100 Years of Judith Merril, Science Fiction Writer and Editor

January 13, 2023 | Ames

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Judith Merril was born on January 21, 1923. This year would have been her 100th birthday. She passed away in 1997, but she left an immense impact on the world of science fiction, speculation and fantasy. Merril was a fan, author, editor, critic and mentor. She published four novels, over 30 short stories, 20 anthologies, 90 essays and 260 reviews. Two of her novels were published under the pseudonym Cyril Judd, in collaboration with C. M. Kornbluth.

Judith Merril also left a legacy here at Toronto Public Library. Her donation of over 5,000 books and related materials formed the Spaced Out Library, established in 1970. Renamed The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy in 1991, the collection has grown to over 80,000 items today.

Judith Merril in a Prisoners of Gravity tshirt 1995
Judith Merril, photographed in her home in 1995. She is wearing a Prisoners of Gravity t-shirt, the TVOntario show.

Judith Merril's life and career

Born in Boston as Josephine Juliet Grossman in 1923, she took the legal first name Judith when she married Dan Zissman in 1940. She named their daughter Merril and began using Merril as a pen name.

When she moved to New York in the 1940s, Merril joined the Futurians. Her second husband, Frederik Pohl, was also a member. Together they co-founded the Hydra Club in 1947 along with seven others. Because there were nine original members, they named the club "Hydra" after the legendary, nine-headed monster. The Hydra Club was a network for speculative fiction authors, editors and artists. Shortly after, in 1948, Merril published her first short story, "That Only a Mother." The story has been reprinted several times, including in the anthology The Future is Female, edited by Lisa Yaszek.

Shot in the Dark cover. A hand holding a gun pointed at a woman in yellow. A ghostly cat in the background.
Merril's first edited anthology. Available for reading in The Merril Collection reading room.

Merril went on to publish her first anthology as an editor in 1950. Both the style of the cover for Shot in the Dark and the top text, "a different kind of mystery thrill!" aimed this book at mystery readers. One contemporary review describes Merril as "the only significant female editor of science fiction anthologies for a quarter century, until Pamela Sargent in the 1970s."

Shadow on the Hearth 1950 first edition. A black and red cover with a woman in the foreground hugging a young girl. A distant explosion is visible in the background.
Merril's debut novel. Available for reading in The Merril Collection reading room.

Merril also published her debut novel, Shadow on the Hearth, in 1950. Her husband and agent, Frederik Pohl insisted that she complete the novel before the birth of their daughter, Ann, who was born the same year.

Merril described the novel as "very political… written for political reasons." The story follows a young mother in New York and her family through the threat of atomic bomb attacks. The publisher bought the novel before it was complete. When Merril finished it, the publisher removed any mention of atomic bombs from the title and imposed a happy ending to the book. According to Merril, Doubleday made this change "without consulting me (only my agent, who had sense enough not to consult me, if it was going to be done)".

Shadow on the Hearth revised edition. A black cover with white and red text. A plastic doll in a yellow dress with a partially melted face lies on the ground.
The revised edition. Available for reading in The Merril Collection reading room.

This revised edition, published 16 years after the original, has Merril's sad ending restored. Both books are 30 chapters long. The final chapter in the 1950 edition is ten pages. In this edition, it is two. Despite the publication of this edition, the 1950 edition is considered the canonical version. Omnibuses that include Shadow on the Hearth feature the sanitized, happy ending to the novel. 

The Merril Theory of Lit'ry Criticism. Red and blue cover with black text.
Available for reading in The Merril Collection reading room.

At the same time that Merril was publishing novels, she was getting more involved in editorial and review work. This book collects and reflects upon Merril’s editorial and non-fiction work. In particular, "her twelve Year’s Best anthologies, her thirty-eight 'Books' columns from F&SF, and three particularly important essays." These works were originally published between 1956 and 1969. This period marks Merril’s shift from authorship to her editorial career.

To support her daughter Ann, who created artwork and posters in support of Eugene McCarthy, Judith Merril attended the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Tensions were high due to the Vietnam War. After Merril witnessed the police response to the anti-Vietnam War protestors, she decided that she and her family needed to leave the United States. At the convention, a copy of the Toronto Anti-Draft Manual caught Merril's attention. She had a friend in Toronto, a mathematics professor, and with their aid moved to Canada. She legally changed her name to Judith Merril when she become a Canadian citizen.

Shortly after coming to Toronto, Merril began working for Rochdale College. Her personal collection of books became resources for the students. When the Rochdale College library had to close down due to lack of funding, Harry Campbell, Chief Librarian of Toronto Public Library, reached out to Merril. He encouraged her to donate her books as the start of a special speculative fiction collection. As part of the donor agreement, Merril was given an office space in the collection for her entire life. The Merril Collection has changed locations three times, most recently in 1995. When it opened, the Lillian H. Smith Branch — the collection's current home — included an office for Judith Merril.

3rd floor blueprint of Lillian H Smith Branch March 1994
A small section of the March 1994 blueprints for the Merril Collection on the third floor of the Lillian H. Smith Branch. This section shows "Judith Merril Office" beside "Collection Head Office".

Merril also established Ontario Hydra / Hydra North in 1984, a network for Canadian speculative fiction writers. Members of the group included Robert J. Sawyer, Phyllis Gotlieb, Cory Doctorow, Michelle Sagara and many other well-known Canadian authors. Shortly after, Merril launched the Canadian SF anthology series, Tesseracts, in 1985. It was the first anthology of purely Canadian speculative fiction. It is also the last anthology Merril edited.

Merril continued to be involved with The Merril Collection until she passed away in 1997. 

Read more about Judith Merril

For more details about Judith Merril's life, check out Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril.

Better to have loved

Written by Merril and her granddaughter, award-winning author Emily Pohl-Weary. This biography won the 2003 Hugo Award for Best Related Work, awarded at TorCon 3. The award itself is in The Merril Collection.

2003 Hugo Award

You can also read more about Judith Merril's life in Sol Rising, a magazine produced by the Friends of the Merril Collection.

Sol Rising April 1997
Sol Rising Issue 18, April 1997. Print copies are available for reading in the Merril Collection reading room.

Judith Merril was interviewed in March 1997, and it was printed in the April 1997 issue. A tribute to her life was published in the January 1998 issue. Print copies are available for reading in The Merril Collection reading room.

Judith Merril a Critical Study. Dark blue and black cover with light showing over a planet's horizon.

And, in 2012, Dianne Newell and Victoria Lamont published Judith Merril: A Critical Study, "a thorough account of Merril's 50-year career."

More resources

Speculating Women exhibit case with Judith Merril's books

Our current exhibit, Speculating Women: Pioneers of the Fantastic, features a case displaying some of Judith Merril's work. The exhibit runs from January 16 until April 1, 2023, and is open during regular Merril Collection hours.