Introduction to Mutiny in Space

To read Mutiny in Space today is like having a window into the past. The world in the year 1964, when this novel was first published, was greatly different from the one we know today, and not just because it had neither video games nor the Internet. It was a time when a man with sufficient talent and extraordinary energy could reasonably hope to make a living for himself as a freelance writer, even as he waited for his more serious work to catch the public's fancy and the critics' eyes.

Avram Davidson, in 1964, had a decade's experience as a science fiction writer behind him. He was a brilliant stylist, in the prime of his life, and he had every reason to think he had what it took to storm Parnassus. While he was waiting, however, he had a living to make.

At the time, Davidson was living the expat life in Amecameca, Mexico, a remote town near Mount Popocatepetl, with his then-wife Grania (nee Kaiman and now Davis) and their infant son, Ethan. This was part of a three-pronged strategy to support his family. First, he lived where food and rent were cheap. Second, he held down a full-time gig as the editor of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Third, he wrote prodigiously.

Davidson published three books in 1962 alone: a collection of true crime essays, Crimes & Chaos; a collection of short stories, Or All the Seas with Oysters; and his first novel, Joyleg, written with Ward Moore. During this same period, he ghost-wrote two Ellery Queen novels, And on the Eighth Day and The Fourth Side of the Triangle, edited a series of anthologies for F&SF, and wrote the first of a series of short "pot-boilers."

That first pot-boiler, you hold in your hands.

There is no shame in writing a book for money, just as there is no virtue in overpraising that same book. Still, hardly anybody writes a book only for the money - there are easier dollars to be made. And, as his ex-wife but enduring friend Grania Davis observed, "AD knew how to boil a pot (he was famous for his soups)."

The stock for this particular bowl of soup came from a novella titled "Valentine's Planet," which appeared in the August 1964 issue of Worlds of Tomorrow. The standard practice in such cases was that the novella was written first and then puffed out to novel length. But having compared both works, I have to wonder. The novel feels anything but padded. It's quite possible that Davidson trimmed down the novel in order to also have the magazine sale. By such shifts did writers keep themselves alive in those days.

However it was done, it was done craftily.

Two obsessions of science fiction of that era surface in this small work. The first is the character of the ship's captain. To space opera of the time, the character of the captain was as important as that of the king was to Shakespeare. He (the captain was always a "he," even when the author was female) was the model and exemplar for society, the man with the right stuff, he who made the tough decisions and enforced discipline - a walking, talking superego. Davidson very deliberately subverted that archetypal role. Perhaps it was because he had served in the U.S. Navy as a hospital corpsman, first with the Naval Air Corps, and then with the Fifth Marines, during World War II, and actually knew what captains were like. In any event, his sympathies were with select elements of the crew: with Lockharn, whose sole ambition is to retire to a small farm, with Storm, who joined the Guild in search of adventure, and with Levvis, who only wants to build boats.

The second obsession is the recurrent effort to rewrite the European invasion and conquest of the Americas and Africa - to find an alternative to our own bloody history. First contact novels (of which, re-contact novels like this are a subspecies) are haunted by the ghosts of slaughtered Native Americans, of enslaved Africans, even - to make it clear that the problem is with humanity itself, rather than a particular subset of it - of those who suffered in the (quite literal) Rape of Nanking by the Japanese. Over and over again, as if in a recurrent nightmare, these books confront those horrors, and strive to turn them away. Davidson, who was an observant Jew and who once told me that he thought about the Holocaust every day of his life, could not help but be intensely conscious of this aspect of his story.

Several novels of this general period had male explorers encountering women-dominated or women-only societies, and they were usually played for laughs, with the lusty male-deprived women desperate to relieve the poor men of their virtue. It speaks well of Davidson that he clearly felt that women could do as good a job of running a world as anybody else. Small touches, like old Sword-Menna rising from her sick-bed to lead the resistance to technologically-superior invaders though she must know its outcome, show a genuine respect for womankind. Nor is this simply thematic. Other incidents very carefully establish that their diminutive menfolk were not to be despised either.

The great advantage of formulaic adventure fiction is that it can be written quickly enough to cover next month's grocery bill. The great disadvantage is that it can age badly. The kind of tough-guy thinking the hero must employ in order to triumph leads with insidious ease to misogyny, racism, and brutality. Which is what makes many such works painful to read today. But note with what effortless grace Davidson avoids these pitfalls! Note the fundamental decency with which he views the world, and weighs and sorts its denizens. The society that Jory discovers may be tradition-bound and static, but its cure is not to be established by force, nor imposed from without.

This is an honest book, and it was written by a good man.

Alas for all dreams! Avram Davidson had privately credited his wife, Grania, as co-creator of Mutiny in Space, for ideas she provided as he wrote it, but their marriage was over by the time the book saw print. She returned to California in June of 1964, and Davidson stayed in Mexico with their son for some months longer. He never found the recognition or popular audience he sought. Yet many today consider him to be one of the great American writers, particularly of short fiction, of the twentieth century.

He died on May 8, 1993, in Bremerton, Washington.

© 2003 by Michael Swanwick;
Biographical material for this introduction was adapted from Henry Wessells' excellent Avram Davidson website. Those interested in learning more are encouraged to seek it out at

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