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!
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.