Tag Archives: Octavia Butler

Butler’s Ark of doom

I’m a little bit frustrated right now, because I just read Clay’s Ark by Octavia Butler, and only after finishing it did I realize it was part of a series (the Patternmaster series), with several other books preceding it. And I hate reading books out of sequence, even when it doesn’t really matter to the series’ overall plot — it offends my sense of order. The edition I have (1985 Ace paperback) does not identify itself as part of a series, so….. thanks a lot, Ace. But as far as I can tell, the books are only loosely connected, so I suppose there’s no real harm done.

All that aside, this was a decent novel. It’s about an astronaut who, as part of Earth’s first voyage to another planet, brings a terrifying plague back home. But rather than taking the typical approach you might expect — a story about the scientific and political response to such a problem — the novel focuses on a small group of infected people and their struggles and agonies.

The plague is an alien microorganism that invades and transforms the body at the cellular level, turning it into an efficient vehicle for aiding in the microorganism’s reproduction. It alters a person’s DNA and bestows superhuman abilities: enhanced strength, senses, and healing ability. But it also comes with a much less desirable effect: an overwhelming compulsion to spread the microorganism, both by having offspring which will be born infected, and by infecting others through physical contact. Those who are infected are consciously aware that they are carrying a disease that could easily spread and engulf all of humanity, but at the same time the alien compulsions are so strong they’re almost impossible to fight.

The lone surviving astronaut who brought the infection to Earth is a strong-willed individual who is barely able to (partially) keep control of himself. After his ship crash-lands, he hides out in a small mountain valley surrounded by California desert, creating a small community of the infected who wage a constant battle to keep the plague isolated, and to retain whatever they can of their humanity. They gradually take in more members, as a minimum concession to their enforced compulsion to spread the infection. These additions to the community are kidnapped from nearby highways out in the desert wasteland, which in this chaotic near-future world have devolved into something right out of The Road Warrior.

This novel strikes me as being very similar to the other Butler novel I’ve read, Fledgling, in that they both deal with some of the same issues, and there are lots of places where the one evokes a strong memory of the other. The infected in Clay’s Ark remind me a lot of the vampire symbionts from Fledgling. Both are transformed into something not-quite-human; both are granted special abilities but pay a steep price for them; both struggle against overwhelming compulsions or addictions, and hate themselves for not being able to overcome them. Both novels also deal with uncomfortable areas of sexuality, with young people who appear frail but who possess unknown strengths, and with the loss of family and loved ones.

The novel switches between alternating “past” and “present” chapters. The past plotline is about the astronaut and how he initially starts his mountain colony, while the present is concerned with the latest additions to the community, a doctor and his two teenage daughters, and their attempts to escape. The strongest part of the book is the characterization. You can really feel the horrible stress these people are under because of the changes they’ve undergone, and the choices they have to make.

I feel the plotting could have been stronger — it was perhaps a bit predictable in places — but it’s worth reading nevertheless. And the rest of the books in the series sound at least as interesting as this one.

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Sucking the blood out of the vampire legend

I’ve been out of the vampire “loop” for quite some time; the last vampire novel I read was Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned back around 1990. Since then, I haven’t felt much urgency about seeking out that kind of literature. As fas as I’m concerned, Rice’s series (at least the first three books) was the definitive modern telling of the vampire tale, the pinnacle of that particular sub-genre, and anything after that would be anticlimactic. So when I began reading Octavia Butler’s 2005 novel Fledgling, I was a bit wary about what her take on the mythos would be, and how it would stack up against other versions. I was pleased to find this is not a horror novel, not a portrayal of creatures in any way supernatural. Butler approaches the subject from a science fiction angle (ummm…. make that “from a sci-fi standpoint”!), and uses the legend as a means of commenting on human nature and social issues.

