Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#22: Octavia E. Butler

Octavia Butler has been writing science fiction novels for a couple of decades now. What characterizes them, to my mind, is that her characters, though often possessed of great powers, don't exist in a social vacuum. They have families, they have responsibilities, they have other -- often more powerful -- people restraining them, they *need* other people. (The genre, particularly in its pulpier manifestations, has a number of archetypes for powerful characters with few social constraints -- heroes, mavericks, etc. When such characters *do* appear in Butler's novels, they tend to fall into more plausible categories -- psychopaths and predators.) Most of Butler's novels fall into two groups, her Patternist novels, from the seventies and early eighties, and her Xenogenesis trilogy, from the late eighties.

"Wild Seed" (****-): Anyanwu is three hundred years old. She can take other shapes, human or animal, and can heal herself of any wounds, including those dealt by time. She's watched generations of descendents age and die. She's unique. Doro is four thousand years old. That is, it's been four thousand years since he first died, and took over another body. Since then he's lived in thousands of bodies. When one is hurt -- or he tires of it -- he leaves it for another. After a number of centuries, he began to realize that people with special powers *tasted* better, and (for that reason and others) he began to breed them. (There is no way to fight him. His current 'stock' is descended from people who survived learning that.) Doro discovers Anyanwu -- a wild seed, a supernormal talent who is not a product of his breeding programs -- by accident, and recruits her. In the decades that follow, she discovers that she's made a very one-sided devil's bargain: Doro is a predator, pure and simple, and there isn't a thing she -- or anyone else -- can do about it.

"Wild Seed" is the first Patternist novel, chronologically. (The trilogy -- not conceived as such -- was written in reverse chronological order, but I'd read it starting with "Wild Seed".) It begins in Africa, where Anyanwu and Doro were born, but most of it -- and all of the sequels -- take place across the Atlantic.

"Mind of My Mind" (***+) covers a short but critical period in the twentieth century. Doro's breeding program has culminated in a group of extremely powerful telepaths who are able to mind-control ordinary humans. They're not very stable, however, and have a tendency to kill each other. When he introduces Mary, his latest experiment, to another telepath, she becomes the focus of a mental ...pattern... which gives her some control of other telepaths -- but also compensates for their instabilities. For the first time, a telepathic culture -- albeit one which casually and inconspicuously enslaves non-telepaths -- begins to form, and grow. Until Doro decides that it's grown enough.

"Patternmaster" (**) is set millennia in the future. The old civilization collapsed when the first starship brought back a plague. Now there are Patternists -- a society of telepaths, united by a telepathic network centered on, and controlled by, the Patternmaster. There are mutes -- non-telepathic slaves. And, on the periphery, there are Clayarks -- mutated descendents of the plague victims. The Patternist society is essentially feudal, with the strongest telepaths defending and controlling domains -- and weaker telepaths. (In theory, there are laws and customs protecting the weak from the strong. In practice, those are as effective as whoever cares to enforce them.) Teray is a young telepath, but promises to be a powerful one, in time. Unfortunately, Coransee -- his older, established brother -- sees him as a potential rival, and has no intention of giving him time.

"Patternmaster" is an early work, less imaginatively and less skillfully structured than the other two. It shouldn't be thought of as the end of the trilogy in the sense of being the planned culmination of the story begun in the other two novels. Another book, "Clay's Ark" (*+), is loosely set in the same universe, and fills in the story of the coming of the plague.

"Dawn" (***+) is the first novel in Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy. It begins with the suicide of the human race. When the Oankali arrive, little is left of the biosphere, and only a few humans still live. The Oankali intervene to save those humans, but their purpose is not altruistic: The Oankali have a biological imperative which pushes them to interbreed with other species, to expand their genetic base. The human survivors do not, needless to say, share this imperative, but the Oankali have no intention of giving them a choice: Human children of the next generation will have five parents -- and tentacles.

It sounds like Sunday tabloid material, but Butler pulls off the double coup of making it technically plausible -- and of not dwelling on the technicalities. "Dawn" focuses upon the human survivors who must come to terms with the Oankali plan, and particularly upon Lilith Iyapo, the first human revived from suspended animation. She is made the initial liaison between the Oankali and the other humans. (The Oankali, who do not understand humans as well as they'd like, may not have realized that for those survivors who choose to view the situation in us-vs-them terms, this makes Lilith a 'them'.) "Dawn" ends with the first mixed children on the way, and Lilith (and others) not very happy about the situation, but not in a position to resist.

(It shouldn't be thought that the Oankali are blind to the ethical dimension of their actions, but they believe humans to be intrinsically self-destructive. That is, their ability to perceive genomes allows them to *see* that humans are intrinsically self-destructive, and will only commit mass suicide again if left alone. So we're assured. How much coercion is it right to apply to someone who won't believe he's about to walk off a precipice?)

"Adulthood Rites" (***) and "Imago" (***) focus upon subsequent generations, and the working out of the genetic merger of the two species. Both novels dramatize the process through the interactions of Lilith's Human/Oankali children and 'resisters' -- humans who have refused to participate and have run off to live independently of the Oankali. (Nobody's forcing them -- but all surviving humans have been modified to be sterile in the absence of Oankali mediation. Mind, one might ask how the resisters' determination to keep humanity fully human differs, in principle, from some people's determination to maintain racial purity.) "Imago" is the weaker of the two, in part because it revolves around a problem whose resolution requires an implausible plot device.

The Xenogenesis trilogy is an ambitious one: The human race is forced to undergo a change which it finds repugnant -- which the reader may find repugnant -- and yet the reader is brought to empathize with the humans who participate in the change, with the humans who refuse to participate, with the hybrids, and even with the Oankali. A little too much of the plot revolves around desperate people behaving irrationally and irrational people behaving desperately for my taste -- but I don't suppose the portrayal is unrealistic.

As you may have gathered, I liked "Wild Seed" best of Butler's novels. If you haven't read her work before, it provides a good basis for deciding whether to seek out her other books. If you can't find it, you might try "Dawn".

Dani Zweig