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Review of The Life and Works of Judith Merril

Judith Merril was born Josephine Judith Grossman in Manhattan in 1923. She married for the first time in 1940 and adopted Merril as her legal last name in 1941. In 1948, she published her first science fiction short story, "That Only a Mother," in Astounding, a story which gained her a great deal of renown. Just two years later she published her first novel, Shadow on the Hearth, one of the few novels she was to write. In 1956 she started two things that went on to have great impact on science fiction: she helped organize the first Milford SF Writers Conference, and she edited the first of twelve annual Best SF anthologies for Dell. In 1968 she edited an influential anthology of British New Wave SF, England Swings SF, and later that year she moved to Canada as protest to the Vietnam War. She made a gift of her personal collection to the Toronto Public Library in 1970, founding the Spaced Out Library (which was later renamed the Merril Collection). In 1985 she edited the first volume of Tesseracts, which has become a successful series of Canadian short science fiction. She died in 1997 at age 74.

The Spaced Out Library was renamed the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation, and Fantasy in 1990, and has grown from the original 5000 volumes to the current holdings of 57 000 volumes. The Merril Collection is housed in a building with climate control and sufficient space for their ambitious collections policy: all science fiction published in Canada, the U.S., and Great Britain. The collection has a website at for more information.

Daughters of Earth and Other Stories, Judith Merril, McClelland and Stewart, 1985, 383 pp.

The Best of Judith Merril, Judith Merril, Warner, 1976, 254 pp.

Survival Ship and Other Stories, Judith Merril, Kakabeka, 1973, 229 pp.

These three collections of short works by Judith Merril overlap a great deal, so I will review the most significant stories and indicate which collections they can be found in. Daughters of Earth is a nice omnibus edition: it's the most recent and it's certainly handsomer than the other two and longer. It's introduced by Merril herself, and the pieces seem to be selected by her as well (although this is not explicitly stated). Each of the stories is presented without comment. The Best of Judith Merril is cursed with some of the worst cover art imaginable -- the back cover blurb indicates that "No one projects herself more penetratingly into the psyche of the women of future centuries than Judith Merril" but it seems that these futuristic women are all space bimbos, if the book should be judged by its cover. The book has some brief introductory matter by Virginia Kidd, containing interesting biographical bits about Merril, and a brief interview with Merril about her decision to move to Canada. Kidd gives a one or two sentence introduction to each story, but the comments are mainly cribbed from Merril's comments in Survival Ship. Survival Ship and Other Stories contains stories chosen by Merril, along with a nice introduction by her, and little bits of commentary following each story. These comments illuminate the stories only obliquely, which is a relief -- Merril's writing is powerful enough that it needs no analysis to do its work.

"Daughters of Earth" is a long story, written in 1952, and is contained in both Daughters of Earth and The Best of Judith Merril. It covers the lives of six generations of women (Martha, Joan, Ariadne, Emma, Leah, and Carla), but is written by the character of Emma, looking back on her forebears and writing for her granddaughter, Carla. Emma grew up on Pluto and went on to be one of the first interstellar travellers. The main portion of the story focuses on Emma's life on the planet of Uller. Human colonists land on the planet and try to establish themselves. A strange lifeform is already present on the planet and some tragedies occur, like the death of Emma's lover Ken, before humans begin to understand the Ullerns. The story is remarkable for its scope, as well as for the way that Emma is sharply delineated in our minds. Merril uses the scope of the story to demonstrate some fascinating points about mother-daughter relationships, and "Daughters of Earth" is matter-of-factly feminist in a way that is remarkable for 1952.

"The Shrine of Temptation" was written in 1962 and can be found in all three collections. This excellent story can be considered a precursor to Le Guin's writing and all that was to follow in that vein. A group of human anthropologists (or xenologists?) land on a planet. The scientists study the indigenous culture, and make friends with an alien by name of Lallayall. This alien is delighted to teach and learn languages, and is soon known as Lucky to the humans. Lucky's culture uses the word "hallall" for answers to many questions, and the humans puzzle over the meaning of it. They also puzzle over the nature of the Shrine, which seems to be a type of temple but it houses nothing recognizable as religion. Then one day another group of "pinkies" emerge from a spaceship and Lucky leads them right to the Shrine. The events that follow baffle the anthropologists completely. I liked "The Shrine of Temptation" immensely -- it's written in lovely, vivid prose and it's an important predecessor to much of what was to come in science fiction. The uniqueness of the story would never lead anyone to guess what Merril reveals in the story's afterword in Survival Ship: "The Shrine of Temptation was my first attempt to write a story around a cover" (100).

