Octavia E. Butler presented a version of humanity as a congenitally flawed species, possibly doomed to destroy itself because it is both intelligent and hierarchical. In this sense, her work does not follow the lead of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series (1951-1993), Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and similar science fiction in offering an optimistic, rational, and agreeable view of humanity. As Butler herself said, she does not believe that imperfect human beings can create a perfect world.
Butler’s diverse societies are controlled by Darwinian realities: competition to survive, struggle for power, domination of the weak by the strong, parasitism, and the like Within this framework, there is room for both pain and hope, for idealism, love, bravery, and compassion, for an outsider to challenge the system, defeat the tyrant, and win power. There is, however, no happy ending but a conclusion in which the lead characters have done their best and the world (wherever it is) remains ethically and morally unchanged.
In contemplative but vividly descriptive prose, Butler tells her story from the first-or third-person perspective of someone who is passive or disfranchised and is forced by events or other characters to take significant action. In order to fulfill her destiny, often the protagonist—most often a black woman—must do or experience something not only unprecedented but also alien and even grotesque. What begins as an act of courage usually ends as an act of love, or at least understanding. Through an alien, alienated, or excluded person, a crucial compromise is struck, civilization is preserved in some form, and life goes on.
Butler’s fiction reflects and refracts the attempts—and failures—of the twentieth century to deal with ethnic and sexual prejudice. She frequently uses standard images of horror, such as snakelike or insectlike beings, to provoke an aversion that the reader is unable to sustain as the humanity of the alien becomes clear. Being human does not mean being faultless— merely familiar. Therefore, each of her human, nonhuman, and quasihuman societies displays its own form of selfishness and, usually, a very clear power structure. The maturity and independence achieved by the protagonists imply not the advent of universal equality and harmony but merely a pragmatic personal obligation to wield power responsibly. Characters unable to alter or escape the order of things are expected to show a sort of noblesse oblige.
Butler’s most atypical work in terms of genre is Kindred, published in 1979. While the protagonist is shuttled helplessly back and forth between 1824 and 1976 in a kind of time travel, this device is of no intrinsic importance to the message of the story. At one point, the heroine, Edana, asks herself how it can be that she— the as-yet unborn black descendant of a nineteenth century slaveholder—can be the instrument of keeping that slaveholder alive until he fulfills his destiny and fathers her ancestor. By asking, she preempts the reader’s own curiosity, and when there is no answer, the story simply moves forward.
Kindred uses a black woman of the 1970’s and her white husband to probe beneath the surface stereotypes of “happy slave” on the one hand and “Uncle Tom” on the other. When Edana and Kevin are separated by the South of 1824 into slave and master, they each begin unwillingly to imbibe the feelings and attitudes of the time from that perspective. The impact of the novel results from Butler’s ability to evoke the antebellum South from two points of view: the stubborn, desperate attempts of African Americans to lead meaningful lives in a society that disregards family ties and disposes of individuals as marketable animals; and the uncomprehending, sometimes oppressively benevolent ruthlessness of a ruling class that defines slaves in terms of what trouble or pleasure they can give.
The Patternist series
Butler began her science-fiction novels with the Patternist series, and in this series the reader can observe the beginning of her development from a writer of well-crafted science/adventure fiction to a writer who recalls in her own way the reflectiveness of Ray Bradbury.
First written but third published was Survivor, the tale of an orphaned Afro- Asian girl who becomes a “wild human” in order to survive in a harsh environment. She is found and adopted, in an atypical act of reaching out, by two members of the Missionaries—a nouveau-Fundamentalist Christian sect. The Missionaries’ escape from a hostile Earth takes them to a planet inhabited by furred bipeds, whom they regard as less than human. These beings are, in fact, a science-fiction version of the noble savage, but the protagonist is alone in recognizing their nobility. Internally untouched by Missionary dogma, she is truly socialized as a captive of the Tehkohn and, in the end, chooses them as her own people. Her survival and success require an understanding of the color classes of fur among the Tehkohn, where blue is the highest color, suggesting a tongue-in-cheek reference to “blue blood.” She makes her own way by dint of qualities often found in protagonists of adventure novels: physical agility, courage, and adaptability.
Patternmaster features an appealing duo, with the younger son of the Patternmaster—the psychic control-central of a society of advanced human beings— confronting and defeating his brutal older brother in an unwanted competition to succeed their father. His helper, mentor, and lover is a bisexual Healer; he trusts her enough to “link” with her in order to pool their psionic power. She teaches him that Healing is, paradoxically, also a deadly knowledge of the body with which he can defeat his brother. Thus, trust and cooperation overcome ambition and brutality. The “mutes” of this novel are nontelepathic human beings whose vulnerability to cruelty or kindness and inability to control their own destinies reflect the earlier status of slaves in America.
Mind of My Mind
Mary, in Mind of My Mind, is a “latent” who must undergo a painful transition in order to become a full-fledged telepath. The pain and danger of this passage from adolescence to adulthood are emblematic of the turmoil of coming of age everywhere and of the physical or psychological pain that is required as the price of initiation in many, if not all, societies. The deadened, sometimes crazed, helplessness of latents who cannot become telepaths but must continue to live with the intrusive offal of other people’s thoughts is a powerful metaphor for people trapped in poverty, and some of the horrors Butler paints are familiar.
