John Plotz

Xenogamy: Naomi Mitchison’s Science-Fictional Ethnography

Naomi Mitchison is admired for Mass Observation, historical novels, children’s books—and other genres besides. However, her 1962 Memoirs  of a Spacewoman  is an overlooked and undervalued early instance of “SF anthropology”, which strikingly proposes that to venture abroad from world to worlds is not only to put a time shift on yourself so that you arrive home to grown descendants, it is also to put your personhood thoroughly at risk, or even under erasure. In ways that might be traced back to the anthropological theorizing of the Scottish Enlightenment (but with a distinctly Modernist swerve…) Mitchison frames the hard work of encountering others by way of humiliation, the abjection produced by  a meaningfully disruptive encounter with the genuinely other, rom pentagonally thinking starfish to a Martian ectopic pregnancy.

Memoirs  signals its interest in what it means to give way to conceptual alterity by discussing the taboos among space travelers against incest. That move raises an interesting (implicitly racialized) “minor literature” comparison to Faulkner, Ellison and other mid-century American novelists who frame southern US explorations  incest and “miscegenation” together: incest being forbidden endogamy, while miscegenation is forbidden exogamy. Mitchison’s English contemporary Barbara Pym revealed anthropologists (in works like Less Than Angels) to be “just like us” under the skin.   Mitchison, though, takes seriously the idea that after what happens out there, going “home” again is never exactly that.

John Plotz, Brandeis University