Daughters of Earth by Judith Merril
Daughters of Earth is a trio of sci-fi stories. The front cover claims they’re novels. They aren’t. Some of them might be novellas. Others are … novelettes? It doesn’t matter. They’re definitely stories, and thus I shall call them.
The first—Project Nursemaid—revolves around some cockamamie scheme to help humans adjust to low-gravity situations by exposing them from birth/infancy to nothing but a low-gravity atmosphere. As the US army doesn’t just have babies on hand (a sign that this future world is better than our current one in at least some ways) they resort to asking pregnant women who would rather not deal with the punitive societal repercussions of having a child* if it would be rather okay to just yank that baby out at five months, swap ‘em over to an incubator of some sort, and ship them into space.
*there is one outlier, a poor woman who is told that if she carries the baby to term, they’ll both die. She hopes this is the better option.
Anyway, this story is both gross and boring. It’s steeped in the casual, paternal, misogyny of the 50s. All women are feeble and childish and need the strong support and unwavering attention of a man to keep them from doing something stupid. Never mind that these women couldn’t have gotten pregnant without the help of a man ...
I won’t even bother going into the specific examples of how and why Project Nursemaid is gross; I could write a dissertation on the subject. I will say, though, that it did make me grateful for how much things have changed. I know—I know too well—that women still have to put up with a seemingly insurmountable level of misogynistic bullshit, but at least these days a guy concluding an interview with a teenage girl can’t kiss her on the forehead. In Project Nursemaid, he does so without even an inkling of self-doubt.
Outside of all the gross, Project Nursemaid is also boring. I quit 50 pages in, and from my brief summary of the story, you know roughly as much as I do. There was no real hook, no intrigue, just a bunch of sad women and some scheme involving low gravity.
I quit the story without hesitation, and bounded onto the next one wondering if I was wasting my time.
I’m glad my well of optimism runs deep, because Daughters of Earth, the titular story of the book, is incredible. It’s a grandmother’s gift to her adventuring granddaughter: a history of the women in their family’s incredible adventures. From the earth to the moon, from the moon to Mars, from Mars to Pluto, from Pluto to Ullern, every-other woman in their family has striven to exceed the ordinary and press beyond the known, and now the granddaughter will continue this tradition by being a part of the first expedition into the past.
This still isn’t a traditional story. The hooks are minimal; it reads like a memoir—because, in fact, that’s exactly how it’s written. It rambles from time to time, the repetitions in storytelling are clearly a stylistic choice rather than a reliable recount of historic events, and some moments are honed in on with loving details while others are passed in a blink.
I would have never guessed to find a fictional memoir passionate and powerful, yet Daughters of Earth reads with an honesty that is hard to disregard. It makes me wonder about Judith Merril and her background—she has to have been a trailblazer, and resonated deeply with the sentiment, if not the exact experience, of her protagonist. I'm going to have to look into this.
The final story, Homecalling, is the tale of a nine-year-old girl crash-landed on an alien planet. She must take care of her infant brother until help arrives—if it comes at all. Meanwhile, the mother of a hivemind-like colony of alien-insects is very curious about the sudden arrival of outsiders, and these interlopers’ plan for their territory.
I adored the characterization of Dee, our pint-sized protagonist. She’s brave and vulnerable and very much a child. I rarely like stories with a child lead, but I’d have read a full-length about Dee.
I also adored the characterization of Daydanda, the mother of the insect-aliens. She’s very much alien, but not at all confusing—and that’s saying something because her mind is all over the place. I find most depictions of telepathy to be both confusing and somewhat self-indulgent, but I felt none of this while watching Daydanda watch Dee. Actually, I think the way telepathy is woven through the story is one of its highlights.
I’ve read other reviews that downplayed Homecoming slightly for its lack of a complicated plot. I disagree. The trippiness of the telepathy added enough intrigue that I didn’t need any bait-and-switch plot devices to keep me engaged, and though I’m almost the literal worst at reading between the lines, even I could see a depth that wasn’t completely spelled out regarding Daydanda’s obsession with the spaceship.
Okay, there were maybe three pages in the middle that felt a little slow to me, but they were well-worth it to reach the end.
Project Nursemaid was a boring let down. Homecalling and Daughters of Earth knocked it out of the park, especially with how they wove characterization and the power of being human in with decidedly sci-fi stories and storytelling. I can totally get into that.
Cover art by Robert Foster: