Retirement, along with online access to the library, has opened the door to exploring authors I’ve meant to read for ages. For example, I’d always meant to read one of my dad’s favorite books, The Name of the Rose (1980) by Umberto Eco, but it wasn’t until last year that I finally did (and it was really good; I can see why he loved it).
As a fan of literary science fiction for over six decades, I’ve long felt pressure to explore the works of Octavia Butler (1947–2006). Over the years, in collections, I’ve read some of her short stories (and found them tasty). It was only in the last month or so that I finally got into her novels.
And, my, oh my! She is every bit as good as everyone says she is.
The ‘E’ in her name stands for Estelle, but it could just as easily stand for Excellent. It’s been a long time since I not only found a book hard to put down, but grew sad as the ending drew near because no more story.
So far I’ve finished her two longer series, one with four books, one with three. Those seven comprise well over half the novels she wrote. There is one more series with two books, plus two stand-alone novels. Other than her short stories, those eleven novels are, as the saying goes, all she wrote.
Which is a shame because her work is fresh, creative, interesting, and really well written. Her writing style is clean and elegant, yet complex and rich. I find myself sucked into, and carried along, the story from the first paragraph.
Science fiction often toys with the reader, slowly doling out information about strange circumstances. Such exposition obviously is necessary in science fiction because the author has made up some (or much) of the context. Some of the best SF keeps the reader guessing as long as possible. (In some short stories the goal is to keep the reader in the dark until the last paragraph. Or better yet, the last line.)
Butler has a facility with this that stands out in how organic it feels. Her characters don’t do “info dumps” — they talk like normal people. This does place more on the reader who needs to pay attention and sometimes read between the lines. But that’s always been something I loved about good (science) fiction; it’s not lazy reading.
It’s mostly by luck I read her first series first and her second series second (and will read her third series third). As good as the first one was, the second was even better (and I have high hopes for the third).
That first series, however, rightfully put her on the science fiction map. It’s a four-book series commonly called the Patternist series (or Patternmaster series). The collection has been published as Seed to Harvest. (I called it the Wild Seed series at first, so take your pick.)
The four books, in chronological story order, are:
Note the dates; Butler didn’t write this series in chronological order. She almost wrote it backwards, and what’s really interesting is books #1 and #2 (numbering here is always per the list above).
I think the four books form a trilogy, with books #1 and #2 being one long first part (which is what makes the writing order so interesting; she wrote these backwards, too). Book #3 jumps to an entirely different set of characters (the antagonists of book #4). Book #4, the first written, is the story of the conflict between the protagonists — descendants of the people from the first books — and antagonists introduced in book #3.
There is a fifth book, Survivor (1978), that Butler disowned as not being good enough. She allowed it to go out of print, and it is not included in the Seed to Harvest collection (which is what I read).
The way Butler wrote them means one can actually read the last book first. And stop. One could read book #3 before or after to get background on the antagonists, and the first two for same on the protagonists. One could read the three parts in almost any order. I think that says something about Butler’s skill as a writer that her stories are that complete.
I think it says something about Butler’s skills as a world builder that her third act obviously had full development for the first two acts. She knew exactly why the people in the last book were doing what they were doing. The world is well developed.
[Warning: Mild spoilers follow. Skip to next §§ to avoid.]
Wild Seed introduces Doro and Anyanwu, two immortal, but very different, Africans. The story begins back in the 17th century.
Doro is an ancient spirit who can inhabit any person — in the process killing their mind and taking over the body. When Doro jumps to another body, he leaves behind a dead one. If threatened, he can quickly take over attackers one after the other. If someone does kill his current body, his mind jumps to the nearest living body.
Anyanwu is an immortal woman with healing powers. She can also shape-shift to any human or animal. She’s served tribes in the area as a powerful witch, healing and protecting, for hundreds of years.
Doro breeds “special” people in “seed” villages both in Africa and in the new world. He senses Anyanwu from afar and determines to not just add her to his collection, but make of her a central player. Against her will, he makes her his mate and key antagonist. She is the bright Yang to his dark Yin.
Mind of My Mind jumps to the 1970s when there are entire towns of their descendants. The result of Doro’s breeding is a race of super telepaths, patternists, who have a variety of powers. One of Doro’s goals has been the creation of his ultimate nemesis. (Immortal beings get tired eventually.) He finally achieves that goal in Mary.
“Patternists” based on the pattern that binds them together telepathically. It’s formed and controlled by the patternmaster (the first of whom is Mary).
