Octavia E. Butler

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:

  1. Wild Seed (1980)
  2. Mind of My Mind (1977)
  3. Clay’s Ark (1984)
  4. Patternmaster (1976)

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:

  1. Dawn
  2. Adulthood Rites
  3. Imago

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,…

Well, wouldja?

Stay alien, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

24 responses to “Octavia E. Butler

  • Wyrd Smythe

    To my eye, just one of the great things about Butler’s writing is what she doesn’t write. Where her stories stop, for instance, or where they jump over a period of time. Or where they don’t continue to follow a character if their plot line is obvious. Her stories seem to contain only what’s necessary, and yet they seem rich rather than sparse.

  • Wyrd Smythe

    Hey me: Remind me to write about John Scalzi’s Lock In and Head On, which restored my faith in Scalzi after my disappointment with The Interdependency.

  • Anonymole

    > Her writing style is clean and elegant, yet complex and rich.

    Every author’s intent.

    Although I’ve held a bias against female SF writers for decades, I realize such prejudice is ill informed. Will check her out.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. The Xenogenesis series should satisfy any SF fan.

      About top class female SF writers: I mentioned C.J. Cherryh in the post, and she’s another outstanding writer who does really awesome aliens. Her writing isn’t as clean as Butler’s, it’s rich and complex AF. Sometimes I have to read paragraphs several times to pull all the meaning out of them. She can even be a bit opaque that way, but the tone matches the mystery of the aliens and seems right. She doesn’t spell out every detail (neither does Butler), but the mood she creates is compelling. Butler’s cleaner style doesn’t really create a mood but equally doesn’t require quite as much reading effort.

      There’s Ursula Le Guin, of course. Another excellent writer. And I really liked Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and her vampire, Count Saint-Germain. She was doing sexy vampires long before just about anyone. (Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire (1976) beats Yarbro’s Hotel Transylvania (1978) by only two years. I only followed Rice’s vampires for a few books before it got old, but Yarbro’s Count was a favorite read.)

      I was into Anne McCaffrey (Pern Dragonriders and singing ships and telepaths) and Marion Zimmer Bradley (Darkover series), too, but I wouldn’t call them outstanding writers. Not bad, but not in the top class. I don’t know I could recommend them unless one has a big interest in dragon riding or telepath stories. I liked Darkover when I was young, but found it unreadable when I was older.

      • Anonymole

        McCaffrey’s books, couldn’t read them. Not with fifty bizarre names dropped in the first 10 pages. Read most of Le Guin’s stuff. Atwood? Meh. Suzanne Collins was good. And of course Rowling.

        I guess the female SF writers I tried out in the 80’s & 90’s when I was heavy into the genre, felt too–character driven–is the best way to say that. Give me plot, action, movement. I don’t give a shit about the way anybody feels.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        😀 😀 Some authors and their character names… I know what you mean. For me sometimes they just become unpronounceable symbols. Having to do that does make the reading weird.

        Never explored Collins or Atwood, so I don’t know anything about their writing ability. I have read all the Harry Potter books. Loved the creativity of the first few, but they never really grabbed me the way they did a lot of my friends. It may have to do with having read fantasy and magic stories for decades. Or maybe that it’s about kids rather than adults? I don’t really connect with the YA point of view anymore. 😦 I did enjoy seeing the movie versions!

        You know,… I think the 80s and 90s were a difficult time for science fiction. It was a time of major growth. It’s really the change from B.L. (Before Lucas) to Anno Stella Bella. The bean counters learned that there was money in them there science fiction fans, and the public at large finally learned how much fun science fiction really is. Suddenly there was a lot more science fiction (which — Sturgeon’s Law — means a lot more crap), but it also drove the genre towards more pop territory. And pop is always at least a bit shallow. It has to be; it’s purpose is to not offend or cause too much deep thinking.

        And then, the 70s were an era where science fiction got all new age-y and experimental. Some seriously hard to read SF got written in the name of “what if I write it this way?” I think mostly people learned there is a reason we’ve been telling stories in a mostly linear sensible way for eons. That shit works. Point is, the 80s and 90s may also have been something of a recovery period from our acid trips.

        Up until somewhere in that 80s or 90s era I started to lose touch with SF. Through the 70s I was pretty read in, but as SF exploded and expanded I just couldn’t keep up. (Lately I’ve been reading and enjoying some of that older SF again. Much of it feels dated, but some of it is reasonably timeless.)

