The Optimistic, Expansive Visions of Pregnancy and Motherhood in the 1962 Novel Memoirs of a Spacewoman
Jenni Quilter on Reproductive Possibility in Naomi Mitchison’s Speculative Fiction
Occasionally there are books that you encounter like arrows: they arrive with velocity and a distinct whump. Naomi Mitchison’s Memoirs of a Spacewoman was like that for me. It was published in 1962, and I picked it up around 2017. It’s not widely known. The book collects the “expedition notes” of a spacewoman called Mary and her visits to various planets, and it is the ventriloquized voice of the future, a way for Mitchison to imagine the fantasies and freedoms she thought the future might afford a woman like her.
It’s not that Mitchison hadn’t already carved out for herself an extraordinarily rich and varied life. By the time Memoirs came out, she was sixty-five years old and living in Scotland. She had given birth to seven children, traveled extensively, and openly talked about her open marriage (her only regret, she said on her ninetieth birthday, were all the men with whom she didn’t sleep).
Then there were the political appointments, and numerous societies, commissions, and councils, many of them revolving around socialism, birth control, and Scottish economic development. She wrote, by her own account, compulsively, and though Memoirs of a Spacewoman was her first science-fiction novel, she had already published dozens of books by then: mostly novels, but also travel writing and autobiography. She would go on to write more than ninety books by her death, in 1999, at 101.
Mitchison was very matter-of-fact about all this in her memoirs, and Mary, the narrator, is similarly prosaic: in the novel, the extraordinary isn’t ordinary, but it shouldn’t be considered any kind of rare or bizarre exception; for all we know, there could be hundreds of Marys in space, and we just happen to be reading about this one.
Mary has six children. Four of the children are human, and two are alien. One child, Ariel, is a tentacle-like creature with whom Mary communicates through number theory (the tentacle can tap out number sequences on her leg). Another, Viola, is described as half-human, half-Martian. Mary conceives a few of these children back on Earth, and a few in space. Some, but not all, have biological fathers. Mary does not raise all of them together. In this new world, her age has nothing to do with her reproductive clock.
Because time moves more slowly away from Earth, and because she embarks on a number of space missions to different worlds and solar systems, each time Mary returns to Earth she returns to a different world: there is no one who ages contiguously with her, no lover, no family, not even her own children, who are infants when she embarks on one trip, then teenagers when she returns—and she has only aged a year. The work of child-rearing, all the dinners and washing and endless negotiations, can be excised in one hyperspace leap. Mary mentions feeling guilty only once.
For anyone who has felt the queasiness of pregnancy, the sudden conviction that your body is not your own, the inner roiling and the splitting open, the endless days and nights of cleaning and feeding, Mitchison’s freedoms are fascinating. For anyone who has not fallen pregnant or raised a child, but who has been caught between the fearing and the yearning, Mitchison’s recasting of the obligations of parenthood is also irresistible.
Mary has a biologist’s eye in her attention to cause and effect, and is obviously interested in how our physiological structure directs our cognitive and moral frameworks. Her tone is professional, even impassive: she sees no disconnect between scientific exploration and reproduction, and is not surprised that her expeditions involve physiological experiments of more than one kind. Her pregnancies defamiliarize two discourses—one of scientific knowledge, the other of motherhood—at the same time. Her acts of conceiving are not something you balance with work: it is the work.
This conceptual reorganization is akin to a shift from ptolemaic to heliocentric conceptions of the universe. The baby is no longer the thing around which everything revolves. Rather, it’s the woman’s body, and her decision to experiment with it. How one feels—cramps, blood, cell growth and death, hormone swings—is a site of analysis rather than a vaguely taboo topic.
The first time I read Memoirs of a Spacewoman, I felt relief so strongly that it registered as a kind of digestive ache. Here was a woman who had thought about birth in terms I instinctively understood but rarely recognized in the world around me.
Mitchison grew up in Oxford, England, the daughter of a scientist, and was educated at the well-regarded Dragon School, the only girl in a classroom of boys. She was regularly allowed into her father’s laboratory. With her brother, J. B. S. Haldane, she carried out a number of experiments exploring Mendelian inheritance patterns in guinea pigs. These were all good augurs for her intellectual independence, but when she turned fourteen, her parents decided to homeschool her rather than send her away to boarding school as they did with her brother.
Although she later studied at the University of Oxford, she was a “day student,” enrolled in a women’s college that had a different course of instruction than her brother’s college, barely a mile away. Mitchison knew what she was missing out on because her brother allowed her to pal around with his friends in his college rooms. It was Haldane, not Mitchison, who published their early genetic experiments with guinea pigs, and it was her brother who, in 1924, published a small pamphlet titled Daedalus; or, Science and the Future, which described a future in which children would be grown in artificial wombs.
Although Mitchison had been taught the pleasures of intellectual independence, no one actually expected her to use her mind to make a living. Education was an enrichment rather than a necessity. By her own account, she married young in order to achieve freedom from her family.
As a young woman, I had more freedom than Mitchison did. I was able to attend school as a teenager. I left my country—Aotearoa, New Zealand—to study and later teach at Oxford University, where I regularly cycled the road north from town, past Mitchison’s family house. I did not have to marry to escape anything. My economic independence was precarious, and completely necessary.
To make ends meet as a graduate student, I tutored at multiple colleges throughout the town; by the time I left, I had lived at five colleges, and taught in at least seven. I knew the strange eddies of thinking that were created when academics of different stripes dined with each other, night after night. It was not a surprise to me that a speculative fascination with babies in bottles ran like a current through J. B. S. Haldane’s and Mitchison’s social set: one of Haldane’s friends at Oxford, who became close to Mitchison too, was the writer Aldous Huxley.