Clay’s Ark takes place in the near future and tells the story of a space expedition that has returned home with an alien viral nanomachine infection, one consequence of which is an uncontrollable urge to spread the infection.
The expedition tried to destroy themselves to protect Earth. They almost succeeded, but one man, compelled by the infection, managed to survive and reach Earth.
At first the infected group of Earthlings attempt to self-isolate, forming a secret community in the desert, but their need for new people (which they kidnap) ultimately results in some escaping.
The only Earthlings to survive uninfected will be Doro’s descendants.
Patternmaster takes place in a future where only the infected, called Clayarks, and patternist communities remain on Earth.
The Clayarks are constantly trying to infect the patternists, and since they retain all their human intelligence, plus what advantages the nanomachines give them, they are becoming formidable opponents.
Against this backdrop is a coming of age story of a new leader along with an examination of patternist society.
As thoroughly as I enjoyed the Patternist series, I enjoyed the Xenogenesis series even more. It’s later in her career and feels more polished. There is also that it’s more clearly hard SF. It has aliens. Really interesting aliens.
Published most recently as Lilith’s Brood, there are three books:
- Adulthood Rites
I found these very hard to put down. (I’m surprised Wiki doesn’t have entries for each book.) The series has so many interesting ideas in it, that I may have to own it, re-read it, take notes, and then write posts exploring those ideas. It’s so rich.
This is one of those stories that begins with the main character, Lilith Iyapo, waking up and not knowing where they are or what’s going on. (In some such stories the character also doesn’t know who they are, but not in this case. Memory isn’t the problem. The problem is the war that killed nearly everyone on Earth.)
Butler jumps the reader into the story by having this be the umpteenth time Lilith has Awakened. The first chapter is her mental review of the many times before and what’s happened during those Awakenings. (She thinks of them with the capital A.)
Since Lilith doesn’t know what’s going on, yet, neither will the reader, but in chapter two we meet the aliens.
I hate to go much further describing this because part of the fun is having it unfold bit by bit for both the reader and Lilith. The Wiki provides details if you must have them, but I highly recommend just jumping in.
There are a few points I can’t resist talking about, though. Skip to the next §§ to avoid.
I was a little reminded of Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness both in the sexual content and in the flexible and cross-species nature of that sexuality. The aliens, the Oankali, have three sexes, male, female, and ooloi (with an it pronoun).
Through the special powers of the ooloi, Oankali can form family units consisting of one ooloi, a male-female Oankali pair, and a male-female Human pair. The resulting union involves mind-blowing sensual-sexual experience for all involved, but without the physical aspects of sex. The non-ooloi partners in such a family can barely stand physical contact with each other (yet enjoy a powerful emotional and chemical bond). Sex between the partners involves a partner-ooloi-partner sandwich where the ooloi’s fine micro-tentacles directly connect to the partner’s nervous systems (and can extract eggs and sperm for careful genetic mixing; fertilized eggs are placed back in one of the two wombs).
The Oankali, by the way, are humanoid but seriously tentacle-covered beings that tend to freak most humans out. At least at first. It’s… complicated. (And some really amazing alien design. As good as C.J. Cherryh that way. (That’s really high praise from me if that wasn’t clear. I’m in awe of Cherryh’s aliens. And now Butler’s, too. Both are also hella writers.))
The Oankali, especially the ooloi, are genetic masters and their technology is entirely biological. Their spacecraft and its shuttles are living creatures; so are their ground transports. A key species drive is to find new things, especially living things.
Science fiction author Frederik Pohl, in the Heechee books (if I’m recalling this correctly), had the alien Heechee tell us that no species that is both intelligent and hierarchical ever survives. All eventually self-destruct.
Butler has her Oankali tell the few humans that remain after the war the same thing, and she develops the notion even further. The Oankali call it The Contradiction. It’s a central plot point in general but especially with regard to the Humans-only colony on Mars. The Oankali see it as another certain eventual tragedy, another inevitable total war.
I’ve liked the idea ever since I saw it in the Pohl books. It’s one of the topics I’d like to explore in its own post.
This series digs deeply, and perhaps a bit uncomfortably, into what it means to be human. It asks how far one would go to preserve at least a part of humanity even if the forms, customs, and environments, change. Is it better to die fully human or to merge with aliens and continue changed?
Even more challenging: What if that change was awesome, gave very long life and excellent health, provided community, and opened a galaxy otherwise closed,…
Stay alien, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.