"Homecalling" is found only in Daughters of Earth and might be my favourite in that collection. It's a long story about first contact written by Merril in 1956. "Homecalling" does not have the same sophisticated prose as "Daughters of Earth" or "The Shrine of Temptation" but it succeeds just as thoroughly. Deborah is an eight and a half year old girl, with a young brother named Petey, and parents who fly their spaceship around as geologists on new planets. Unfortunately, their spaceship crashes one day, and only Deborah and Petey survive. Merril writes the minutia of Deborah's survival with aching clarity; Deborah has to take care of her brother and also deal with survivor's guilt and her unwillingness to check the front part of the rocket where her parent's bodies would be. The indigenous species on the planet notices the rocket's crash, and a nearby alien queen-mother, Daydanda, becomes interested in Deborah. The main part of the story is contact between the two species. Merril renders the alien society with precision and detail, and the connection between the two species is fraught with uncertainty and miscommunication. I liked the story for its optimistic viewpoint. It's funny and touching, despite some of the tragic events like the crash. Deborah accepts Daydanda and her people without any xenophobia. Here's a remarkable passage:

The bugs were really pretty nice people, she thought, and giggled at the silly way that sounded... calling bugs people. But it was hard not to, because they thought about themselves that way, and acted that way: and once you got used to how they looked (and how they looked at you too: it still felt funny having them turn their backs to you when you talked to them, so they could see you) it was just natural to think of them that way. (208-209).

Remarkable, and inspiring.

"Exile From Space," only found in Survival Ship, is also a wonderful story told through careful attention to detail. Whereas "Homecalling" seemed motivated by optimism, "Exile From Space" moves out of a space of coiled up anger and frustration. Frustration with what? The social construction of gender, and Merril takes deadly aim at the matter; all the more deadly because of its date of publication, 1956. I am not implying that problems of gender socialization have been resolved now, only that the matter is openly recognized, whereas Merril indicates that she felt rather lonely in her outlook at the time. As she writes in her foreword to "Exile From Space," the pressures of conformity were enormous, and not easy to resist even if they could be properly identified and analysed. Here is what Merril has to say:

Newspapers, magazines, counselling services all told us firmly that children who had less than constant attention from their very own mothers were doomed to misery and delinquency; the greatest joy available to the "natural woman" was the pleasure of Building Her Man's Ego. (There were not enough jobs for returning veterans till the ladies went home.) There was a lot of pressure; one couldn't help wondering. Could it be true? I didn't think so; neither did my returning husband. (32)

However, as I stated at the beginning of this review, "Exile from Space" does not match up strictly with what Merril says about it. The story is about Tina, who is returning to Earth -- her parents were accidentally killed by aliens, who raised her and then brought her back as an adult. We don't find out this backstory until much later: the story begins helter skelter in the details of Tina trying to figure out how women on Earth act. And dress, and talk to people, and behave in public. As Tina encounters each of the restrictions on women's behaviours, Merril sharpens the barbed implications of the story until even the audience of the day would have understood the difficulty. The police treat Tina with suspicion, hotel owners are nervous and worried that Tina would rent a hotel room on her own, and so forth. Tina finds one haven amid the oppression and doubt: the public library! I must quote this section in full, because the library comes across as the only institution that treats Tina as a full human being.

There was a woman who worked there, who showed me, without any surprise at my ignorance, just how the card catalogue worked, and what the numbering system meant; she didn't ask me how old I was, or any other questions, or demand any proof of any kind to convince her that I had a right to use the place. She didn't even bother me much with questions about what I was looking for. I told her there were a lot of things I wanted to know, and she seemed to think that was a good answer. (47)

Yes, Tina enjoys the idealistic nature of the public library, but the library, for all its free access to information, cannot transcend the materials put into it by the surrounding culture. For example, the first book that Tina finds is how a mother should outfit a daughter for college "that started with underwear and worked its way through to jewelry and cosmetics" (47).

The story gets grimmer as Merril attacks the sexual double standard of the time. Tina meets a nice man named Larry, and they go out on a date. Afterwards, they stop by the side of the road and Tina discovers that she really enjoys kissing, and she wants him to park longer:

Then we turned and looked at each other, and he reached out for me and kissed me again; after which he pulled away as if the touch of me hurt him, and grabbed hold of the wheel with a savage look on his face, and raced the motor, and raised a cloud of dust on the road. (58)

As we discover later, Larry works for a security-conscious branch of the government, and he is starting to wonder about Tina and her background. Why does he wonder this? Tina analyses later: "I wanted him to park the car. Any girl on Earth, no matter how sheltered, how inexperienced, would have known better than that" (63). Here Merril follows the logic of the story to its conclusion: the double standard comes down to something like fear of female sexuality. It's true that Tina is not in complete possession of knowledge about her own body, so the analogy is not entirely successful. But Merril doesn't back down from the implications of Tina's clash with Earth culture and that is very refreshing.

