Judith vs. Judy

  • Dianne Newell and Victoria Lamont
    Judith Merril: A Critical Study. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)

The science-fiction editor Judith Merril and the urban-development critic Jane Jacobs, both Jewish writers from New York City, arrived in Toronto in 1968, and set about to make waves in what came to be called “the city that works” and “the new city.” Both women have been the subjects of studies. There is a single reference to Jacobs in the present book, as well as a single reference to the present reviewer (whose name is misspelled in the index but correctly spelled in the carefully written text itself).

Judith Merril: A Critical Study, a sturdily produced trade paperback, has been undertaken by two well-qualified academic writers, Dianne Newell, professor of history at the University of British Columbia, and Victoria Lamont, associate professor of English literature at the University of Waterloo. Together they have written what their publisher describes as “a valuable source for students of science fiction, women’s life writing, women’s contributions to frontier mythology, and women’s activism.” I have no reason to argue with that assessment. Yet this full-fledged study is very much a scholar’s view of Judith Merril. Those readers who remember the subject, Judy Merril, as a feisty and restless woman with a reputation for “getting things done,” will do better to turn to the pages of an earlier publication, Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril (2002), the well-researched, impressionistic account of the woman seen into print by her granddaughter Emily Pohl-Weary.

Those readers who want to fit Judith Merril’s legacy, her advocacy, her activism, and her writings into contexts that are ideological, literary, psychological, and social will find the approach of the present study to their liking. I cannot imagine it will be bettered. Yet Judy Merril regarded herself not just as a writer, anthologist, activist, or feminist but also as a person who was somewhat larger than life—the description she preferred was a “science-fiction personality.” What she wrote was not “science fiction” but “speculative fiction,” a term she helped to popularize. (Margaret Atwood adopted the term; Robert J. Sawyer did not.) So she was at core a “speculative personality.”

The length of the present work is about 114,000 words, and this review is limited to 650 words, so the best I can do is skate over the surface, mentioning its argument chapter by chapter. The authors rightly stress the influence of the Cold War mentality on American writers of Merril’s generation. They link it with “a paradigm shift in the central mythology of American identity: the frontier myth.” This makes sense: if there is no surplus land in the Western states, there is ample land on unexplored planets in outer space.

They discuss the “atomic frontier theme” which they see in the context of gender, noting that “Merril privileged the role of the feminine in space travel and exploration.” Then they consider “another standard space-related theme, alien encounters.” (Having written stories related from the vantage points of alien beings, Merril took particular pride in being deemed by the Canadian Department of Immigration to be a “Resident Alien.”) Something of a surprise is the stress on Merril’s recurring theme of “primary communication,” a term encompassing alternative forms of communication including intuition but also telepathy (sharing this power with fellow writer Phyllis Gotlieb).

Other chapters deal at length and in depth with collaborations in fiction and pioneering anthologizing plus the final memoir. Her role as the catalyst for speculative fiction in this country is perhaps more assumed than studied. Entirely missing is any discussion of her as a Jewish writer as well as her unique collaboration with Carl Sagan and Jon Lomberg on the Mars Observer spacecraft in the fall of 1994, which took her words (and voice) to the Red Sands of Mars, fulfilling a life-long dream. Two valuable, not-to-be-overlooked features are the twelve-page bibliography of writings and the detailed index.

Early on the authors describe Merril as a “central figure in science fiction”; yet later they worry about her “near-footnote status in science fiction literature” with the “erasure” of her reputation and achievement. Odd. Earlier, I made this judgment about this study: “I cannot imagine it will be bettered.” Contrarian that she was, Judy would have disagreed with this assessment. I can hear her insisting, “Things can always be better!” She was generally right, but in this instance she might just possibly be wrong.

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