Octavia Butler’s “Unexpected Stories”

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This project – the Year of Reading Women – and the subprojects such as February’s Black Women’s Voices, is about exploring women’s writing with new intention, focus, and purpose. It is about discovering new voices and expanding the scope of my reading. I hope to cover a broad swath of personality, background, and genre, stretching my comfort zone and opening myself up to literary works that might otherwise escape me. And so, I come to  Octavia Butler.

Science Fiction is generally not my bailiwick, but given my self-imposed directive to expand my horizons, I dipped my toe in the waters. Brief research led me to a quick conclusion – Octavia Butler would represent the perfect ambassador. Butler was quite prolific, successfully bringing fresh perspective as a black woman writing in a genre dominated by white male voices.

“Unexpected Stories”, published posthumously, presents two very different imaginative worlds in two novellas. In “A Necessary Being” the reader meets a world populated by anthropomorphic creatures whose coloring dictates social order; “Who led in a liaison, in almost any activity, was determined by whose coloring had more blue.” These creatures fight for survival in a desolate world ruled by an overt caste system. Though “Childfinder” is peopled by…people, theses psychic characters, too, live in a world not unlike my own where race plays a pivotal role in determining social status. Even in these made up worlds, one can’t help but sense that racism is ever present.

Though her stories showed great imagination and fantastical detail, often the writing felt both heavy-handed and overly simplistic. These stories lacked nuance, the words lacked fluidity, leaving me with a book that read more like a script for a B movie than a memorable bite of literature. I did, however, appreciate Butler’s point of view and her skepticism for our culture, thinly veiled though it was in her imaginary cultures. The voice of Eve in “Childfinder”, whose name is as subtle as the rest of her character, may well be speaking the thoughts of Butler: “After a few years of watching the human species make things unnecessarily difficult for itself I have little hope that it will do anything more than survive and continue its cycle of errors.” Butler’s role in infiltrating the white man’s world of Science Fiction, and doing so with resounding success, is her legacy. Unfortunately, I doubt the writing itself will have much of a shelf life.

 

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