In Honor of Octavia Butler’s Birthday

It’s June 22, 2015. This would have been Octavia Butler’s 68th birthday. Instead of marking the occasion with my own reflections of Butler, I thought I’d share some of my students’ writings. I came upon a review for Luc Besson’s  Lucy (2014)  written by a scholar in my Butler’s Daughters class at Spelman College. I shared this young woman’s disappointment at the plastic role of Lucy and the lack of attention to characterization. As a media scholar, I always pay attention to the numbers and noted that the world-wide box office for Lucy was at least 10 times its budget. This would usually mean a sequel, but there is not much left to work up into part deux. Lucy causes me to ask one of the enduring questions of my intellectual life, “why  have no Octavia Butler heroines been translated to the silver screen?” Like my student, I think surely Lillith (Xenogenesis Triliogy) or Lauren (Parable of the Sower) with their actual substance and purpose trump Lucy? Perhaps those are questions it will take more than 10% of our brains to answer.

Lucy and Why Female Protagonists Have To Be More Than Female

Brielle Ariana

Lucy (2014) is a sci-fi thriller that features an eponymous female protagonist. The character Lucy is forced into becoming a drug mule by having a bag full of volatile drugs inserted into her body against her will. She is then kidnapped and attacked resulting in that bag opening and seeping into her system. As a result, her brain capacity rapidly increases over a 24 hour period. It should have been one of my favorite movies of the year. Instead, I left the film slightly disappointed.

There were quite a few faults with the movie, including the logic jumps that didn’t always make complete sense, the almost total disregard for the separation of national police forces in Europe or how air-travel works (Lucy never used a passport, which I didn’t understand), the fact that it barely passed the Bechdel test (I didn’t think it was going to make it) and the ridiculous Asian villains.

And then there is the other major problem that the whole “We only use 10% of our brains” thing is a myth but we’re not going to go there.

But what really made me upset about this film was that Lucy was not a real protagonist.

In fact, Lucy doesn’t even really live long before she is reborn as LUCY, a psuedo-human, hyper-intelligent, ever-evolving force that cannot be defeated. And LUCY, though much more intelligent than Lucy, still doesn’t meet the requirements of a protagonist.

To be clear, I define a protagonist as a main character(s) who fights against an antagonist or antagonistic force. Neither Lucy nor LUCY ever do this, though there were plenty of opportunities for that to happen.

The vindictive drug cartel run by the nameless Asians could have been suitable antagonists but they are never any match for LUCY. They are such a laughable foe that it becomes really unbelievable that they don’t just pack up their bags and go home.

The threat of LUCY’S imminent death because of the drugs that incited Lucy’s transformation could have been a suitable antagonist force, but LUCY, being a super-human genius, quickly discovers a remedy to this and proceeds to find no real hinderance to achieving this remedy.

The dilemma of what to do with all of the knowledge LUCY is acquiring could have been a suitable antagonistic force, but Morgan Freeman’s character solves this problem two minutes into their phone conversation in the beginning of the film.

The threat of LUCY losing all of her humanity could have been a suitable antagonistic force and for a while this seemed to be where the plot was going. There are three scenes where LUCY seems to struggle momentarily with her feelings, but each last so briefly that they come across as footnotes to the plot rather than conflict.

Furthermore, any problems LUCY comes across are solved almost immediately after they are proposed. Lucy faces no real conflict, at least not for an extended period of time, because Lucy’s struggle with an antagonist isn’t the driving force of the film. The driving force of the film is the constant question of what is going to happen when LUCY reaches 100% brain capacity. LUCY, then, isn’t a protagonist or even the antagonist.

She’s the problem.

The story cannot be about Lucy’s journey because neither Lucy nor LUCY have a journey. She faces no conflict, she learns no lessons, she has no growth. Lucy seems to be a story that is entirely unconcerned with it’s main character as a character.

