Young People Read Old SFF

That Only a Mother

Judith Merril

Young People Read Old SFF

25 Aug, 2016

If modern readers have heard of Judith Merril, it is almost certainly due to either the Canadian library that bears her name  or to her impressive career as an editor. She was the first woman to put out (alone) a Best SF of the Year annual anthology; she was the only woman in the whole of the 20th century to do so [1]. Her popular anthologies evinced a breadth of taste few of her male competitors ever attained. Before she was an editor, Merril was a fan turned professional writer, one of the highly influential  who shaped so much of 20th century SF [2].

I knew immediately which story to introduce to young fans: That Only a Mother, Merril’s 1948 tale of a deliriously happy modern nuclear family. It has been anthologized many times. 

Readers wanting to learn more about Judith Merril — writer, editor, activist — should consider Judith Merril and Emily Pohl-Weary’s Hugo-winning biography Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril. 

1: Women (most particularly Katherine Cramer) have co-edited Best SF Annuals. But between the end of Merril’s series in 1970 and the 2015 debut of Paula’s Guran’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novellas, not one woman edited a Best SF annual on her own. There has been, of course, no lack of annual Best SF series helmed by solitary male editors  in that time. 

2: Indeed, a number of the young men who Merril took as lovers and as husbands were not just easy on the eyes. Some of them even went to have quite respectable writing careers of their own. Space precludes naming any of them, but I am sure they were a credit to their sex. [ Editor’s query: but did they look good in bathing suits?]

Wow. Uh, that got dark. I admit that I don’t understand the impulse to infanticide that is apparently epidemic in this world. Sure the child is limbless, but she’s not in any pain and is also extremely intellectually precocious. The disability clearly isn’t posing too much of a problem for the mother, and on her own the child might be clever enough to design her own prosthetics after a few years. I guess Stephen Hawking wasn’t big on the scene yet when this story was written. (I looked it up, he was 6 when this was published.)

The letters and telegrams back and forth was an interesting way to frame the story. I liked it. I was really interested in the mistrust of news sources and suspicion of government censorship, talking about missile strikes being covered up and news of them not being released for publication. Fascinating to know that that attitude to official news sources goes back to at least the 40’s.

This is a good story to have read. It wasn’t fun to read, more disturbing, trying to figure out what the dark twist was going to be. Then the ending came and the real twist was the murderous insanity of the father.


I have a new goal when working on this project: I will not talk about representation of women in my reviews. Unless i read something Really Bad. Which I am sure is not going to happen in classic science fiction, ha ha. I realize that making this goal just before reading a story from A new feminine science-fiction author” may not make sense. But I want these reviews to chronicle my impressions of whether the stories are good, not whether they’re good and/or include characters I’m able to relate to. So. no more representation-talk starting.….… now.

I’ve read lots of cozy mysteries. Is it fair to call this a cozy science fiction? Instead of exploring new worlds and outward possibilities, this story looks in.

This was also a captivating story with three characters who were all interesting to follow! It started and ended just at the right time — leaving me wanting to know more, more, more. And also wondering if happy science fiction exists. This story took me for a ride. It referred to current events at the time of publication, but the themes explored still apply today. The story was a great reminder (to me, at least) to be kind.

I’m going to give print outs of the story to my non-sci-fi reading parents. I’m going to email the link to the story to my friends. I may even post about this story on Facebook. Everyone should read this story.

I need to read more stories like this one.


Has it aged well?

Ugh, gendered norms and sexism everywhere.

The questionable opening tagline: A new feminine science-fiction author gives a slightly different slant on one of the old themes — and a brilliantly bitter little story results.” Read: Don’t worry, this author is still feminine even though she writes science fiction. She’s also not that original, so don’t feel threatened, boys. It’s only a tiny little story, so don’t get up in arms about her stealing work from the men.

On the one hand, she stops herself questioning the news because it’s not her place to do that. On the other hand, ignoring information from outside sources presumably contributes to the ending. Also, Read the social notes or the recipes, Maggie girl” is one of her thoughts. Ugh.

I would have stopped reading if I was reading for fun. Little did I know that the ending would not be a great payoff. It continued with her being a little hysterical,” throwing a small fit” and not understanding medical terminology.

And then at the end:

How can she not understand human anatomy and/or be in that much denial?

And this is the opposite of a payoff. This is like giving money to someone for safekeeping, and they put it in their pet’s litterbox.

Otherwise, the aging of this story was a little confusing to place at first. Fax machines, rolovators, visiplates? Conclusion: set in an alternate version of 1953. Maybe the story is telling me that technology is bad. Nah. *plays Pokémon Go for hours*

It reminds me of…

I heard that The Fly has a scene involving a woman giving birth to a maggot. I have never watched The Fly. I wish I hadn’t read this story for similar icky reasons.

This also reminded me ofThe Chrysalids.

Other Thoughts

The author did a good job with description: 8 pages of efficient and vivid storytelling. I liked reading only her side of the stories

Conclusion/Rating out of 10

If I was someone who liked being creeped/grossed out, this would be about 7/10.

But since I’m me, this story only gets points for good writing. Really not for me. 3/10.


I can see why this story makes sense since it was written shortly after WWII, when people didn’t know the long term effects of dropping nuclear weapons on people. The assumption that there would be widespread mutation feels very dated, in a modern day story I would expect the main worry to be cancer.

It makes me uncomfortable how physical disability is treated in this story. Based on the information we’re getting from Margaret’s letters, the society she lives in considers it justifiable for a parent to murder their disabled baby, since juries won’t convict parents who do so. It doesn’t seem to bother Margaret that this happens, only that her baby is normal” and therefore not at risk.

As for Margaret herself, I’m really unsure how to react to her. I’m glad to see characters with mental illnesses represented in stories, but on the first read through it felt to me like it was used to make Henrietta’s disability a shock reveal at the end. On the second reading, I could see how clues were planted along the way, but I was so distracted by Henrietta’s (completely impossible) ability to speak and reason at such young age, to the point where I was expecting the reveal to be related to that in some way.

The title choice feels wrong for multiple reasons. For one thing, the idea that only a mother could love a disabled person is horrible. For another, Margaret is avoiding grasping the reality of her child’s disability, rather than loving her child for who she is.

As for the rest of the story, the setting of the story felt very undefined. There’s some kind of war going on, but we don’t know who is fighting who, where it is happening, or why. It’s clearly set far enough after WWII that they’re dealing with the impact on the next generation from radiation, but it’s unclear if we’re a few years later or if it’s been a longer period of time. We also have clear evidence that our narrator is unreliable, so it’s hard to say how much of the information we are given can be trusted. I’m inclined to believe that most of the few details we get are accurate, but I can’t trust them completely.

This was an interesting story, in that it gave a perspective into some of the fears of the time; however, it feels quite dated and there are many aspects that have not aged well.