Reading Group Report on Four Short Stories

On the evening of the fourth of March we met in the Keynes Library at Birkbeck to discuss four short stories, each of which in some way related to our year’s theme of labour, production, and reproduction. 

The four short stories were:

‘That Only a Mother’ by Judith Merril (1948) in which an anxious mother gives birth to a child in an age of paranoia around genetically mutated children.

‘The Ship Who Sang’ (1961) by Anne McCaffrey, in which a disabled child becomes integrated into a spaceship’s operating system.

‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ (1967) by Pamela Zoline, follows the thoughts of a housewife through the drudgery and boredom of domestic and reproductive labour.

‘Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand’ (1973) by Vonda McIntyre narrates an episode in the life of the confusingly named Snake, a travelling healer/doctor who uses the different properties of her snakes to perform medical procedures. 

It is perhaps a little bit challenging to summarise the themes of the discussion as we analysed each story one at a time (though there was much linking between them at the same time). I also was only present for a small slice of the overall time and so most of the discussion points I was present for focused on ‘That Only a Mother’. However, here are some of the things that were covered:


Each story explores specific but interrelated forms of gendered labour. Housework is the focus of ‘Heat Death’, reproduction the focus of ‘That Only’, while ‘The Ship’ looks at the exploitation of the labour of disabled bodies. Finally ‘Of Mist’ looks at professionalism and carework. It was noted that many of these stories, especially ‘Heat Death’ and ‘Of Mist’ were written in the context of second wave feminist activism and texts (such as Wages Against Housework Sylvia Federici (1974)). The labour of the writer was also mentioned: how much scientific knowledge is needed in order to write an sf story, and how much work is put into experimentation especially in regards to ‘Heat Death’. Finally the work necessary for women to overcome the sf male bias in order to be published. Apparently Judith Merrill wrote her story ‘That Only’ in response to John W. Campbell’s degree as editor of Astounding magazine, that women were not sufficiently knowledgeable/talented to be published in his publication.

Suburban Paranoia

Both ‘Heat Death’ and ‘That Only’ convey the psychological states of women who perform traditional domestic roles, specifically of childcare and housework. ‘Heat Death’ repeats the idealised image of the happy housewife, which it pierces with its obsessive and analytical detailing of the bored and tired reality. The protagonist’s name, Sarah Boyle, evokes the sense of building up energy, the possibility of boiling over, and also Boyle’s Law. A link was made with the subject formation of the individual under neo-liberalism, always expected to be happy doing menial and depressing work. In ‘That Only’ the narratives vacillates between portraying the mind of a paranoid and delusional mother, and portraying the protagonist as seeing the truth of the situation (more on this in a second). The term ‘suburban neurosis’ was critiqued as a sexist/bogus ‘diagnosis’: i.e. male doctors medicalising the gendered division of labour and its attendant miseries.


In ‘That Only’ the main character is continually referencing a host of professional men who she reads or give her advice about motherhood/pregnancy. It was pointed out that this is a standard trope of 1940s/50s America, in which the figure of woman is infantalised and belittled in terms of skill and knowledge around childbirth and childrearing. It was suggested that the mother character in ‘That Only’ is defined by her job of motherhood, just as the professional men are defined by theirs, but with asymmetrical power distribution.


The father of Sarah Boyle’s children is absent in ‘Heat Death’ while the father in ‘That Only’ is only physically present at the end, though to some extent he makes an appearance in telegrams. He is also the vector of mutation for the child and it is noted in the story that it is often fathers who kill mutated children. It was suggested that fatherhood takes on a normative function, becoming an agent of patriarchy by destroying anything which does not fit within patriarchal regimes of power. 

The Image of the Child

The figure of the child in ‘That Only a Mother’ can be usefully linked with a number of other texts from the period in which super intelligent or mutated children threaten/change society, such as Childhood’s End (Arthur C. Clarke, 1953) , More than Human (Theodore Sturgeon, 1953) , and the novels of Wilmar Shiras. It was suggested that the mutant child image could be contextualized with post-war social change as well as the anxiety around nuclear war, and the effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. A link was made between Japanese sf, specifically Akira, and the image of mutated/super-intelligent children. Mention was made also of Wilhemina Baird’s protagonist in Crashcourse (1993). 


In both ‘The Ship’ and ‘That Only’ the child character is disabled. In ‘That Only’ the representation of the disabled child teeters on the edge of horror and evolutionary transcendence, depending on the gendered narrative split between patriarchal arbiter of normality, and maternal recognition of intelligence and difference. In ‘The Ship’ the main character Helva is able to thrive but only under indenture of service to a galactic organisation, the other option being euthanasia at birth.

Short Story Form 

The different stories have quite particular forms. ‘That Only’ was described by one attendee as ‘telescoped’ so that the story was constructed around its twist ending. This meant that the ending was shadowed by a number of hints throughout. ‘Heat Death’ does not work towards a twist ending but is patterned. ie it is constructed from a series of associations between different discourses such as advertising, art, housework, music etc. The scale of the stories, it was noted, were wildly different. For instance ‘Heat Death’ is set in a very limited domestic setting and yet uses the very largest of spatial/temporal metaphors in the form the notion of entropic decline (ie the heat death at the end of the universe). A story like ‘The Ship’ in contrast uses a space opera background to explore domestic issues such as gendered relations in the home (here a space-ship).

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