Now as far as plot-driven movies go this one keeps you entertained with the multiple national government drug cartel take-down, the crazy Asian drug cartel not even noticing that the girl they fight on multiple occasions has superpowers though she blatantly uses them, and, of course, Morgan Freeman.

But it’s really frustrating because the commercials, the poster, the title, all lead you to believe that this is a science fiction movie with a female protagonist and it’s not. It’s a sort-of-science fiction, more like fantasy because it has no real basis in real science, movie with a female conflict.

The cop in the film begins a hardworking man fighting for the greater good. When he encounters LUCY, he is not quick to accept how out of his depth he is. But by the end, he is much more open to accepting what he doesn’t understand.

Morgan Freeman’s character begins as a brilliant scientist who has spent a lot of his life researching the human brain. When he encounters LUCY, he finds the epitome of all his research and has to decide whether he is really ready for all the knowledge he has been searching for. In the end, he ends up with all the knowledge of the universe in his palm.

The nameless Asian villains begin as drug dealers who are on top of the world with no worries. This changes when LUCY appears and threatens to destroy everything. They pursue LUCY relentlessly, even though she beats them without any effort every time. Each time they face off with her, the stakes are raised, but they never learn from their previous mistakes. This results in their deaths.

Some of the other characters evolve in authentic ways, over time. They are multifaceted. They have character growth. Or they die because of lack of character growth.

Lucy begins the movie a scared young woman and continues to be that until she transforms into LUCY.

LUCY begins the movie as an ever-evolving superhuman force and continues to be that until the movie ends.

The leap between the two is instantaneous. There is no growth. There is no conflict. There is no personhood.

Instead of a character dealing with a problem, they made a character who is a problem to be dealt with. Instead of Lucy they made LUCY.

The one thing I adore about Octavia Butler is that she makes every single one of her characters, and especially her female protagonists, people.

For instance, in “Mind of My Mind” the protagonist is a girl name Mary. Like Lucy, Mary becomes extremely powerful after a painful and nearly sudden transformation. Like Lucy, she has control over people that extends beyond normal humans. But unlike Lucy, Mary faces conflicts and trials, has to deal with how her power affects her humanity, changes and evolves as she the story goes on.

Mary has a journey.

I dislike Mary because she is selfish, vindictive and power-hungry. But I am invested in her as a character because she is more than just a plot twist. Octavia Butler ensures that you are invested.

Butler makes you care.

We have so few female protagonists in popular media that it’s always a major disappointment to see one written so incredibly poorly. Lucy was the only female character of note in her film, was the star of the film, and she STILL wasn’t a real person. It’s not enough for female protagonists to be women. They need to be people. 

No matter whether they have supernatural abilities, or live on a spaceship, or aren’t human at all, Octavia Butler ensures that every one of her characters are fully developed and believable. Lucy could learn something from Lauren or Lillith or T’Gatoi in what it means to be a real character.

And the movie industry could learn a thing or two from Butler in how to write one.

 

Butler Scholars at the 2015 American Literature Association Annual Gathering

The OEB Literary Society sponsored the panel Theorizing the Novels of Octavia Butler at the 3rd Annual meeting of the Octavia E. Butler Literary Society at the American Literature Association in Boston May 21-24. The society thanks Vice President Consuela Francis for organizing the panel.

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The panel was well attended and the subsequent discussion engaging.

“Wild Seeds: Improving the Human in African American Letters,” Phoenix Alexander, Yale University

“Reanimating the Dead and Artificial Childhood in Fledgling,” Habiba Ibrahim, University of Washington

“‘Rigging the Game': Anti-determinism and the Brain in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower,” Audrey Farley, University of Maryland

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Phoenix Alexander, Audrey Farley, and Habiba Ibrahim

My First Encounter with Octavia Butler

Brace yourself. That’s what someone should have told me when I mentioned that I was going to be studying Octavia Butler this semester. Her use of alien otherness in Dawn made me re-evaluate not only how wonderful it is to be human but also how wonderful it has to have choices. She also touches on agricultural preservation in Parable of the Sower, co-habitation in “Bloodchild” and historical understanding in Kindred. I soon realized that Octavia Butler’s works are intended to make readers question the way they view the world and understand that they have power to make change. With her in-your-face approach to prevalent issues combined with a buffer of speculative fiction situations, I was able to finally get the message–and get started.

