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Mitchison, Naomi

Entry updated 25 September 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1897-1999) Scottish polemicist and author who married G R "Dick" Mitchison just before his return to the front; her own World War One service, as an auxiliary nurse, included caring for him in a French hospital; sister of J B S Haldane. She was known mainly for her work outside the sf field, which she entered late; her bibliography [see links below] includes over 100 books and over 1000 shorter pieces, beginning with the privately printed nonfantastic play Saunes Bairos: A Study in Recurrence: A Play in Three Acts, a Prologue and Epilogue (1913 chap) as by N M Haldane, the first performance of which featured an appearance by the young Aldous Huxley; and includes such historical novels with fantasy elements as The Conquered (1923), which features a soothsayer who turns out to be Odin; and The Corn King and the Spring Queen (1931; vt The Barbarian 1961), an Anthropological fantasy about Sparta. Some of her earlier stories use sf or fantasy elements for allegorical purposes. They include "The Goat: Cardiff AD 1935" about an impoverished Near Future world where a rich person is sacrificed annually, in Barbarian Stories (coll 1929), the short novel The Powers of Light (1932 chap), which verges on Prehistoric SF, and many of the tales and fables in The Fourth Pig (coll 1936), use sf or fantasy elements for allegorical purposes (see Mainstream Writers of SF). We Have Been Warned (1935) is a tangled Near-Future political novel involving the oppression of the Left in the UK. Beyond this Limit (1935 chap), whose illustrations by Wyndham Lewis constitute a co-creation of the book, is (loosely) a Posthumous Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] with some satirical impact.

After a period of relative inactivity, her first work of interest is The Big House (1950), a fairy tale for children, set within a Celtic frame. The protagonist of the fantasy Travel Light (1952) questions the nature of Identity while shifting names (though not her intact personhood) in a Fantastic Voyage, during which she encounters Odin. To the Chapel Perilous (1955) is a witty account of the Grail legend which pits rival anthropological and historical theories together as if, in a sense, they were all true [for Euhemerism see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]; the narrative itself, which jostlingly presents the Matter of Britain through the eyes and actions of conspicuously anachronistic reporters for a tabloid newspaper, may be seen as auguring much Fantastika to come. Behold Your King (1957) is a novel about Christ's crucifixion, told in a slangy, contemporary idiom to demystify it. Images of Africa (coll 1980) assembles short fantasies told in a folktale idiom. Early in Orcadia (1987), also fantasy, is set in prehistoric Orkney. Of her thirty or more books for children, many are fantasy. Two late collections, Beyond this Limit: Selected Shorter Fiction (coll 1986), which assembles pre-World War Two work, and A Girl Must Live: Stories and Poems (coll 1990), which assembles work from the following half-century, include a considerable amount of sf.

Mitchison's first genuine sf novel was Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962), a ruminative picaresque (or Fantastic Voyage) in the style of the Scientific Romance, comprising a series of episodes recollected by the narrator, Mary, a Communications expert dealing with Alien intelligences on various planets (see First Contact; Life on Other Worlds). Most of the episodes contain ingenious biological or exobiological speculations; one takes a Whorfian view of Linguistics (which see). Mary's reminiscences are warm and urgent; her job, which necessitates interstellar travel, requires "time blackouts" during which she undergoes time dilation (see Relativity), so that she constantly returns to a changed world, complicating her recurring desire to bear children and ironizing – as does her profession – any straightforward sense of what a "memoir" might be. She also loves her work, however, and the strength of this novel is to show how maternity and professional progression need not be exclusive; though at points over-casual, it is in the end a radiant book, its effect on the reader similar to, though less pressurizing than, Stanisław Lem's tales of Ijon Tichy. Solution Three (1975) is a less sustained examination of a Clone solution to the problems of a Ruined Earth facing crises of Overpopulation: heterosexuality has therefore been deprecated; but a new generation is beginning to question the rigidity of the homosexual Solution Three (see Eugenics), which is increasingly being perceived is inhumanly narrow. Not by Bread Alone (1983), a weaker tale, suggests that the sudden distribution of free food worldwide will create serious problems; the Australian Aborigines, in the process of establishing a state of their own, wisely refuse the offer, eschewing alcohol as well.

Though Mitchison's fiction is both copious and fluent, her writing is primarily motivated by extrinsic concerns. Where these concerns are successfully embedded in her stories, she is a writer of glowing power. As Dick Mitchison's wife, she shared (not very willingly) his title as a Life Peer; she was granted a CBE on her own merits in 1981. [JC]

see also: Genetic Engineering; Intelligence; Mythology; Women in SF.

Naomi Mary Margaret Mitchison née Haldane, Lady Mitchison

born Edinburgh, Scotland: 1 November 1897

died Carradale, Argyll, Scotland: 11 January 1999

works (selected)


works as editor


about the author


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