The late Octavia Butler wrote brilliant, challenging science fiction along more or less the same lines as Ursula K. Le Guin: the speculations are often anthropological, and she’s fascinated by how people interact. I read one of her XENOGENESIS novels years ago and found it the kind of powerful, disturbing book that I can only read occasionally. I was excited to hear that a couple of her unpublished stories had been found and published under the title Unexpected Stories.
They’re very fine stories. They’re beautifully written, with an easy competence that I see all too rarely, and the speculations themselves — particularly in the first story — are out of the ordinary way. I don’t love them so much as to give them five stars, but that last half-star is nothing to do with the quality, only my own taste.
To say that Butler wrote about race would be like saying that Jane Austen wrote about the role of women in society: true, but inadequate. In both cases, the theme is everywhere in their work, but because it’s so pervasive it isn’t always what the story is directly or ostensibly about. In the XENOGENESIS novels, for example, humanity’s genes have been co-opted by aliens, a development which, while it arises directly out of Butler’s concerns, thoughts and feelings about race and race relations, isn’t directly “about” that. The same is true of the novella “A Necessary Being,” the first of these two stories. The people in it are literally people of colour. They’re able to change their skin colour to a degree, in order to camouflage themselves, and it also changes to signal emotion, but their base or resting skin colour determines their place or role in society. The rare blue people (the Hao) are the leaders, greener people are judges and hunters, and the most yellow people are artisans or farmers. People mostly marry within their caste, presumably reinforcing whatever genetic process produces the colours, though Hao can be born of judges sometimes as well as from other Hao. Hao are so valuable that the main character’s father was captured and crippled to prevent him from leaving the tribe, even though one of the great things about Hao is that they’re better fighters than anyone else.
That was a little surprising to me. It’s fairly clear from the narrative that Hao actually are, objectively, better fighters, that having blue skin isn’t just something that makes other people expect you to be a good leader and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If this was a simple parable of racial expectations, I would have anticipated the self-fulfilling-prophecy angle. But Butler isn’t just working in simple, obvious parables here. It’s a story of expectations, betrayal, and finding ways to get around the unjust ways in which your society works, despite the constraints that fence you in, and that is the way in which it’s a story about race.
The second and shorter story, “Childfinder,” has a much more direct relevance to race. In it, and the author’s note which follows it, we see a pessimistic view of race relations, in which racially-based conflict inevitably destroys the possibility of utopia. While I don’t share the author’s pessimism, I understand it. “Childfinder” was commissioned for a never-published installment in Harlan Ellison‘s DANGEROUS VISIONS anthologies.
Butler’s early death robbed science fiction of a powerful and unique voice, and these previously unpublished stories are both a reminder of that and also something to treasure in themselves. They’ve encouraged me to revisit the XENOGENESIS novels and look into the author’s other books.