Niaya Little reflecting on her independent study on Octavia E. Butler at Spelman College,

READ OUT LOUD! OEB Society Members Review Butler’s Unexpected Stories

“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,” writes Octavia E. Butler in the afterword of “Childfinder,” the second of two narratives in Unexpected Stories by Octavia E. Butler, an eBook published posthumously by Open Road Media. Octavia Butler’s untimely death in 2006 proved a substantial loss for contemporary literature. Having published science fiction since the 1970’s, Butler was, for decades, considered to be the lone ambassador for Black American women in the genre. A recipient of the highest honors a SF author can receive— including Nebula and Hugo awards as well as a PEN American lifetime achievement award and a McArthur “Genius” Grant—Butler’s catalogue embraces a spectrum of subject matter including race relations, feminism, trans-humanism, and queer theory. An anomaly in that Butler transcended the confines of her genre to earn respect in both popular and scholarly circles, Butler’s work is increasingly lauded as an example of sterling postcolonial and feminist Black American literature alongside other canon darlings, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and speculative fiction foremother, Zora Neale Hurston.

Over the course of her career, Butler published thirteen titles. The last of which, entitled Fledgling, was published in 2005. Having been without new work by Butler for almost ten years, reading unpublished stories by this singular author is a thrilling prospect and feels right on time. Unexpected Stories read like two lonely satellites now orbiting Butler’s other works, valuable by contributing to our further understanding of her complex and abundant imagination. Although these two narratives were originally launched earlier in her career and we read them now out of chronological order, it’s still our Octavia. More of her unmistakable prose, memorable characters, and distinctive plots have returned to us across time and space bringing some closure to the rift left by her passing.

Paradoxically, the most consistent threads in all of Butler’s works have little to do with finding closure and more to do with the cyclical nature of community, transition and transformation, and always, always—risk. “A Necessary Being” (a novella dating back to 1972) operates as a prequel to her novel, Survivor, which Butler famously regretted publishing. In this novella, we are introduced to the Kohn; bipedal, fur-covered, inhumanly strong humanoids that function within a strict class system denoted by the blueness of their fur. Much like the muscle-triggered chromatophores in squid, the Kohn can camouflage themselves into their surroundings and their coloration reflects their mood. The bluest of the Kohn are rare and born rulers called Hao who preside over tribes of the Kohn dwelling in various city ruins.

The novella opens with a middle-aged Hao of the Rohkohn tribe, Tahneh, who is nearing the time where it will almost be too late for her to find a mate and produce offspring to continue her line. Her hunters happen to spot and capture a young Hao named Diut and his companions from a rival tribe, the Tehkohn, as they are exploring near the ruins of the Rohkohn. Diut is brought into the city to meet the Rohkohn Hao and helplessly finds himself as attracted to her as she is to him. Unfortunately, Diut (being of a rival tribe) risks being maimed and made to remain a prisoner of the Rohkohn for the rest of his life. What surrounds Tahneh and Diut’s brief courtship is a flurry of personal sacrifice amid remorseless political maneuvering to find a solution that resolves both Haos’ needs to provide safety and sanctuary for their peoples.

Compared to her later writing, the novella is, as Walter Mosley states in the foreword, “like looking at a photograph of a child whom you only knew as an adult.” To be fair, this is an earlier work and the prequel to a novel Butler wished she hadn’t published, so it is no surprise that the plot feels somewhat unrealized and the pace lags in places. Descriptions of the Kohn and the ruined city, however, are lush. And the characters of Tahneh and Diut are sharply rendered but their interactions with one another and other characters come off as occasionally cumbersome. This novella longs to be a novel, maybe more than one, and Butler admits in the preface for Bloodchild and Other Stories she hates short story writing and prefers more time and space to flesh out a story because the ideas that interest her “tend to be big.”

Moving immediately at an intense clip, “Childfinder” revolves around a Black woman named Barbara who possesses psionic abilities as well as the skill to locate untrained children with similar traits. Having broken ties with an essentially racist parent organization, Barbara has begun teaching carefully selected kids from the ‘hood to defend themselves against the organization’s controlling initiatives. When a representative, Eve, finally shows up at Barbara’s door to threaten her to return to the fold, both women abruptly find out more than either could have possibly foreseen coming from Barbara’s regiment of recently trained psychic children, leaving her with only one drastic choice to ensure their continued safety.

“Childfinder” as a standalone story feels truer to the pace and character interaction we are used to seeing from Butler. In the streamlined prose of Barbara’s inner monologue, we learn much about the dynamism of her character as well as her fierce commitment to her mission and her kids. We don’t see much backstory, but then, one of Butler’s finest qualities as a writer is to unapologetically plunk her reader amidst a near-crisis without us feeling cheated. We are given just enough room to work out the exposition in real-time as the characters make choices and react to subsequent consequences.

Choice and consequence are another way to say trial and error. Again, what is most clear about these stories is the obsession Butler has with playing out parabolic scenarios where humans or human-like characters are forced to take risks and either learn from them or sometimes literally die or cause someone else to die trying. Furthermore, it’s never just one life at stake. Often it is the fate of an entire community, struggling to survive amidst incomprehensible odds, that rests most heavily upon the consciences of her protagonists. The compromises that ensue are never easy or comfortable or even entirely satisfactory for Butler’s characters, but they may ensure survival, and survival is paramount to all else in her narratives. What Butler understood and what I believe she sought to help her audience understand through the subtext of “learn and run” threaded throughout her stories—these two being no exception—is that Change is the nature of the universe. It’s up to us to either adapt or be replaced.

The Society Thanks This Reviewer!

Spriggs

Bianca Spriggs is an award-winning poet and multidisciplinary artist who lives and works in Lexington, Kentucky. Currently a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Kentucky, she holds degrees from Transylvania University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Her scholarly interests include dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction, specifically speculative works by Black women writers. Bianca’s poetry and essays have been widely published and she is the author of four collections of poems including the forthcoming titles: Call Her By Her Name (Northwestern University Press) and The Galaxy is a Dance Floor (Argos Books). Bianca serves as the current Managing Editor for pluck! The Journal of Affrilachian Art & Culture and Poetry Editor for Apex Magazine: A magzine of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. You can learn more about her work at: www.biancaspriggs.com.

READ OUT LOUD! OEB Society Members Review Butler’s Unexpected Stories

Power, Hope, and Unhappy Endings: Reflecting on Octavia E. Butler Through Unexpected Stories

         Many reviewers and fans of Octavia E. Butler’s large body of work have described her novels and short stories as dealing with issues of power. It took me a long time to see what they meant. I saw it in Wild Seed, when Doro coerces Anyanwu into coming with him by threatening her children. It is harder to see the issues of power in Xenogenesis, the trilogy which introduced me to Butler’s work. Even though it is clear that the aliens seduce, coerce, and mislead the humans, Xenogenesis always strikes me as being, as Butler once said of “Bloodchild,” “basically a love story” (Bloodchild and Other Stories, 1995).  Of the two works recently released in Unexpected Stories, “A Necessary Being” could not be called a love story, though “Childfinder” could. These two early works by Butler foreshadow her later novels in truly unexpected ways. They not only clearly address aspects of wanted and unwanted power; they also present characters with uncertain motives, and their endings place them in the tradition of the American Romanticists, recalling some of Herman Melville’s and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s endings: ambiguous and bittersweet.

In “A Necessary Being,” Diut, who appears, older and wiser, in Survivor (1978), is an insecure young Hao, a rare blue-furred specimen of the alien Kohn. Diut is prized for his supposedly innate leadership ability, marked by his blue fur. To assume leadership of an entire tribe he needs only to do what everyone expects of him anyway: to be a leader. Diut, however, is not sure he deserves the title of Hao. Others recognize his inexperience as a potential liability. Tahneh, resident Hao and leader of a rival tribe, takes advantage of Diut’s inexperience. Diut acknowledges Tahneh’s ability to persuade and even enthrall him, albeit temporarily, because she is both blue and sure of her abilities. Tahneh challenges Diut even in moments of peace. The interplay between the two (the only two Hao alive, so far as they know) evokes the hierarchical tendencies that Butler briefly bemoans of the humans in Xenogenesis. Tahneh could be a mentor to Diut, but is just as easily a rival.

Those familiar with Wild Seed may see Diut and Tahneh as the counterparts of Anyanwu and Doro, respectively. Yet it is clear from the beginning that Doro is Wild Seed’s principal antagonist, whereas Tahneh’s motives are obscure. Tahneh seems at first to be protecting Diut. When she treats him with condescension, it seems like a betrayal of both Diut, and Tahneh’s character. “Childfinder” is much more like Butler’s later work, in that the characters’ personalities and goals are stable across the course of the narrative. What “A Necessary Being” and “Childfinder” each feature is an unsatisfying, even sad ending. The ambivalent conclusions are not necessarily bad; rather, they demonstrate an arc in which Butler moves from underscoring mostly negative points about human nature to discussing, somewhat more subtly and infinitely more elaborately, the ways in which power, attraction, and affection intersect.

Gerry Canavan says in his review of Unexpected Stories that, by 2004, Butler described herself in her author’s note as “usually hopeful.” The progression from rather pessimistic to “usually hopeful” is evident in Butler’s novels and short stories as well. Diut and Tahneh seem to have little hope that meaningful change will occur for them, despite their union – but their union does suggest a more affluent future for their tribes. In “Childfinder,” Barbara, a young black woman with psionic ability, gives up all but her life in order to protect the black children whose burgeoning psionic abilities she has nurtured. Butler’s later characters are much more likely to strike some sort of balance between love, sacrifice, and loss.

Reading Unexpected Stories allowed me to reflect across the body of Octavia E. Butler’s work in an unprecedented way. As Walter Mosley notes in the foreword, Unexpected Stories is a means for those who love Butler’s work to see her, and her work, anew.

The Society Thanks This Reviewer!

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Meghan K. Riley is currently a doctoral student in English at the University of Waterloo.  She recently completed her Master of Arts in Liberal Studies at the University of Michigan-Flint. A fan of Octavia E. Butler’s work since childhood, Meghan wrote her thesis on representations and reimaginings of sex, race, motherhood, and disability in Butler’s novels and novels by Nnedi Okorafor, Larissa Lai, and Nalo Hopkinson. Meghan’s current research interests include speculative fiction, critical race theory, feminist disability studies, transmedia narrative, and Theory of Mind. When she is not researching, writing, reading, or grading, Meghan enjoys traveling, wandering aimlessly about campus, playing in the park with her two children, and enjoying the local library.

READ OUT LOUD! OEB Society Members Review Butler’s Unexpected Stories

 

The world lost author Octavia E. Butler too soon in February 2006. My favorite author, I was just beginning to discover her thanks to my African-American literature class in grad school. Butler was only 58 and had many more years left to share her vision of afrofuturism, race, power and gender with her readers around the globe. Many of her books were housed in the sci-fi section of bookstores and libraries, not in the African-American or women’s fiction sections, which definitely extended her popularity across gender and color lines. While themes of class, the ‘Other’, and racial/gender discrimination were prominent in all of her books, she never preached. Instead, Butler entertained with strong, memorable, characters and situations which rendered her books page-turners and best-sellers.

Now eight years after her death, Butler fans have been gifted with two previously unpublished short stories in the collection Unexpected Stories, penned before her fame. These stories both have strong female protagonists who must face a decisive turning point. Butler submitted her novella entitled “A Necessary Being” a few times before shelving it, while the shorter story “Childfinder” was sold to Harlan Ellison’s anthology, Last Dangerous Visions. It was never published.

“A Necessary Being,” moves right into world-building. One of the main characters, Tahneh, is having dinner in her apartment with her chief judge, who is also an ex-lover. Tahneh is a different species than the rest of her desert tribespeople. She is a powerful being called a Hao who glows blue and is said to bring peace and order to a community—the trouble is that her people need a successor and she is barren. Haos are forcefully brought into the communities they rule, and then physically handicapped to prevent their escape—this is what happened to Tahneh’s father.

In one of the oldest plot points around, a stranger comes to town in the form of a young Hao, hailing from the mountain region. Diut (we get a great backstory on Diut for all of you Patternist series fans) is traveling with two high-born companions to run away from a choice he must make to ensure his people’s survival. He doesn’t want the war his people want and believes that his people won’t listen to his unpopular decision. Tahneh is thrilled to meet someone of her own kind again and hopes that he can be her successor, a role which involves pain and sacrifice. The two form a romantic union; she teaches him to believe in his power and leadership while he shows her his capacity for compassion and trust, all amidst a backdrop of her people wanting to maim him so he can belong to their tribe.

“A Necessary Being” could have used some editing to pick up the pacing—Butler went into far too much detail about how the Haos, judges, and chiefs flashed their different colors and the fight scenes at the end lacked a clear direction. I liked her point of view choice of getting into both Diut’s and Tahneh’s heads in third person, rather than going omniscient or first person. Her ending felt justified and not rushed.

In the much shorter story, “Childfinder,” we enter in medias res a modern world where Barbara the Childfinder is living in the black projects, escaping the Organization. The Organization uses telepathic people for their own ends and formerly employed Barbara to recruit kids. I loved the description of one of her mentees, named Valerie. “Ten years old, dirty, filthy, even at this hour of the morning. Which meant she had probably gone to bed that way. Her mother worked at night and her older sister knew better than to try to make her do anything she didn’t want to do. Like bathe.” Conflict ensues between the Organization and the kids who do great work getting Barbara out of her precarious situation. She knows she has to keep going, no matter the obstacles. This story ends far too soon and I wish Butler could have written at least another five pages.

These two stories are examples of Butler’s early work; she herself even noted that she preferred writing novels over short stories. While they have their flaws, they are undeniably glistening with Octavia E. Butler’s soul. I’m so glad she was a pack rat, so perhaps even more of her old stories can be found.

If you haven’t read any Octavia Butler yet, do yourself a favor and pick up her two most popular books, Kindred (1979) and Parable of the Sower (1993)—you’ll be wanting more soon enough.

Click this link to Order the 82-page ebook, Unexpected Stories by Octavia E. Butler

The Society Thanks This Reviewer!

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Alice Osborn’s past educational and work experience is unusually varied, and it now feeds her work in speculative poetry, as well as her passion for editing, coaching and speaking. After the Steaming Stops is her most recent collection of poetry; previous collections are Right Lane Ends and Unfinished Projects. Alice is also the editor of the short fiction anthology, Tattoos and the forthcoming Homes and Houses Anthology, both from Main Street Rag. She’s currently at work on her upcoming collection, Heroes without Capes. A Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has appeared in the News and Observer, The Broad River Review, The Pedestal Magazine, Soundings Review and in numerous journals and anthologies. She serves on the NC Writers’ Network Board of Trustees and volunteers for local writing events whenever she can. When she’s not editing or writing, Alice is an Irish step dancer as well as an aspiring guitar and violin player. She lives in Raleigh with her husband, two children and four birds. Visit Alice’s website at www.aliceosborn.com.