I suppose I should say a few words about "That Only a Mother," Merril's famous debut from 1948 (found in Daughters of Earth and The Best of Judith Merril). It's somewhat of a gimmick story, along the lines of "Survival Ship," another of Merril's early short stories. Both stories reveal "shocking surprises" at the end. In the case of "That Only a Mother," the surprise has to do with radiation's effect on a child. As an artifact of the nuclear scare era, "That Only a Mother" is worth looking at. It's certainly effectively constructed, but I can't say much more for it than that.

I'll mention a few other stories briefly. "Whoever You Are," found in all three collections, deals with an alien threat that is insidious and deadly. "The Lady Was a Tramp" (Survival Ship and The Best of Judith Merril) is a bizarre and unsettling story about sexual dynamics aboard a spaceship. Not Merril's best story, but written with undeniable skill. "Peeping Tom" (Survival Ship and The Best of Judith Merril) is about one man's illusion of mastery. He gains the ability to psychically manipulate other people, but what about his wife? Needless to say, he's in for quite a shock.

Of the three collections, Daughters of Earth is probably the most worth tracking down. It has three of Merril's best stories -- "Daughters of Earth", "The Shrine of Temptation", and "Homecalling" -- amid a diversity and range of other stories that really help to get an idea of Merril's craft as a writer. The only story that it glaringly omits is "Exile from Space," which is another key to understanding Merril and her writing. The overlap between the three collections is unfortunate, but fans of Merril might want to pick up both Daughters of Earth and Survival Ship and Other Stories.

Shadow on the Hearth, Judith Merril, Doubleday, 1950, 277 pp.

Looking back on Shadow on the Hearth from a fifty year perspective, the book seems quaint, like a collector's item of nuclear scare nostalgia. However, Merril's novel has a great deal of subversive power packed into it, and some of the lessons of narrative which Merril so calmly applies here have not been learned by current writers. Merril's prose is a joy to behold, and this novel is as effectively written on the large scale as the short story "Exile from Space" on its smaller palette. In both of these instances Merril focuses her considerable sense of detail on the quotidian amidst the extraordinary. More on this when I discuss the wonderful main character of the novel, Gladys Mitchell.

Chapter 1 begins with an excruciatingly domestic scene, as Gladys washes her family's laundry, worries about social events, and so forth. This is a Merril book so something has to break. By page 11, Gladys notices that "A factory whistle screamed in the distance." But of course this is not a factory whistle at all, but the sirens in town. The children come home from school, full of news about the nuclear war, and how everyone is supposed to stay inside. Glady's husband, Jon, is somewhere in Manhattan, where some bombs fell, and so Gladys and the two daughters are glued to the radio for news of Jon, as well as for instructions. That night Gladys has a big scare with a strange man at the door -- it turns out to be Doc Garson Levy, a teacher at the local high school. Garson was a nuclear scientist who protested the nuclear policies, and so was cast out of the establishment with a black mark on his name, and he is on the run now. The next day, Veda, the Mitchell's housekeeper, gets returned under a cloud of suspicion for being a spy -- Gladys manages to reassure the authorities that Veda is a harmless old lady. Gladys is thankful for the presence of both Veda and Garson on one of the subsequent nights when a gang of looters tries to break into the house. The looters break down the door, and see Gladys and Veda: "'Oh, it's just a couple of dames,' he shouted, and the others rushed through" (170). The three gang up on them, and the surprise of resistance gives them victory. Not long after, Edie Crowell, a lonely neighbour lady, finds out that she has been badly exposed to radiation. Just after saying goodbye to Edie, Gladys combs the hair of her youngest daughter, Ginny, only to have clumps of it come out in her hands. The rest of the book is occupied with the consequences of Ginny's radiation sickness, like a horrifying trip to the local hospital.

The ending of the book is a masterpiece of revelation and anti-climax. The news comes over the radio that the war has been won, in a kind of cheery public service announcement that Gladys finds appalling if she thinks about it at all. Then Garson and another friendly doctor discover that Ginny has been sleeping every night with her favourite stuffed animal, Pallo the horse, which she had left out in the radioactive rain the day of the first bombs. Offstage, we find out that Jon has arrived at home, sick, wounded by gunfire, but home. But Jon's struggles make up such an afterthought to the book that the shiny heroic ending seems funny and skewed.

