Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Birthday Review: Stories (and a book review column) of Judith Merril

Judith Merril was born Josephine Juliet Grossman on January 21, 1923; and she died in 1997. She was one of the great clutch of fans/writers born in the years around 1920. She edited fanzines in the mid-40s, published her first story, "That Only a Mother" (which ended up in the SF Hall of Fame) in 1948, and she was a fairly active writer for the next 15 years or so, publishing four novels and some 25 short stories.

But by far her most significant contributions to the field of SF were as an editor and as a critic. In 1956 she began publishing a series of Best of the Year volumes, which ran for 12 numbers total. These books got more and more eclectic as time went on. By the end she was eagerly looking for content from non-genre sources, much of it kind of minor, even silly, but the general effect was positive, encouraging readers to broaden their ideas of what SF could do. She also published a major anthology highlighting the English New Wave, England Swings SF, in 1968, and if much of the contents (not to mention the title) haven't dated well, it was a significant moment in the New Wave era. Around that time she moved to Canada, and she was a major figure promoting SF in Canada, and Canadian SF, in ways such as introducing Dr. Who episodes, and editing the first of the long running original anthology series featuring SF by Canadians, Tesseracts.

Finally, from 1965 to 1969, she was the regular book reviewer for F&SF, and I discuss one of those book reviews below. I also discuss a few of her stories, and one novel -- alas, as with many of these reviews of work by older writers, my rather random selection process means that much of what I cover was among her weaker work.

Astounding, June 1948

Judith Merril's "That Only a Mother", about a woman who doesn't accept that her new child is severely mutated due to atomic radisation, was even scarier on rereading than when I first read it, though I don't really buy the premise, in fact, I reject it out of hand. Fathers love "disabled" children as well!

Future, March 1951

One thing I do with these old magazines is check the letter column for letters from writers -- either current as of that time, or fans who would later become pros. This issue had an interesting letter from Judith Merril, signed Judith Merril Pohl. Merril was complaining about Lowndes's review of one of her books in a earlier issue. Lowndes' reply was rather testy. That didn't stop him from printing a story by her in this very issue, though! -- "Woman's Work is Never Done!", a terrible, and quite sexist, short-short about a nagging mother complaining about her daughter messing up a shopping trip.

Galaxy, June 1951

(Cover by Chesley Bonestell)
Finally, "Mars Child" is the first of two novels that Cyril Kornbluth and Judith Merril wrote together. The other is Gunner Cade, serialized in Astounding in 1952. "Mars Child" was published in book form as Outpost Mars in 1952, and later as Sin in Space in 1961. That last reprint was by Galaxy/Beacon, which published a number of mildly racy SF books (such as Poul Anderson's Virgin Planet, and Laurence Janifer and Randall Garrett's Pagan Passions) -- I assume that possibly "Mars Child"/Outpost Mars was revised to add some additional titillation for this later publication. The two novels, along with Merril's first solo novel, Shadow on the Hearth, were reprinted in an omnibus by NESFA Press, Space Out!, in 2008. (Merril published only one other novel, The Tomorrow People (1961), and in all honesty I would have to say that the fact that her excellent reputation in the field rests mostly on her editing and criticism is quite fair -- she wrote a few decent stories, but no great ones, and her novels are minor indeed.)

(Cover by Robert Stanley)
I've never read Outpost Mars (or "Mars Child") before, but I went ahead and read this second part of the serial. It's fairly standard Mars colony stuff -- there is a struggling series of colony cities on Mars, still highly dependent on Earth. Most cities are supported by industrial concerns and are in essence company cities. One city, Sun Lake, is a cooperative, focused on scientific research, especially on trying to adapt to Mars -- to make it possible to live on Mars without depending on supplies from Earth. This segment concerns an obviously trumped-up charge of stealing the addictive drug marcaine that might destroy Sun Lake, as well as the visit of a crusading journalist to Mars, and also the birth of a child on Mars who might actually survive. (Previous children have all failed to thrive.) It's really typical stuff, with politics perhaps a bit to the left of the usual ... I'm tempted to read the whole thing (actually I'm more tempted to read Sin in Space) ... but I doubt it'll be anything special.

Space Science Fiction, November 1952

Judith Merril's "Hero's Way" was a bit silly, I thought. (Should I also confess that I find most of her fiction pretty weak, and that considered as a writer (as opposed to editor or critic) I think her rather overrated?) It's about space explorers, and how being a hero might not be all it seems to be. Evidence in the story? Pretty thin. I did note that apparently Venus was explored decades before the Moon, which I find just that little bit unlikely.

Venture, March 1957

The first thing I thought when reading Rose Sharon’s “The Lady Was a Tramp” was, gee, “Rose Sharon” sure seems like a pseudonym! And sure enough it is – “Rose Sharon” was Judith Merril. I’m not sure why she used a pseudonym for this story – she collected it only three years later under her own name. According to the ISFDB, it’s the only time she used a pseudonym for a solo work. (Of course, she and Cyril Kornbluth published two novels (“Mars Child” aka Outpost Mars aka Sin in Space; and Gunner Cade) under the rather transparent pseudonym “Cyril Judd”.)

Anyway, “The Lady Was a Tramp” is about a talented graduate of the Space Academy, an IBMan (a curious term to our ears, apparently a computer programmer for the navigation system of the ship), named Terry Carnahan, who has been assigned, not to a gleaming new Space Navy Transport, but to a creaky “tramp steamer” sort of ship, the Lady Jane. He is disgusted by this, and even more disgusted to learn that of the crew of five one is a woman, the Medical Officer, who seems to freely offer her body to everyone on the ship. It turns out (not surprisingly) that this is part of her duty as Medical Officer – to keep the men on the ship psychologically in good shape. A horribly sexist idea, to my mind. Terry must either come to terms with this idea, or flush out of the service … Obviously, one thing going on here is conflating Terry’s feelings (and those of all the crewmen) for the ship (called a lady, obviously) with the Medical Officer. And both are, I guess, tramps. More sexism, I think! Maybe I missed something, maybe Merril was being satirical, but this story doesn’t work for me.

Galaxy, August 1961

And finally there is Judith Merril's "The Deep Down Dragon". A woman and her husband each replay the other's reaction to a virtual sequence in which the woman is menaced by a fierce alien beast on what seems to be Mars. Each comes off rather well -- and we learn the rationale behind it all. Not a bad story. (I note that I am often struck, in stories from the '60s and earlier, how women writers as much as men were fairly reflexively sexist.)

F&SF, January 1966

And there is a book review column by Judith Merril. She writes from London, in September of 1965, and her subject is how much better things are in England: the drinking, people's looks, the rock and roll, and the SF -- the New Wave SF (though Merril does not here use that term). She focuses on three major fairly young writers: J. G. Ballard, Brian W. Aldiss, and John Brunner. Brunner is, she notes, the most "conservative in terms of literary technique". Aldiss she calls the most versatile, and Ballard "unique". I'd say she was right all down the line. She also predicts that had Ballard been in the US he would have left the SF field "before he entered it" -- "not one in ten of his early stories would have sold in the States". She doesn't spend much time on specific books, though she does briefly touch on Brunner's Telepathist (aka The Whole Man), Aldiss's Greybeard, and Ballard's The Drought (aka The Burning World). Merril also makes the comment I noted in my look at the December Galaxy, about Brunner:"he might have become a ... Silverberg." As I noted then, and as I see, as Silverberg said himself in his wonderful eulogy for Brunner, in fact Silverberg and Brunner did have careers of quite similar shape -- Merril simply missed that Silverberg was growing just as Brunner was, and at the same time.

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