Mary has no choice at first. The founder of her “people,” a nontelepathic immortal named Doro, prescribes her actions until she acquires her power. He senses danger only when she reaches out reflexively to control other, powerful telepaths, thus forming the first Pattern. Mary’s destruction of the pitiless Doro, like the death of the older brother in Patternmaster and of the rival alien chief in Survivor, is foreordained and accomplished with a ruthlessness appropriate to the society and to the character of the victim. The incipient change in Butler’s style is evident here in the comparative lack of adventure-action sequences and in the greater concentration on psychological adaptation to and responsible use of social power.
The technique of historical reconstruction is seen again in Wild Seed, whose evocation of Ibo West Africa owes something to the work of writers such as Chinua Achebe. Wild Seed traces Doro and Anyanwu from their seventeenth century meeting in West Africa to the establishment of Doro’s settlements in America. Doro is a centuries-old being who lives by “taking” another man’s or woman’s body and leaving his previous body behind. Anyanwu, the Emma of Mind of My Mind, is a descendant of Doro. She is a “wild seed” because she has unexpectedly developed the power to shape-shift, becoming young or old, an animal, fish, or bird, at will. Their relationship is completely one-sided, since Doro could “take” her any time he chose, although he would not acquire her special abilities. His long life and unremitting efforts to create a special people of his own have left him completely insensitive to the needs and desires of others. Anyanwu finally achieves some balance of power simply by being willing to die and leave Doro without the only companion who could last beyond a mortal lifetime.
The last Patternist novel, Clay’s Ark, introduces the reader to those brutish enemies of both Patternist and “mute” humanity, the Clayarks, so named because the disease that created them was brought back to Earth on a spaceship called “Clay’s Ark.” The disease culls its victims, killing some and imbuing others with a will to live that overcomes the horror of their new existence. They become faster and stronger, and their children evolve even further, taking on animal shapes and attributes of speed, power, and heightened senses, but retaining human thought and use of their hands. In the guise of a horror story, Clay’s Ark follows the first Clayarks’ attempt to come to terms with their condition and live responsibly, shut off from civilization. Their failed attempt demonstrates that it is not possible to contain cataclysmic natural change, but the story enlists the reader’s sympathy for human beings who suffer even as they afflict others.
The Xenogenesis series
With the exception of Clay’s Ark, where there is much action, the pace of Butler’s novels slows progressively; action is increasingly internalized and psychological. Moral judgmentalism and the contest of right versus wrong dwindle to insignificance. The next, and quite logical, development is the Xenogenesis series: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago. This series confirmed Butler as a science-fiction writer of sufficient depth to be of significance beyond the genre.
The change from her originally projected title for the series is informative. “Exogenesis” would have implied merely genesis effected from outside humanity. “Xenogenesis” has both text and subtext. Its meaning is the production of an organism altogether and permanently unlike the parent. The subtext is a function of the best-known English word built on the same root: xenophobia, fear and dislike of that which is foreign or alien. Butler makes the series title a statement of the thesis she will address.
Many of the techniques and themes of her earlier, developing style come to fruition here: the alternating use of first-and third-person narrative, the slow pace of a plot laden with psychological development and sensory perceptions, the meticulous foreclosure of value judgments, the concern with hierarchy and responsibility, the objective observation of feelings of revulsion for that which is alien, and those feelings’ gradual dissipation as the alien becomes familiar and therefore less threatening. Action in the series is sparse, normally kept to the minimum necessary to maintain the pace of psychological and social observation. In some ways, it is a chilling series of seductions of human beings by an alien, benevolent oppressor not entirely unlike Rufus of Kindred in his better moments. In some ways, it is a demonstration of the infinite capacity of humanity to seek satisfaction in the destruction of itself and others.
Words used to describe two of Butler’s shorter works in the 1984 and 1987 issues of The Year’s Best Science Fiction may serve here as a characterization of the Xenogenesis series: “strange, grotesque, disturbing . . . and ultimately moving,” a “tale of despair, resignation, and, most painfully, hope.” It is apparently to examine the capacity of human beings to adapt, to survive, and perhaps stubbornly to pursue a self-destructive course of action that Butler has created the nightmarish situation that the reader encounters in Dawn.
In a world devastated by nuclear exchange between East andWest, the dying remnants of humanity survive largely in the Southern Hemisphere. The heroine of Dawn is an African, Lilith, whose name suggests the demonic goddess of Hebrew tradition, the famous medieval witch who appears in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Faust (1808, 1833), and the medieval, alternate “first mother” who was put aside in favour of Eve.
Enter the Oankali, a nonviolent race of benevolent parasites and genetic engineers, who exist for the opportunity of combining with other species to acquire new cellular “knowledge” and capabilities. They live for miscegenation. They are trisexual: male, female, and ooloi. The ooloi is the indispensable link between male and female, channeling, altering, or amplifying all genetic material and sexual contact, including transfer of sperm and pleasurable sensations. The ooloi is capable of internal healing; for example, one cures Lilith of a cancer and finds the cancer to be an exciting new biological material with which to work.