The main character of Shadow on the Hearth, Gladys Mitchell, is not a scientist or physicist or world-important figure. Her actions will not cause the nuclear war to start, or to end -- this is no Dr. Strangelove where all players are crucial to the unfolding destruction of the world. But this is precisely Merril's subversion, and of course Kubrick is also being satirical, but from a completely different angle and still employing many of the typical techniques of keeping our interest. Under the lens of a skilled writer like Merril, we see Gladys herself, moving through a life. We see the way that all of the high adventure nonsense that colours many sf narratives is a kind of ideology, a boys' own militarism, because in Shadow on the Hearth it is all washed away. Gladys is not Merril, as Gladys has many pre-feminist attitudes: "She tried to fight down panic, telling herself she was as bad as Edie Crowell, that she couldn't afford to give in to the fears and vapors that a childless woman could have" (60). But the warts-and-all depiction is Merril's accomplishment here; it's clear from Merril's nuanced portrait that Gladys and what she can be under pressure is being celebrated. Gladys is not so heroic as to fight a nuclear war and she is not so foolish as to lose a nuclear war, and both of these options, the heroic and the satiric, are revealed to be ridiculous. It's quite an accomplishment on Merril's part.

Shadows on the Hearth spends a great deal of time on the secondary characters as well. Veda is an efficient, bustling old lady, who takes charge of beating on gangsters and serving tea with equal equanimity and care. Merril does well with the stereotype, but does not comment on the meaning of Gladys having a housekeeper. Barbie and Ginny, the two daughters, are effectively characterized as well, with Barbie fighting many of the battles that teenagers face and Ginny struggling for attention. Barbie also develops a crush on the doctor who comes with the government teams, Doctor Spinelli, also known as Pete to her, and Gladys gets roundly berated by Barbie for even hinting about this. Funny, and apt. If there is a villain at all in Shadow on the Hearth, it is Jim Turner, a neighbour who has volunteered for the government teams and is enjoying the chance to let out his crypto-fascist tendencies. He is also taking the opportunity to try and hit on Gladys, and it's fascinating to watch the way Gladys responds. She never confronts him, but she also refuses to give him the least reaction. All of his suggestions drop out of the air between them like bricks. The development of the secondary characters depends on Gladys, from Jim Turner to Veda to Ginny.

Shadow on the Hearth has excellent characters in a plotline that is so straightforward as to be irrelevant. However, the narrative never gets boring, and Merril's prose handles the forward momentum with assurance and ease. I'm hard pressed to think of a current book to compare it to, in terms of technique, which is a shame. And all the more reason to celebrate Merril's accomplishments.

Tesseracts, edited by Judith Merril, Press Porcépic, 1985, 292 pp.

Tesseracts was Merril's twentieth anthology, and she was proud of that number. In the Afterword, Merril discusses the anthologies that she had edited, beginning with her first, Shot in the Dark, published in 1951, then the many intervening ones, like the Dell Best SF series. She then talks about observing the progress of Canadian science fiction from the late 60s, on through next dozen years until she decided to put Tesseracts together. As she puts it: "Twenty is a nice round number" (276). Tesseracts is a remarkably whimsical collection, not at all like the later Tesseracts, which are businesslike and professional. This Merril collection does not suffer by the comparison, yet it has a quirkiness that is somehow much braver and much more prone to falling on its face.

It's also fascinating to read Merril's summation of the Canadian science fiction scene at the time of this first Tesseracts. Merril was proud of what was present back then, and she could only be bursting with pride up to her death in 1997, by which time the Canadian sf had exploded (and things only seem to be getting exponentially better). It's worth noting the writers who were pros already in 1985 -- Spider Robinson, Terence M. Green, Phyllis Gotlieb, William Gibson (by a few years), and one or two others -- and to see who was excluded from the anthology. Merril apologizes for the omissions, hinting that future anthologists should keep these names in mind, most notably among them Charles de Lint and Robert J. Sawyer.

Merril states in her Afterword that 17 of the 32 selections are published for the first time, and all but two from after 1980. Merril admits that she was worried: "We started out hoping -- trusting -- we wouldn't have to go back for material earlier than the seventies, but I was prepared to fall back on reprinting a few sixties classics" (281). So less than half of Tesseracts is new material, a problem which the subsequent anthologies have not encountered. Of the 32 selections, there are 9 poems and 6 short shorts (up to 3 pages in my definition), leaving 17 short stories. The majority of the longer fiction is from previously published material, from Gibson's "Hinterland" to Gotlieb's "Tauf Aleph." The only really powerful original story is Green's "The Woman Who Is the Midnight Wind," which became the title story of a later collection of Green's stories.

