Moss Witch: and Other Stories

Sara Maitland

Published by Comma Press 26 September 2013

 232pp, paperback, £9.99

Reviewed by Zoë Fairbairns


Scientific curiosity is a recurrent theme in these original, challenging and often beautiful stories. In ‘How the Humans Learned to Speak’, early apes evolve towards humanity not by fighting and eliminating the weak, but by grooming each other and discovering laughter. Moving forward a few billion years, in ‘Lighting the Standard Candles’, a nineteenth/twentieth century astronomer learns how to measure the universe, then tries to apply the same techniques to the control of pain in terminal illness. In ‘Anaka’s Factors’, a woman of our times who has used her own stem cells to father a child with her lesbian lover,  endeavours to explain this to the child’s startled Christian headmaster.

After each piece of Sara Maitland’s very special kind of science fiction, there is commentary from a far-from-fictional scientist. Evolutionary psychologist Professor Robin Dunbar reports on the idea that animals which live in complex groups have had to develop a larger neocortex in the brain to cope with all their complicated relationships, and this is one of the reasons why humans are so clever. Professor Tim O’Brien, from the Jodrell Bank Observatory, describes the work of astronomer Henrietta Leavitt (1868 – 1921).  Dr Melissa Baxter, a stem cell research scientist, reports that human sperm cells have been grown from human skin.

The stories, and their afterwords, tell you things you may not have known, in language that you don’t have to be a specialist to understand. It’s a wonderful combination – though it gets a bit odd when the scientists start praising Maitland’s writing, as if they were reviewers of the book rather than an intrinsic part of it. I don’t dispute the view that Maitland‘s writing is ‘charming’, ‘intriguing and surprising’, that it  ‘did a great job’, and that it has qualities in common with ‘all the best science fiction’. But the place for this sort of puffery is surely on the jacket, not embedded in the text.

There’s lots to take issue with in this book, so do read it. I never used to give much thought to the ethics of stem cell technology, but now that I’ve read Dr Baxter’s reassurances on the subject I’m quite worried. And I was irritated and perplexed by a statement made by ageing feminist Ann in ‘A Geological History of Feminism’. When Ann‘s niece asks why feminism supposedly gave up, Ann replies in geological terms: ‘We were ground down, pushed under, subducted.’ Who, I wonder, is the ‘we’ in that sentence, and in what way where they ground down? I‘ve lived through the same era of sexual politics as Ann (and Sara Maitland), and I‘m aware of the two-steps-forward-one-step-back quality of the progress that has been made. But these huge, heavy, earth-shattering geological metaphors seem overstated.

These things matter, as do the origin and power of algorithms, the status and fate of babies born so malformed that they are barely recognizable as human, and the use of birds to police human law-breaking. When Maitland’s prose is at its magical, knowledgeable best and her material is benign or funny, you can feel drawn into a world of the deliciously-fantastical; but then you turn the page to the scientific commentary and realize that a lot of it is not benign or funny at all, and neither is it fantastical. It’s right here, in the computers on our laps, in the stars in our skies, and in the genes that make us who we are.

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