The Oankali blend with another species by linking a male and female of that species and a male and female Oankali through an ooloi. Thereafter, independent conception is not possible for those members of that species. The progeny are “constructs,” who, at least at first, resemble their direct parents but carry genetic change within them. Lilith’s first husband is killed in Dawn, but she bears his child posthumously because Nikanj, the ooloi that has chosen her, has preserved his seed. The resultant humanoid male child is the protagonist of Adulthood Rites, while a much later child of Lilith with another husband and the same Oankali parents is the protagonist of Imago.
Lilith is at first appalled by even the more humanoid Oankali, with their Medusan tentacles and sensory arms. She is gradually acclimated to them, cooperates with them to save humanity, bears children with them, is overwhelmed by the sensory pleasure they can give, and becomes sympathetic to their need to unite with other species, but she is never fully resigned. In Imago, Lilith compares the Oankali’s description of the “flavors” of human beings to physical cannibalism and implies that the spiritual equivalent is no less predatory.
Lilith’s conversion from complete repugnance in Dawn, a stylistic tour de force, shapes the following novels, as human beings are ultimately allowed a choice of living with the Oankali, staying behind on a doomed and barren Earth, or living in an experimental, all-human world on Mars. The Oankali, who seem to make decisions as a kind of committee-of-the-whole, foresee that the same old combination of intelligence and hierarchical tendencies (in a rather Darwinian sense) will lead this last outpost of humanity to destroy itself. No one convincingly denies it.
Adulthood Rites and Imago
Butler’s stylistic virtuosity also extends to narrative person. Dawn is a third-person account of Lilith’s absorption into the Oankali social structure; Adulthood Rites is the third-person narrative of Akin, a male-human construct, who persuades the more rational human beings left on Earth to trust the Oankali, and persuades the Oankali to offer the humans the choice of planetary residences; Imago is a first-person account of Jodahs, a child whose transformation to adulthood reveals it to be an ooloi. Use of the first-person narrative to tell the story of an apparent human who becomes wholly alien in both psychology and physiology is risky but rewarding. Through the eyes of a being routinely referred to as “it” in its own society, the reader observes its benevolent stalking and drug-induced brainwashing of human mates and the final planting of a seed that will grow into an organic town and then an organic spaceship, which will carry Jodahs and his people to new worlds for new genetic blendings.
Imago’s conclusion serves as a reminder that Butler’s imaginary worlds are primarily arenas for hard, necessary decisions in the business of survival. There is compassion as well as bitterness, and love as well as prejudice, but there is no triumph or glory. There is only doing what must be done as responsibly as possible.
Parable of the Sower
Parable of the Sower was published in 1993. It is set in California in 2024. The narrator is a fifteen-year-old African American girl who lives with her family in the fictitious town of Robledo, some twenty miles from Los Angeles. At the time of the story, the social order has nearly disintegrated. Society consists of “haves” and “have-nots.” The haves live in walled and fortified neighborhoods; the have-nots roam outside the walls along with packs of wild dogs and drug addicts called “Paints,” whose addiction imbues them with an orgasmic desire to burn things. Apparently due to the follies of humankind, the climate has been altered, and the entire world is in a state of near-collapse. Disease is rampant, natural disasters are frequent, and though there are stores, some jobs, and even television programming, the social order, at least in California, is almost gone.
Against this backdrop, the heroine, Lauren Olamina, founds a new religion named Earthseed. The novel takes the form of a journal Lauren keeps. Entries are dated, and each chapter is prefaced with a passage from the new religion, the essence of which is that everything changes, even God. In fact, God is change.
Butler said that humankind is not likely to change itself, but that humans will go elsewhere and be forced to change. When the Paints destroy Lauren’s neighbourhood and most of her family, she treks north toward Canada, and new members join her group, one by one. Most survive and reach their destination, a burned farm in Oregon. The ending is a classic Butler resolution: There is no promised land; people who have not changed generally perish. Lauren has changed nothing in society; she has merely adapted and learned to survive. The structure, style, and plot of Parable of the Sower are all deceptively simple. Beneath the surface of the story, the novel deals directly with social power, its use and abuse, and its possible consequences.
Long Fiction: Patternmaster, 1976; Mind of My Mind, 1977; Survivor, 1978; Kindred, 1979; Wild Seed, 1980; Clay’s Ark, 1984; Dawn, 1987; Adulthood Rites, 1988; Imago, 1989; Parable of the Sower, 1993; Parable of the Talents, 1998; Fledgling, 2005.
Short fiction: “Crossover,” 1971; “Near of Kin,” 1979; “Speech Sounds,” 1983; “Bloodchild,” 1984; “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” 1987.
Nonfiction: “Birth of a Writer,” 1989 (later renamed “Positive Obsession”); “Furor Scribendi,” 1993.
Miscellaneous: Bloodchild, and Other Stories, 1995 (collected short stories and essays).
Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.