      • Anonymole

        I guess I conflated my reading/discovery with the release dates of popular authors. There were orson scott card, piers anthony, alan dean foster, but before them, heinlein, keith laumer, niven, bova, and others from the 50,60,70s. I only really started reading in the 80’s so, naturally I aligned them with my own timeline. Notice, not a female author among them.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Heh, all those guys are on the aforementioned bookshelves. Early Anthony was a favorite, and I mounted a one-man campaign to convince a long-time SF-loving friend that Foster was not a hack. My buddy had only seen all the movie novelizations and Star Trek animated series script novellas. So I introduced him to the short stories and Flinx. He never really took to Flinx, but he got a huge kick out of “With Friends Like This…”

        I especially loved Laumer (Retief!) and Niven. Also Zelazny, Harrison, and Farmer. And Jack L. Chalker, at least until a friend pointed out he always has a short fat somehow enslaved woman with extremely long black hair. In every damn book. I still think Well World was awesome, and so are some of his other series.

        I’ve been reading SF since the early 1960s. My first were Isaac Asimov writing kid’s books under the name Paul French. The Lucky Starr series! One always remembers their first. 🙂

        It’s funny how some things stick with a person all their life — SF, for instance — but others are only brief moments — I collected stamps as a kid for, oh, several months at least. And coins. And rocks at one point. All distant memories. I’ll never stop reading SF, and it takes really damn good (non-SF) fiction to interest me.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Speaking of female authors, have you read Axiom’s End by Lindsey Ellis? (I posted about it (almost exactly a year ago).)

      • Anonymole

        I rarely read these days. All I do is critique. “That’s not the way to say that. Oof, too many passive verbs. Jeeze, enough frickin’ description, already.” I can find fault in nearly everything I read these days.

        Essays on the end civilization, global warming, AGI eventually conquering humanity, I read those, skim I should say. Every scientific essayist thinks they need to artistically embellish the facts. Ugh.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Certainly the world presents many reasons for rage and cynicism. The only hope I’ve found is seeking some kind of balance in things that bring one joy. Baseball did that for a long time, but the more I got into it, the more the human foibles side of the sport presented. (I still mostly enjoy it, though.)

        The nice thing about all the math and quantum mechanics is the extremely low level of human bullshit therein. And they bring me joy, so they’re my refuge! You gotta find yourself a bomb shelter!

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I’m forced to admit that Wild Seed, despite being captivated by it, is the only Butler book I’ve read. It was decades ago, in the 90s I think. I stumbled across it sometime after Orson Scott Card analyzed its beginning in his book on writing science fiction. Nothing about the copy of Wild Seed I had indicated it was part of a series, so I thought it was standalone. This was pre-Amazon, and that was the only book of hers I came across in local stores. Many years later I did try to read Patternmaster, but the psionics aspect turned me off at the time and I never finished it.

    Lilith’s Brood sounds pretty interesting though, like maybe my kind of fiction. It looks like the individual books are in Kindle Unlimited. I might have to check those out!

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I do think you’d like Lilith’s Brood. If my mental model of you is at all accurate, it’s definitely your kind of fiction. My guess is the first chapter will hook you completely. It’s possible you’ll find it very hard to put down.

      On Tina’s thread you mentioned Wild Seed was one of the best books you’d ever read, and I wondered about the word “book” there. Since it’s actually the fourth novel she wrote, she had gained some chops by then, and it is really good.

      When you read (or tried to read) Patternmaster, did you connect it with Wild Seed or think it was unrelated? Without Mind of My Mind to bridge them, the connection is almost non-existent.

      I’ve only gotten around to reading Butler after six decades, so you’re still behind that curve. 😉

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        I think I did know by then that Patternmaster was in the same series, although not sure I was clear on the ordering. I probably picked it up as the earliest published, thinking it was the place to begin. Or maybe I knew the chronology but still wanted to do it in the order written. It’s not in my Kindle account, so must have been more than a decade ago.

        At this point I’d probably re-read Wild Seed before hitting the rest of the series. But the other series sounds more interesting.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yeah, I would recommend Lilith’s Brood first, and the Patternist series second. (Definitely read them all and in chronological story order.)

  • diotimasladder

    Thanks for the info on Butler! I can’t say I’m too keen on aliens with tentacles. Or novels that start out with the protagonist not knowing what’s going on. So I think Wild Seed or even her short stories, since I’ve been interested in those lately.