Huxley went on to write probably the most famous novelistic exploration of ectogenesis (the development of embryos in artificial conditions outside the uterus) in Brave New World, which memorably features a vast room filled with row upon row of babies in bottles. Aldous’s brother, Julian Huxley, also wrote speculative science fiction, including a short story, “The Tissue-Culture King,” which focused on assembly-line biology. Mitchison’s brother, Haldane, did the same: his pamphlet Daedalus begins as an attempt to predict the future, and quietly ends up as a short story narrated as history: it was in 1951, he wrote (in 1924), that Dupont and Schwartz produced the first ecto-genetic child.
By 1968, Haldane “reported,” France was producing 60,000 children annually. It wasn’t just the Huxleys and Haldane who were interested in ectogenesis: their friends and colleagues Vera Brittain and J. D. Bernal wrote about it too.
These writers published their work on artificial wombs in the 1920s and ’30s, but Mitchison didn’t publish Memoirs of a Spacewoman until 1962. When it came out, Huxley was living in Los Angeles, suffering from laryngeal cancer. He would die a year later. Mitchison’s brother, fed up with English political life, had also emigrated, to India, in 1956.
Huxley, Haldane, and Mitchison, who had spent so much of their youth together in Oxford, were each now living on what were virtually different planets. It’s quite possible that neither man read Memoirs: Haldane would die only a year after Huxley. I have found no mention in their correspondence that they received the novel. If they didn’t—well, it saddens me. They supported Mitchison, and I think they would’ve been fascinated by how she refigured their own rewirings of reproduction and sexuality.
In Brave New World, women have been “liberated” from the burden of child rearing and are free to have sex with whomever they please. The novel is obviously dystopian, partly because sexuality (without procreation) is understood as an anti-cultural force, as a reason why people are shallow and incurious: all pleasure, no purpose. This is not a world that is interested in depth: the artificial womb has collapsed interior space.
J.B.S. Haldane’s account of ectogenesis is more positive, but still rather ominous in that he focuses, like Huxley, on change writ large, on percentages and years. The implications are consequential, but kept at arm’s length. But Mitchison’s vision is fundamentally more optimistic. She keeps her focus on the individual: her novel is not about glass bottles, kept at a remove, but about what it is like to be the bottle, to be the site of the experiment. The dominant mode is exploration rather than escape. She isn’t interested in a collapsing world as much as an expanding one.
Mitchison lived long enough to see the growth of new reproductive technologies as an industry, for biologically female women to become the bottle on terra firma. For decades now, people have chosen to undergo in vitro fertilization, more commonly known as IVF. We can fall pregnant without sperm entering the cervix; fall pregnant with eggs that have been harvested from our own bodies years before; develop in our uterus or someone else’s a child that isn’t genetically ours.
Reproductive time travel has become a standard news item in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century: twins born to a sixty-seven-year-old woman, or a grandmother acting as a surrogate for her own daughter, carrying and giving birth to her grandson. With each announcement, newspapers reliably trot out a Brave New World analogy or pun. What might have been if Mitchison’s novel, rather than Huxley’s, was our automatic cultural touchstone for thinking about experiments in childbearing? What anchoring effect might her speculative fiction have had on our own sense of reproductive possibility?
In part, this book tries to take Mitchison’s sense of risk-for-knowledge just as seriously, focusing on how it plays out on Earth in real time rather than as speculative science fiction. The technology of IVF was developed because thousands upon thousands of unnamed women chose to experiment with their bodies, knowing how unlikely it was that they would become pregnant. Right now, the odds of a successful pregnancy through IVF (depending on maternal age) hover at around 35 percent.
In the early 1980s, it was approximately 5 percent. The technology has also developed within a much longer medical tradition of experimenting on women without requiring their clear and informed consent. It is hard to know whether one is a guinea pig or a moral pioneer or both when it comes to new reproductive technologies.
The revolutionary potential Mitchison imagined—her disaggregation of the time of the body from the time of parenting, monogamy from motherhood—has barely been realized. IVF clinics unthinkingly, even compulsively, offer a heterosexual cisgender dream of a nuclear family. One could attempt to create a family structure that is not normative, but it can be so routinely mistaken for more traditional forms that any transgressive implications are quietly and constantly managed away. Within an IVF clinic, exploring “one’s options” tends to be in the interests of structural repetition rather than of exploring new forms of kinship.
These options are also strictly defined by class and race. Experimental reproduction, in Mitchison’s novel and in our world today, tends to be for white women who can afford it. This is not something Mitchison reflects on consciously in her novel; indeed, it’s one of the book’s blind spots. The money required to raise Mary’s children is simply not mentioned, which appears to vanquish the question of class. Race is recast as cosmic biodiversity. She only has sex with male humans or aliens. The freedom given to the spacewoman is “simply” a function of space travel and science, rather than a named political belief. The epistemological shell game in this novel is that any feminism always turns out to be science.
As a white Pākehā woman who could also afford to experiment, I am interested in what and how I have been taught to desire when it comes to the question of reproduction. Why is it so difficult to become a spacewoman in one’s own life? Mary is able to put her life on Earth to one side; it barely takes up six or so sentences in Mitchison’s book. My interest is in what enmeshes us, drawing us back to forms of living we have little interest in replicating, yet nonetheless continue.
Excerpted from Hatching: Experiments in Motherhood and Technology by Jenni Quilter. Copyright © 2022. Available from Riverhead Books, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC.