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Monday, March 16, 2009

The All-Time Top 40: That Only a Mother, Judith Merril (#43)

posted by Jonathan Strahan @ 5:24 AM 

When Judith Merril’s "That Only a Mother" appeared in the pages of the June 1948 issue of John W. Campbell’s Astounding it must have stood out like nothing else. The issue contained an editorial on nuclear power from Campbell and stories from Eric Frank Russell, Asimov, and others. I’ve not read the issue in full, but I’ll bet nothing else in that issue, or most likely any other issue that year, put a story told from a women’s perspective addressing issues like childbirth, motherhood, and parenthood in front of Astounding readers.

If for no other reason, then, "That Only a Mother" is an important story. It places women and women’s issues in a science fictional perspective, and vitally makes them part of science fiction’s story. I suspect that’s at least part of the reason that the Science Fiction Writer’s of America voted to make the story part of the SFWA Hall of Fame, and why it appears in Bob Silverberg’s great anthology of the same name.

While Merrill's first published science fiction story undoubtedly deserves its place in science fiction’s history books, how does it stand up as a piece of fiction in 2009, sixty-one years after its original publication? It seems to this hardened reader that the answer to that question is that it doesn’t stand up too well. Set against the backdrop of a major war possibly reaching its closing stages, "That Only a Mother" tells of a pregnant woman preparing for the arrival of her first child. The war has clearly exacted a heavy price, with radiation exposure a common fear and newspapers reporting that fathers are returning from the front to find children born with awful mutations. There are rising numbers of reported infanticides, and the fathers are always to blame.

Merril sets her stage quickly and well. It takes her two pages to set out the basic scenario for the story. We have, in horror story terms, entered a corridor down which we must walk, knowing that a monster lies behind the door at corridor’s end. We are supposed to be properly terrified of what we will find when we finally open the door, and much of the story’s suspense comes from how the walk down the corridor is structured and how the opening of the door is foreshadowed. The problem with the remainder of "That Only a Mother" is that it’s too easy to guess what’s behind the door. We can tell from the story’s foregrounding and title that certain events will inevitably take place. Merril tries to combat that by keeping her descriptions of events and the story’s closing stages as vague as possible. We never really find out precisely what’s wrong with the woman’s child, or exactly what happens at the story’s end. And yet, we know all we need to. In fact, we knew all we needed to at page two. The remainder of the story is the simple unfolding of what must be.

I don’t think a reader today can know at a gut level how a story like "That Only a Mother" read in 1948, but in 2009 what was once probably a chilling science fiction story reads more like a not very effective horror tale. Which begs the question: should it be read in 2009? I think "That Only a Mother" deserves to be studied and discussed by scholars and historians of the field, and its place in the history of the field should be acknowledged. It is unquestionably important. But, were I putting together an anthology of the best science fiction stories of the 1940s for modern readers I’d skip it. What was once a chilling and timely piece of science fiction has become, with time, an important but not particularly moving historical footnote.

Next time, John Varley's "The Pusher". For those reading along, try The John Varley Reader for a copy.



Blogger Rich Horton said...

I think you've hit it exactly, Jonathan.

It wasn't helped either by the fact that while in 1948 it stood out, from 1950 through say 1955 at least, nearly every single issue of every single SF magazine -- and I'm not joking, I've read enough of them to know -- had at least one story about Nuclear War and the issues arising therefrom, and a good many of those were about mutation.

I read that story first in the SF Hall of Fame, and I was underwhelmed even then (this would have been in 1972 or so) ... is that all?, I thought. Though I think it's well and smoothly executed.

March 16, 2009 6:40 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Strahan said...

I don't recall if I read it when I first got a copy of The SF Hall of Fame, but that's where I read it too. I've not read that many pulps, but I don't doubt for a second that just about every issue post-War had something on nuclear energy and its hazards.

What surprised me most, reading the story last week for pretty much the first time, was how unimpressed I was. I was ready to be shocked, moved, whatever, but it had very little effect. It goes to show how time impacts on these things. I can't imagine a modern reader getting anything much out of the story.

March 16, 2009 6:45 PM  
Anonymous Marc Laidlaw said...

1972 must be the magic year for reading that story. I was in junior high school, I had just joined The Science Fiction Book Club, and The SF Hall of Fame was one of the four free books I got as part of my membership. Between "That Only A Mother" and "Born of Man and Woman," the latter was the one I immediately got to work imitating.

March 16, 2009 11:41 PM  
Blogger Crotchety Old Fan said...


Naturally a lot of the reaction comes from context - and some of that context is the story's placement on a list of 'best of all time'.

This is the equivalent of getting all excited by movie trailers - only to realize that the best bits were IN the trailer.

I also don't know if anyone who didn't have to hide under a desk or 'duck and cover' while growing up can ever really appreciate the baggage that Merrill's story taps in to. The threat of nuclear annihilation as a very real possibility created an emotional background radiation that far exceeded the current concerns over international terrorism.

The story remains well-crafted and, as a milestone in the development of the genre, deserving of its place.

March 17, 2009 2:17 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Strahan said...

Hi Marc - I don't know if it's the critical few years in age difference between us, or WHEN you happened to read the story, but I can believe it was effective. Personally,I always found Matheson's story to be a heck of a tale.

March 17, 2009 3:47 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Strahan said...

Hi Crotchety - I completely agree that Merril deserves recognition as a significant figure in the history of the field, and that the story deserves its place in SF history books as a work that was important in the development of the genre. I've read it several times, though, and I'm not convinced that its that well crafted. For quite a short tale, it spends a lot of time telegraphing what it's on about, undercutting the impact of the rather murky ending quite a bit. Or, so it seems to me.

March 17, 2009 3:51 AM  
Blogger Blue Tyson said...

Yes, this one is very underwhelming. (Don't think much of the Matheson for that matter, either).

Crotchety Old Man, not necessarily. You just had to be around in the 80s, with senile American presidents and nuclear threats. See Watchmen, a big blue case in point.

March 17, 2009 7:30 AM  
OpenID serendipita said...

We never really find out precisely what’s wrong with the woman’s child...


"His hands, beyond control, ran up and down the soft-skinned baby body, the sinuous, limbless body."

What's vague about "limbless"?

March 20, 2009 2:58 PM  
OpenID serendipita said...

:more spoilers:

I've been mulling this a bit more...

When I first read this story, probably a couple of decades ago, I definitely found it chilling. And what's chilling isn't the horror of what's wrong with the infant, it's that the mother genuinely has no idea that anything's wrong at all. The father comes home to the shock of a completely delusional wife. And all sorts of comments earlier (other baby's diapers stay on, why don't yours?) take on a new meaning.

I'm probably belaboring the obvious here, but I *still* find the idea chilling. And no, I haven't actually reread it (except for looking up the quote and references above, which I've remembered for decades). And I don't WANT to reread it. It hits me viscerally still. A mother who needs so fiercely to love her baby and to think of her baby as perfect that she refuses to see what's in front of her face. Brrrr....

March 20, 2009 3:52 PM  
OpenID serendipita said...

Okay, source of another frisson--the father in the story risked exposure when he was working at Oak Ridge. It was a few years later, but I was conceived when my father was working at Oak Ridge...


March 20, 2009 4:07 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Strahan said...

Hi Serendipita. I guess the descriptions didn't strike me as chilling, rather more as being a bit vague. I respect your response to the story, and can see your reading, but I wasn't struck by the story much. It may be that, with all of the foreshadowing, I was expecting something worse. Appreciate your comments! - Jonathan

March 21, 2009 1:13 AM  
Anonymous DB said...

I confess I've always found that story completely baffling.

The way I'm reading it, the baby doesn't have any limbs, but the mother doesn't know that babies are supposed to have limbs.

Huh? That doesn't make any sense, so what am I missing here?

March 23, 2009 7:19 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Strahan said...

DB The idea is that the child has a terrible mutation, but such is its mother's love that she is completely blind to it. She just sees her child, and none of its problems.

March 23, 2009 7:58 PM  
Anonymous DB said...

Jonathan - Well, maybe. But the last line of the story is the husband thinking, "She didn't know." That doesn't sound to me like what you'd say about someone who's overlooking the obvious, but of someone who is genuinely lacking a clue.

March 24, 2009 7:53 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Strahan said...

DB: I took that as basically meaning he was incredulous that she had overlooked the mutations. The story doesn't really much add up by modern standards. For example, there's no diagnosis/description of the mutations, no real interaction with medical staff, and no discussion of possible treatment. Given the child's obvious intelligence, you would have thought they'd have at least discussed medical options.

March 25, 2009 12:00 AM  
Anonymous DB said...

Jonathan - "he was incredulous that she had overlooked the mutations."

Well, so am I. I don't believe that level of denial. He says, "Why didn't you tell me?" and she replies, "Tell you what?"

On the other hand, I don't feel that the lack of diagnosis or treatment discussion harms the story. This is a one-punch, very short story, and including such would only overweight it. This is what comes first. Once the mother can get past whatever her problem is, then they can discuss it. Unless the implication of the final lines is that the man is killing the baby, in which case what happens next would also be very interesting to know about, but it's a different story. (I look ahead to next week's discussion: it would be very interesting to hear Radiant's response to the final line of that story - but the story ends where it does and not later.)

March 25, 2009 2:19 PM  
Anonymous F. Brett Cox said...

I don't dispute that the story's shock value is greatly diminished in the six decades since its original publication. But when I re-read it a few years ago for a class in which I was using the SF Hall of Fame Vol. I, what struck me most was how much better written in was on a sentence-to-sentence level than pretty much any story that had preceded it in the book (excluding Sturgeon's "Microcosmic God"--which holds up splendidly and was one of my students' favorites, by the way).

As for the story's ending, I always found the mother's denial of her child's condition utterly believable. Few people behave rationally under stress, and what parent is not, on some level, capable of being willfully oblivious to her or his child's shortcomings--even when they're literally right in front of her eyes?

March 27, 2009 7:11 AM  
Blogger Jonathan Strahan said...

There seems to be an at least intermittent flaw with the Blogger comments process. Please be aware of it. We're waiting for Blogger to rectify it. Our apologies for the problem.

March 29, 2009 8:29 PM  

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