This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler’s birthday. See all the posts here.
Fierce. That was my reaction when I read the work of Octavia Butler for the first time. This is a woman to be reckoned with. I don’t say that just because she is a black woman writing in a genre that is dominated by white men – even more so than literature as a whole – and that is nothing if not impressive. I say it because she does something with her writing that so many authors attempt to do, but fail to do with quite her level of skill.
Butler writes stories that anyone can identify with and that everyone can learn from. More impressive still is that she does so, at least in the case of her short fiction, without trying too hard. As Walidah Imarisha, co-editor of Octavia’s Brood, wrote in an email to CNN:
“Our realities are not utopian or dystopian, they are realistic and hard, but hopeful, and that is what (Butler) pulls out in her work. As much as the inclusion of marginalized characters at the center, the principles and values which embody positive change have so many lessons to teach us.”
Here are a two of her short stories that can be found online and in the collection Bloodchild and Other Stories. Take a look. You’ll see what I mean.
This story focuses on a group of humans who fled persecution on other planets in the hopes of finding a better, safer home. They find themselves on a planet inhabited by an insectoid species called the Tlic. Initially, they are imprisoned and forced to serve as surrogates, of a sort, for the Tlic. This process includes implanting fertilized Tlic eggs into a human host. Once they eggs hatch, they eat the host. But, eventually, they are given a preserve to live on and encouraged to have families. They are protected by the Tlic with the understanding that one of their children serve as a host for future Tlic offspring. The Tlic, in their new, gentler and kinder approach to the humans, attempt to remove the hatchlings from the surrogate before they have a chance to eat it, allowing the host to continue with their life.
This dynamic is often viewed as a take on either a slave/benevolent master dynamic or a symbiotic co-dependent relationship between the human and its Tlic. Butler herself described the story as a reworking of the traditional invasion story.
This story takes place in Los Angeles at some unspecified, yet recognizable, point in time. In this alternate universe, an illness, if it could be called that, strikes people all around the world, effectively cutting them off from one another forever: “Language was always lost or severely impaired. It was never regained. Often there was also paralysis, intellectual impairment, death.” People cannot speak. They can no longer read or write. They cannot understand each other clearly, forced to rely on grunts and gestures to communicate in an imprecise, if crudely effective, manner. Because of these limitations, the world has become increasingly dangerous. Misunderstandings are likely to cost people their lives.
When the story opens, a woman named Rye, formerly a history professor, is on a bus attempting to make the long trip to Pasadena, where she hopes to find her brother and her nephews alive and able to communicate. We come to learn that she has lost her husband and three children to the illness, and her own abilities have been limited by her exposure. A conflict arises on the bus, and it is forced to stop. As the situation becomes increasingly dangerous, Rye finds herself off the bus and seeking safety and solace with a man in a car, dressed as a policeman from the days when that still meant something. As the afternoon goes on, Rye’s circumstances change radically on more than one occasion. The outcome, however, is the best it can possibly be. As with any Butler story, there is always hope.
Bonus: “The Evening, The Morning, and The Night” as featured on The Escape Pod, a science fiction podcast, and narrated by Amanda Ching.