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.