Sex Beyond Humans: Finding a Queer Ethology in Naomi Mitchison’s "Memoirs of a Spacewoman"
I sit in front of a vial with two fruit flies in it, continuing a grand tradition of scientists sitting around watching, waiting for animals to have sex. Moving back and forth among the hundreds of pairs I have set up for my experiments, I look for the classic behaviors established as fruit fly “courtship:” wing vibrations, genital licking, mounting.
The study of sexual behaviors is just one part of a broader field of the study of animal behavior, more formally known as ethology. Scientists perpetuate the idea that we can figure out what sex is if we just get enough data — even though we don’t even have clear definitions for sex, sexual behavior, or sexuality. What was, and is, often overlooked in this research is that sexual behavior is frequently coded in scientists’ expectations of what counts as “sex.” The identity, perspective, and cultural contexts of the individuals observing and interpreting animal behavior can have profound effects on how they understand behaviors, despite ethology’s pervasive belief in the concept of objectivity.
Yet, the life and writings of Scottish novelist Naomi Mitchison demonstrate that the same people who would be able to provide new insights into animal behavior have often been excluded or marginalized by the scientific community. In 1915, Mitchison co-authored a paper on mice genetics with her brother J.B.S. Haldane. Although Haldane went on to become a renowned geneticist, Mitchison felt unwelcome in science. In her memoirs, Mitchison described feeling like she couldn’t be a scientist because she empathized too much with the mice and guinea pigs they studied. Unlike her brother, Mitchison was more interested in the personalities of her subjects rather than their genetics.
Mitchison felt pushed to pursue other interests, and ultimately became a prominent writer and activist. In 1962, she published her first science fiction novel Memoirs of a Spacewoman. Through genre fiction, Mitchison reclaimed science and created a world where her approach to research was accepted.
In Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Mitchison imagined a queer ethology, in which research on animal behavior was free from both the boundaries of Earth and the strict scientific culture she was raised. Mitchison created species that contravened pre-conceived notions of sex, sexuality, and motherhood. By depicting a way to do science that embraced extreme empathy, Mitchison erased barriers between a scientist and their study system, thereby breaking the rules separating observer and observed. Through this queer ethology, Mitchison posed a way for scientists to recognize sexual behaviors outside of the heterosexual reproductive context — and in turn, to question what sex is and how its most basic elements may differ in other species.
The novel’s protagonist Mary is a “communicator,” whose research involves discovering, describing and interacting with life forms on other planets. Instead of maintaining a traditional scientific distance from her study system, Mary tries to think, feel, and almost become her subjects in order to understand them. In eliminating the boundaries between herself and the organisms she studies, Mary does science that is not only open to new ways of knowing beyond categorization and experimentation, but also embraces how this process will change the scientist.
In Mary’s first expedition, she meets a species that is organized radially, similarly to a sea urchin or sea-star. In attempting to communicate with and understand this new species, Mary moves her body to be at their “aesthetic level.” Seeing the world from their perspective, she begins to think like them, which dramatically changes the way she understands the world. Embracing a multi-dimensional radial mindset, Mary loses all sense of the binaries that had previously governed her life; she loses her sense of direction and finds it difficult to make decisions. Mary’s approach to research ultimately challenges and disrupts the most fundamental aspects of how she thinks.
Mitchison also crafted expeditions in which her protagonist could challenge research assumptions about reproduction as well as maternal affection. On a different mission, Mary interacts with a butterfly-like species that has extreme parent-offspring conflicts. Indeed, Mary observes that different developmental stages of the species appear to hate one another. The adults resent and blame their larval forms for frolicking around and having sex, behaviors that lead to an incomplete metamorphosis and eventual death when giving birth as adults. Mary and her communications team struggle to reconcile their empathy for the larval form with an understanding of why the adult butterflies react as they do. This species changes the team’s perceptions on how adults relate to their young, and what maternal feelings would be like in a species with only a single reproductive event in life.
By placing Mary in communication with species that have different sexual and reproductive systems, Mitchison could question assumed sexual norms in her own society. Mary forms a close connection to the Martians, an alien species that predominantly communicates through touch, often using their sensitive sexual organs. Although other explorers feel repulsed by the prospect of touching Martians’ genitals, Mary recognized that the Martians sexual organs were for more than reproduction. In creating a species without genital inhibitions and taboos, Mitchison could demonstrate the narrow-minded and restrictive interpretations of anatomical behaviors in her own society. Mitchison, thus, offered a queered ethological model that neither reduced parts of anatomy to a single purpose nor assumed behaviors that were often sexual in humans were necessarily so in other species.
Mary frequently uses her own body as a tool of experimentation, a practice common in Mitchison’s family. In Memoirs of a Spacewoman, however, Mitchison imagined a form of personal experimentation without requisite scientific detachment. Mary twice attaches an alien graft to her leg, observing how she and the graft influence one another. The graft unexpectedly arouses maternal and sexual feelings in Mary, and she feels a strong desire to imerse herself in water so the graft can symbiotically use her reproductive process to multiply itself. The deep, and sometimes erotic, connection between Mary and her alien graft queers the strict separation of observer and observed, and unravels the power dynamic between them typically found in scientific experiments.
Despite offering queer visions of ethology, Mitchison’s narrative of exploration is also entrenched in the colonialism and imperialism embedded in both science and science fiction. In creating a future where women are valued for their skills and scientific contributions, Mitchison also essentializes gender differences in women’s abilities to empathize and communicate. Further, when describing Mary’s relationships with men from various racial and ethnic backgrounds, Mitchison veers into the sexualization of racial differences. Although Memoirs of a Spacewoman can be embraced as a queer text that agitates the dominant scientific enterprise, it is also a reminder of the work we still need to do to form inclusive and decolonized queer practices of science.
Through her science fiction novel, Mitchison reclaimed a scientific realm denied in her youth. She took her experience studying guinea pigs and explored what science would look like if it weren’t formal, distant, and experimental — if it was instead descriptive, empathetic, and personal. In doing so, Mitchison explored alternative methods that could encourage scientists to develop intimate relationships with their subjects, even eliminating the boundaries between observer and observed. Over 50 years after its publication, Memoirs of a Spacewoman offers a queer ethology that embraces an approach to sex and sexuality that is beyond human.
Caitlin thanks Julia Monk, Max Lambert, Ambika Kamath, and Erin Giglio for stimulating conversations which encouraged her to question representations of sexuality in science. In addition, she wants to especially highlight the work of Susan Squier (cited above), which introduced her to the novels of Naomi Mitchison and the ways that science fiction can be used to inform science.