The “vampires” here, who call themselves Ina (funny, there’s a town by that name near where I grew up), are another species that has co-evolved with humanity, another branch of the hominid line that split off somewhere in the dim prehistoric past. This species evolved as a parasite, using the blood of their distant cousins (humanity) as their food source. But they’re a benevolent parasite, something not unknown in nature; through biological self-interest, they evolved to care for the well-being of their “prey,” in fact existing with them in a symbiotic relationship benefiting both. Via the effects of a chemical in their bite, they are able to bind humans to them in a kind of drug-induced loyalty, keeping a group of them around for periodic feeding. In turn, these humans are blessed with a far healthier immune system and substantially longer life, and most Ina treat them very well. Rumors of this species came down through the ages in garbled and distorted form, picking up added flourishes along the way, giving rise to the traditional vampire mythology — transforming into bats, turning victims into vampires, immortality, garlic, crosses, stakes through the heart, all that stuff. In actuality, the vampire elements that apply to the Ina are the most basic ones: need for blood, aversion to sunlight, and heightened senses and strength, all of which can be grounded to some degree in real biology. This “vampire as a product of nature” approach is nothing new; in fact it’s almost predictable for anyone wanting to de-mythologize vampires. Nevertheless, Butler employs the concept skillfully and imbues it with enough realism to make it work well.

The story is told through the eyes of a young Ina girl named Shori, the “fledgling” of the title. At the beginning, she wakes up in a cave, badly injured and in great pain, desperately hungry, and having no idea who she is or how she got there. I love that kind of opening, the kind with an amnesiac character waking up in the middle of chaos and trying to figure out what the hell’s going on; I love the thick sense of mystery and ongoing discovery. And what Shori discovers is that her family has been murdered, incinerated while their homes were burned to the ground, victims of a brutal attack by parties unknown. Shori is the sole survivor of the attack, and after some time and effort, and help from another Ina family, she finally learns the truth: that she herself was the primary target of the attack, for reasons having to do with some special qualities she possesses.

Shori’s family had been engaged in research on how to improve their species, and their efforts resulted in a most unique individual — Shori herself. Genetically engineered with a mixture of Ina and human DNA, Shori is the first truly dark-skinned member of her species, able to operate in daytime and withstand sunlight far better than other Ina. Someone — whether human or Ina, I won’t tell you — was offended by this violation of “racial purity,” and decided Shori and her family needed to die. Needless to say, Shori does her best not to accommodate them, and in the end justice is served, Ina-style.

The basic plot is itself interesting enough on the level of action and suspense, but more than that, Butler has constructed a story deeply woven with social commentary on numerous different themes. I’m not even sure I caught everything she was trying to say, but here are some of the things she may have been taking aim at:

  • Overt forms of intolerance like racism and speciesism and the bigots who crusade for the “purity” or superiority of their group, whatever it may be. There may also be a bit of criticism against ageism here; Shori’s young age is held against her by some, even though in many ways she shows herself to be stronger, more resourceful, and more mature than the adults around her. She is also questioned by other Ina for taking a symbiont they consider too old, but Shori sees worth in her despite her age.
  • A more subtle type of intolerance: the way we tend to mis-characterize those of whom we are ignorant, attributing negative qualities to those who are different merely because we don’t understand them. Thus, humanity was never able to see the Ina in a natural light, as intelligent creatures living as nature designed them; instead it was easier to view the unknown as “evil” and build up a mythology to reinforce that view.
  • Addiction, and drug addiction in particular. Even though the Ina take good care of their symbionts, the fact is these symbionts are addicted to Ina venom, and will in fact die without it once they are hooked. Butler paints a disturbing picture of some of these symbionts and their deep sense of conflict — knowing at some deep level that they only feel attraction to the Ina because of their addicting venom, yet completely unable to overcome that addiction, loving the Ina, yet knowing deep down that their love is a forced chemical illusion.
  • A prominent portion of the book is a courtroom drama (even if it’s not in a courtroom). The Ina claim their legal system to be superior to humanity’s (or at least America’s), which they say is too adversarial and full of trickery and gamesmanship. Then when the “trial” starts, the Ina immediately prove their system to be riddled with exactly those same faults. This could be a statement about our flawed justice system, but I took it more as a comment on hypocrisy in general.

There’s probably more that could be dug out of this novel, but that should give you some idea of where Butler is coming from. This is a novel with something to say, a vampire novel that says more about humanity than about vampires. I recommend it, whether you’re a fan of vampire literature, or science fiction, or both.

