Thursday, August 18, 2016


I've been trying to decide whether to buy Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, an anthology in tribute to the late Octavia Butler edited by Walida Amarisha and adrienne maree brown, published by AK Press in 2015.  I like Butler's work, and I've seen positive remarks about this collection lately.  So I took a look at the preview on Amazon.

In the foreword, Sheree Renee Thomas writes,
Octavia E. Butler wrote in her novel Parable of the Sower that our "destiny is to take root among the stars." The activist [Martin Luther King Jr.] and the artist ... embraced a shared dream for the future.  Their work is linked by faith and a fusion of spiritual teachings and social consciousness, a futuristic social gospel.  In its essence, social justice work, which King embodied and Butler expressed so skillfully in her novels and stories, is about love -- a love that has the best hopes and wishes for humanity at heart.
I feel like a Scrooge picking on a passage so full of warm fuzzy sentiments, but Thomas seems not to have read Butler's work, the brief quotation notwithstanding.  I know that can't be true, since Thomas is the editor of an important anthology of science fiction "from the African diaspora," Dark Matter; but that means she's deliberately misreading and misrepresenting Butler.  What she says may well be true of Butler the person, but Butler's work, while not devoid of hope or love, is anti-utopian and harshly pessimistic.  (The Patternmaster series is often as violent as Mortal Kombat.) That's particularly true of her late works Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. which are set in a near future that resembles the worst of the world we know.  Even when Butler writes about love, it's ambivalent, as in her short story "Bloodchild," which she insisted was a love story.  It's about human refugees on another planet, who must maintain a symbiotic relationship with the people there, which involves implanting the latter's eggs/larvae to gestate in the earthlings' bodies.  It's also "my pregnant man story," Butler added, "a dramatic story of a man becoming pregnant as an act of love."  Butler's love stories are extremely anti-romantic, exploring the prices we pay for binding ourselves to others and them to us -- which is a good thing, but far from Thomas's huggyface-kissybear tone.

In the Parable books, it seems to me, Butler allowed herself some romanticism.  She wanted to write several more books in the series, but was unable to work out how to do it.  The projected third novel, Parable of the Trickster, was to be set on an another planet that people from the earth had colonized:
an alien world where [the protagonist] and most of her fellow Earthseed colonists are saddened to discover they wish they’d never left Earth in the first place. The world — called “Bow” — is gray and dank, and utterly miserable; it takes its name from the only splash of color the planet has to offer, its rare, naturally occurring rainbows. They have no way to return to Earth, or to even to contact it; all they have is what little they’ve brought with them, which for most (but not all) of them is a strong belief in the wisdom of the teachings of Earthseed. Some are terrified; many are bored; nearly all are deeply unhappy. Her personal notes frame this in biological terms. From her notes to herself: “Think of our homesickness as a phantom-limb pain — a somehow neurologically incomplete amputation. Think of problems with the new world as graft-versus-host disease — a mutual attempt at rejection.”
One of the many things I disliked about the published Parables was the protagonist Lauren Olamina's affirmational verses: "the poetry that drives the Earthseed religion actually mirrors the style of the daily affirmations, self-help sloganeering, and even self-hypnosis techniques Butler used to keep herself focused and on-task."  I'm not a fan of affirmations, and the one Sheree Thomas quoted is particularly noxious.  It's at odds with Butler's general pessimism about humanity, for one thing: she believed that what she thought of as our innate tendency toward "hierarchy" would probably be the trait that dooms us.  But as a lifelong sf fan, she apparently bought into the delusional fantasy of interstellar colonization as human "destiny."  If science teaches us not to see ourselves as the center of the universe, not the crown of creation, then we ought to recognize that we are already rooted among the stars.  The earth is among the stars, a miniscule planet circling a nondescript star in one galaxy among billions in the universe, and we human beings are rooted here.  Where else would we be?