    I had to chuckle when I came across “an uncontrollable urge to spread the infection”. A little too close to home.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I think you’re right about Wild Seed or her short stories (I just started a collection of them called Bloodchild). Butler is definitely testing the reader a bit with the tentacles and cross-species relationships. None of it is particularly prurient, but some of it tests just how open to new experience one is.

      I apparently rank high on the quality called openness to experience. I found the Oankali fascinating. 😀

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I finished her collection of short stories (and two essays), Bloodchild and Other Stories, and it might be a good starting point for those new to Butler.

    It actually only has seven stories in it (and the two essays), but each story has an Afterward where Butler discusses the story a bit. (They aren’t long, but they all demonstrate Butler’s ability to put a lot of substance in few words.) I enjoyed those Afterwards as much as the stories. Some authors go on and on (and on), but Butler is the soul of wit.

    I especially got a kick out of “The Book of Martha” in which God asks Martha to fix the world. (Martha, a tall Black science fiction writer, is clearly an avatar for Butler.)

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I just finished Butler’s last novel, Fledgling (2005), published a year before she died.

    The story is about Shori, who wakes up, badly injured, in a cave in the woods. She has no memory of who she is. Her injuries are severe — fatal — but she heals (after killing and eating raw several deer). Ultimately she is able to leave, and she begins a journey of self-discovery.

    She quickly learns she appears to be a ten-year-old slender Black girl, but also discovers she bites people and feeds off their blood. Clearly she’s a vampire. Or something that gave rise to the vampire legends, because it’ll turn out most of the Hollywood conceptions — problems with silver, running water, crosses, etc. — are just bullshit.

    But she’s actually 53, it’s true her only nourishment is the blood of others, and there are a few other similarities …

    Good book! The first half is something of a road adventure and murder mystery. The second half is more a tribunal and world-building exercise, but I enjoyed it all. Butler is quickly becoming established as a favorite author of mine. Now on to the Parable series!

  • Wyrd Smythe

    I just finished Parable of the Sower (1993). (At this point I think I have two more novels and two short stories yet to read.)

    Fledgling was about vampires. The Xenogenesis series was about aliens genetically absorbing humanity after Earth is essentially destroyed by war. The Patternmaster series was about an immortal being creating a race of human superbeings. It’s also about a nanovirus from space that wipes out the rest of humanity. Some of Butler’s short stories deal with interesting coexistences between humans and aliens.

    Parable of the Sower is an apocalypse story about social, political, and climate change. It’s the first of the two-book Parable series. The second book is Parable of the Talents (1998).

    It’s also about the creation of Earthseed, a religion with two basic tenets: God is Change. Humanity’s destiny is to “seed” the stars. There is also the notion that God shapes us and we shape God. This is more than a metaphor; it has, to my eye, something in common with the GR notion that mass/energy tells space how to curve, and curved space tells mass/energy how to move.

    (The Parable of the Sower, of course, comes from the Bible. It’s one of my favorites; one I identify with.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Parable of the Talents finally came available at the library, and I’m just getting started on it, but there’s a huge Whoa!! factor in the presidential candidate, Jarrett. Whose campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again.”

      And Jarrett is damn near a spitting image of that POS fools elected to be our 45th President. The similarities are weird and eerie, thinly-cloaked racism and nationalism prominent among them.

      In a book written in 1998. Which is also about how human stupidity and not dealing with climate change pretty much is bringing down civilization is a slow apocalypse. (Other than being a dystopic future, the book is not otherwise science fictional. No aliens, no special powers, no vampires.)

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Wow! Just finished the second book in the Parable series. I thought her Xenogenesis series was really something. These two books are even better.

      I was a little worried it was going to be a tragedy. It has strong and deliberate parallels to the story of Christ and the beginning of Christianity. But to spill the beans, it ends on a gloriously positive note.

      I am a bit in awe of Butler’s writing ability. For one thing her writing is amazingly transparent. No rough edges to remind the reader of the writer, just a clear pane into the story.

  • Butler: Parable Series | Logos con carne

    […] This past August I posted about Octavia E. Butler, a highly regarded science fiction author I finally got around to exploring. Now that I’ve read all her work (but for one novel), I’ve gone from being very impressed to being slightly in awe. Her reputation is very well deserved. […]

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