But the collection stands up to scrutiny quite well, despite the odd mix of formats, and of reprints and originals. Let me first discuss the poetry in Tesseracts. "Letter from Mars-Dome #1" by Eileen Kernaghan gives us the terrifying sense of claustrophobia of some colonists on Mars. A few poems, like Kernaghan's, are very effective. Other poems, like "Last Will and Testament of the Unknown Earthman Lost in the Second Vegan Campaign" by D. M. Price or "Countdown" and "Questionnaire" by John Robert Columbo, are less interesting, and fall into triteness or jargon. Writing science fiction poetry is not easy, and Merril tries valiantly to collect the best.

Perhaps the oddest element of Tesseracts is the inclusion of the short shorts. Three of them are less than one page long, "Report on the Earth-Air Addicts" and "The Early Education of Num-nums" by Robert Priest, and "Points in Time" by Christopher Dewdney. These stories are amusing, and sometimes convey a mood or location effectively. But they are little more than fictional trinkets, adding interest to the collection but of small worth.

As mentioned, Tesseracts has a number of reprints. William Gibson's "Hinterlands" is a lovely story, one of the handful that he published in Omni in the early 80s by which he gained his initial fame. It's a powerful rebuke to the homocentric technophilia of most science fiction. Michael G. Coney contributes a story called "The Byrds," wherein humans undergo some strange changes, societal and otherwise, when anti-gravity belts get combined with a crazy idea in the mind of one old lady. It's a refreshing piece of surrealism. Phyllis Gotlieb's "Tauf Aleph" is a story about the decline of belief, and its return in a surprising place. A. K. Dewdney's "2D World" is from the preface to one of his novels, and is an interesting story in the vein of Flatland. The other important reprint in Tesseracts is Spider Robinson's "God is an Iron." A woman has "wireheaded" where she wires up her cerebral jack to continuously supply stimulation to the centres of pleasure. She is five days gone without sleep or food when the main character enters and tries to rescue her. The ending is fabulous, as we finally find out why the protagonist would put up with the gruelling process of restoring her back to health. Robinson originally published it as a separate story in Omni, and later included it as a chapter in a novel entitled Mindkiller (which I am now keen on tracking down).

Most of the original stories in Tesseracts are passable, if a bit odd. I liked "Totem" by Margaret McBride -- it has fun with its premise and still has the most straightforward prose. "Johnny Appleseed on the New World" by Candas Jane Dorsey is well written, with a focus on detail that would definitely appeal to Merril's sensibilities. Some stories are simply awful. David Kirkpatrick's "The Effect of Terminal Cancer on Potential Astronauts" is one of those pastiches of early 70s Brunner that pop up every once in a while. Kirkpatrick is no Brunner, however, and the story has none of the same grace and cunning as books like The Sheep Look Up or The Shockwave Rider.

Terence M. Green's "The Woman Who Is the Midnight Wind" is an excellent story. A woman who is never named lives on a planet named Juturna. She is writing her diary, talking about her life, her loves, and what it feels like to be on an alien planet. The character portraiture is vivid, and we follow her through some strange decisions. It's hard to explain the power of Green's story but it's undeniable.

I liked how Merril includes a few French-Canadian writers, a section of Canadian science fiction with which I am relatively unfamiliar. Three writers are included here: Elisabeth Vonarburg, Daniel Sernine, and Marc Sévigny, the first two translated by the authors and Jane Brierly, and the last translated by Marc Sévigny and Frances Morgan. The stories are all densely written and interesting, especially Vonarburg's "Home By the Sea."

Press Porcépic did a wonderful job with Tesseracts. It has lovely cover art by Ron Lightburn. The book also has intelligently chosen blurbs on the back cover, which is quite a remarkable thing to behold. Rather mindblowing actually, considering the typical science fiction covers. For example, the back cover quotes the best part of Merril's Afterword, a section where Merril describes her vision of science fiction and what she attempted to fulfil with this book. This passage is the perfect way to end my column on Judith Merril, and is as good a way as any to summarize her influence and contribution to science fiction.

What I like is getting my head turned around. I get off on fresh perceptions, widening horizons, new thoughts, and I like them best when they occur as a process in my own mind, rather than an exposition at which I am a passive spectator/receiver. What I look for in SF is the story... conceived and written in such a way as to suggest alternatives that will cause me to exercise my own imagination to broaden my own vision. To 'ask the next question'. (275).

Here we find a whole-hearted endorsement of the best in science fiction from a writer and anthologist who worked her whole life to make sure the best in science fiction was published and read.

James Schellenberg lives in Canada, and loves the way that Canadian science fiction has come into its own.

Last modified: November 18, 2000

Copyright © 2000 by James Schellenberg (

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