Merril, Judith

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MERRIL, Judith

Born Josephine Judith Grossman, 21 January 1923, New York, New York; died 12 September 1997

Also wrote under: Ernest Hamilton, Cyril Judd, Rose Sharon, Eric Thorstein

Daughter of Samuel S. and Ethel Hurwitch Grossman; married Mr. Zissman, 1940; Frederick Pohl, 1950; Daniel Sugrue, late 1950s; children: two daughters

The daughter of Zionist activists, Judith Merril was involved in the socialist and Zionist movements as a young woman and was only introduced to science fiction in 1940. During World War II, she joined the New York-based Futurian Society, a group of science fiction enthusiasts that included such nascent luminaries as Isaac Asimov, Cyril Kornbluth, Frederick Pohl, James Blish, Damon Knight, and Virginia Kidd; Merril and her daughter Merril, whose first name the author adopted as her pseudonym, shared a communal household with Kidd, whose husband was also overseas. Encouraged by the Futurians, Merril began to write.

After the termination of her marriage to Frederick Pohl, Merril continued her own writing as she raised her daughters, Merril Zissman and Ann Pohl, and with Damon Knight organized the first of the annual Milford Science Fiction Writers' Conferences in 1956. During the 1950s and 1960s, Merril became an influential editor and critic of science fiction.

Since the late 1960s, in response to U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Merril lived in Canada as a landed immigrant. She worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, choosing topics, selecting discussants, and making and editing tapes for radio broadcast. She also edited an anthology of contemporary Japanese science fiction.

With "That Only a Mother" (1943), Merril began a writing career characterized by attention to the lives of women in possible future societies. It describes, through letters and third-person narration, the ability of one woman to love her daughter, who is physically deformed as a result of atomic radiation, despite widespread social condemnation and infanticide of such mutations. It was later included in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Merril's first published novel, Shadow on the Hearth (1950), explores a related situation, an atomic bomb attack on North America. It is set entirely within one woman's household and told from her point of view. The novel was subsequently dramatized for television as "Atomic Attack."

"Survival Ship" (1951), an experiment in the elimination of gender pronouns, depicts a future society in which women dominate in a spaceship hierarchy. Merril returned to this exploration of sex-role behavior and reversal in "Wish Upon a Star" (1958), in which the narrator, a male adolescent aboard the Survival Ship, is socially and vocationally constrained because of his gender. His wish is to be female.

The novella Daughters of Earth (1968) is noteworthy for its depiction of mother-daughter relationships in a six-generation dynasty of female space pioneers. Employing letters, diary entries, and third-person narration, it realistically presents women who, as equal, contributing members of societies that value their professional abilities, nonetheless experience, but usually surmount, personal and professional problems.

In 1956 Merril began editing an annual series, SF: The Year's Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy, which in 1960 was renamed The Year's Best Science Fiction and in 1968 became SF 12. These and other anthologies are characterized by the introduction of such (then) avant-garde writers as Brian Aldiss and Harlan Ellison and by Merril's conviction that science fiction is gradually merging with mainstream literature.

Some historians of science fiction maintain Merril's most important contributions to the field are as editor and critic (she is the author of such essays as "What Do You Mean: Science? Fiction?" 1971), but this claim must be weighed against the contributions she made to the "humanization" of science fiction. Emphasizing human interaction and potential rather than technological or scientific innovation, Merril's fiction differs significantly from that of many of her contemporaries, whose works often propagate sexual and racial stereotypes. While the clarity of her insight within individual works into present and possible future societies may be debated—the sex-role reversal in "Survival Ship" is, for example, a simplistic and disheartening depiction of future options—and although some of her fiction sentimentalizes human relationships, as a whole Merril's oeuvre remains impressive in its historical context.

Other Works:

Shot in the Dark (edited by Merril, 1950). Beyond Human Ken: Twenty-One Startling Stories of Science Fiction and Fantasy (edited by Merril, 1952). Gunner Cade, with C. M. Kornbluth (1952). Outpost Mars, with C. M. Kornbluth (1952). Beyond the Barriers of Space and Time (edited by Merril, 1954). Human?????? (edited by Merril, 1954). Galaxy of Ghouls (edited by Merril, 1955). Out of Bounds: Seven Stories (1960). The Tomorrow People: A Science-Fiction Novel (1961). Survival Ship, and Other Stories (1964). The Best of the Best (edited by Merril, 1967). England Swings SF: Stories of Speculative Fiction (edited by Merril, 1968). The Best of Judith Merril, edited by V. Kidd (1976). Gunner Cade; Plus, Takeoff (with C. M. Kornbluth, 1983). Tesseracts (edited by Merril, 1985).


Knight, D., The Futurians (1977). Riley, D., ed., Critical Encounters: Writers and Themes in Science Fiction (1978).

Reference works:

CA (1975). Index to Science Fiction Anthologies and Collections (1978). Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States (1995). St. James Guide to Science Fiction (1996). WA. Women of Wonder (1974).

Other references:

Algol/Starship (Winter 1978-1979).


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