Interesting comments on xenophobia and literary manifestos from Iain M. Banks

Peggy at Biology in Science Fiction recently asked, “Could We Evolve Into The Culture?” As in The Culture from Iain M. Banks’ sf novels (which I’ve not yet had the pleasure to read, an error I mean to correct eventually). In her article she refers to an e-mail Q&A at Banks’ website in which he answers questions from readers. One reader asks what Banks thinks is the most important development humanity could make in order to advance to a Cultured society; Banks answers:

Genetically modifying ourselves, I suspect. Finding the set of genes that code for xenophobia in general – these days usually expressed though sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-semitism, Islamophobia, Romaphobia and so on (and on, and on) – and knocking them out. Possibly then we’ll be nice enough for the Culture or something like it.

That’s a good answer, and I can’t help but notice it nicely parallels this comment from Octavia Butler from the racism essay I posted about a while back:

Simple peck-order bullying is only the beginning of the kind of hierarchical behavior that can lead to racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, and all the other “isms” that cause so much suffering in the world.

Both authors point out that there is some general underlying facet of human nature (whether you call it xenophobia or hierarchical tendencies or whatever) that is behind a wide range of nasty human behavior. Is it something that can ever be tied to a certain complex of genes? Is it something that could be engineered out of us? I have no idea, but I suspect it’s very possible.

Another reader asks Banks about his views on literary manifestos or movements, to which he replies:

I’m always a bit sceptical about any movement or even allegedly coherent group of writers really existing for much longer than whatever lunchtime the idea of said movement was dreamt up.

Hehe… yeah, I think there’s some truth to that.

Answering the question of what kind of movement he would create if he had to create one, Banks says:

If I was going to have a manifesto – just for the sheer flipping heck of it – I’d draw up one that denigrated cliché, demanded greater realism in narrative and bound its adherents to resolutely refuse to acknowledge the existence, even as handy plot devices, of any form of supernatural or spiritual force whatsoever.

Now THAT’S my kind of literary movement! (Anyone familiar with my book reviews will know I’m usually not happy seeing supernatural elements in science fiction.) Very intelligent fellow, this Banks. And it’s now more definite than before: I WILL be reading some of his work at the earliest opportunity.

Octavia Butler essay on rasicm

Here’s an essay written by Octavia Butler for NPR in connection with the U.N. Conference on Rasicm. You can also listen to an interview with her on the same topic. She talks about the subject in real life terms, as well as from the perspective of her science fiction. I’ve never read any of her work myself, but I hear great things about it, so I’m planning (in a vague, unplanned sort of way) to try one of her novels before too long.

The essay begins with this comment:

Several years ago, when I was about to start a novel, I thought I might get some mileage out of the idea of a civilization in which people somehow felt — that is, they shared — all the pain and all the pleasure they caused one another.

That’s an intriguing idea, and I’m sure variations of it have been used before. What it reminds me of is the “shared reality” of Nancy Kress’ Probability series, in which the members of a certain species must all share the same basic worldview and attitudes in order to avoid excruciating head pain; indeed, in such a species, racism (and lots of other isms) would be pretty much impossible.

Butler talks about humanity’s hierarchical urges as the source of much of our unpleasant behavior towards each other, and sums it up this way:

There is, unfortunately, satisfaction to be enjoyed in feeling superior to other people.

Undeniably true (although I don’t think that’s always a bad thing).

Anyway, I just thought I’d put this up for any Butler fans who may be reading. Hope you like it.

The Science Fiction Phenomenon

I found this documentary called Brave New Worlds: the Science Fiction Phenomenon, from back in 1993, which was broadcast in the UK, I believe. It’s pretty interesting, especially the commentary from various authors such as Robert Silverberg, Arthur C. Clarke, J. G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Octavia Butler, Kim Stanley Robinson, William Gibson, as well as SF critic John Clute, some film people such as Paul Verhoeven, and others. Running time: about 54 minutes.

Note: even though in English, the videos are subtitled in a some other language, but it’s easy enough to ignore. Also, several minutes of sound are covered by static in part 2. I don’t know what that’s about, but these are the only copies I could find.

Part 1:

Part 2: