But in this narrative, it starts with Martha.”

      The passage immediately enters the narrative into conversation with three major genealogical traditions. Lisa Yaszek notes the immediate resemblance with the patriarchal narrative of the Bible.[2] However, the passage moves quickly from that logic into a set of tropes more immediately linked to the expectations of the science fiction audience, the enlightenment narrative of the Promethean scientist revolting against the gods to bring light to the masses, and a parallel narrative of the birth of the genre and subculture of science fiction. However, these narratives are, too, implicitly challenged through the implications of the previous paragraph, which notes that, “this story could have started anywhere,” marking the contingency of the beginning of the scientific narrative, even its arbitrariness. Each of these origin stories gestures towards the inability of those conventional narratives to represent a set of experiences conventionally and socially linked to women. The two familiar narratives, science and science fictional, are then themselves implicitly marked as patriarchal, and set aside as the model for the narrative arc. The narrative then offers an alternative to the singular promethean figure through an alternative pairing of an anonymous man and woman.

     The concluding statement, “But in this narrative, it starts with Martha” provocatively offers a kind of year zero in the construction of narrative. We are promised a new narrative, a genesis that will translate into a new genealogical formation, operating matrilineally. At the same time, we are promised a new way of imagining the future, a new form. This promised futurity moves beyond the simple explanation of a strategy to avoid censorship that Merril offers as her reason for operating in the genre. It gestures towards a radical alterity and the possibility of a social symbolic that no longer operates in the register of patriarchy. Merril’s narratives never meet the promise offered in the prayer, the radical rewriting of the narratives of science fiction. Instead, her narratives oscillate between the norms commonly found in the domestic literature of her time, and the promise of a new literary form and a new politic implicitly offered by the new wave of science fiction. They are in constant conversation with the conventional expectations of melodrama, gothic fiction, detective fiction, and satire at various times. However, these limits shouldn’t be read as a moral failing of Merril’s. They point to the ideological horizons of the times, the intensity of the hegemonic structure, and the difficulty to imagine lines of flight.

[1] Andrew Ross included a small section of the Futurist futurist manifesto.

“Michelism is the belief that SF followers should actively work for the realization of the scientific socialist world-state as the only genuine justification of their activities and existence.

Michelism believes that science-fiction is a force; a force acting through the medium of speculative and prophetic fiction on the minds of idealist youth; that logical science-fiction inevitably points to the necessity for socialism, the advance of science, and the world-state; and that these aims, created by science-fictional idealizing, can best be reached through the adherence to the program of the Communist International.” Andrew Ross, Strange Weather, 115-116

[2] Lisa Yaszek,

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