Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower (1995)

To get along with God,

Consider the consequences of your behaviour

Parable of the Sower is one of the most harrowing, intense novels I’ve ever read.  I had a feeling that I shouldn’t read it while in a raw emotional state, but I picked it up one afternoon, started it and couldn’t stop.  Butler has a deceptively simple writing style that hooks you quickly and then grabs you round the throat and shakes you to your core.  I don’t think I’ve ever come across another writer who has less pity on her readers.

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SF is Love

Recently, I’ve been feeling the science fiction urge, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to read some of the classics and catch up on newer stuff.   With the help of the NPR’s Top 100 science fiction and fantasy books, I’ve compiled a reading list and, thanks to the library and local secondhand bookshop, made a start on working my way through it.  I’m currently reading Iain M. Banks’s Nebula nominated The Algebraist (2004) and Isaac Asimov’s classic, The Foundation Trilogy (1951). I also  got Roger Zelzany’s The Dream Master (1965) which won a Nebula and comes highly recommended by Ursula K. Le Guin, and Kate Wilheld’s Hugo winning Where Late the Sweet Birds Sing (1977).  From the more recent books, Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1994) has been on my shelf for a while, and I got Maria Doria Russell’s The Sparrow (1996), which picked up a clutch of awards, plus Liz Williams’s Banner of Souls (2004) which looks like good dystopian fun.

And, just because it’s awesome, here’s a link to an article about the kind of discovery that inspires science fiction, a strange, black planet. Anyone want to have a go at a story about this?

Little link round-up

Octavia E. Butler, Lilith’s Brood (1987 – 1989)

Octavia E. Butler (1947 – 2006) is one of the best known African American writers of science fiction.  Her series, Lilith’s Brood, also known as the ‘Xenogenesis Trilogy’, contains three short novels: Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago.

Earth has been all but destroyed by nuclear war. A passing alien race in need of an infusion of new genetic material rescue the few surviving humans, put them in stasis, and set about restoring the planet. These aliens, specialists in genetic manipulation, decide that humanity is doomed by a hereditary conflict between intelligence and hierarchical impulses, a conflict which will inevitably propel the species towards self-destruction. Coming to the conclusion that allowing human beings to continue as they are unaltered would be tantamount to murdering them, the aliens decide to put an end this conflict   When the humans are revived many years later they find that a terrible bargain has been struck without their consent and are confronted with a choice of two horrific options: breed with the aliens to create a new race of beings, or be sterilised and live out long, childless lives.

Having read Butler’s collection of short stories, Bloodchild, and her novel Kindred, I was expecting something challenging and disturbing from Lillith’s Brood and I wasn’t disappointed.  Butler is a totally uncompromising writer who makes no concessions whatsoever to the reader’s feelings.  A lot of people seem to find Lilith’s Brood an uncomfortable read and I think it’s supposed to be precisely that.  Butler is primarily a science fiction writer, but much of her work can also be placed in the horror genre, as she forces us into direct confrontation with social taboos and highly disturbing power dynamics.  She pushes her ideas to their logical conclusion and you get the feeling that she doesn’t care about whether her writing is upsetting you or not; her job is to tell the story she set out to tell.  This is one of the reasons why she’s a great writer.

I’ve noticed in other works that Butler seems particularly interested in exploring how people might respond to being caught in situations they can’t escape from – what kind of compromises might they make?  In the first book, Dawn, a young woman named Lilith Iapo is awoken by the aliens only to be given the job of awakening other humans and preparing them for their fate.  Lilith is utterly trapped – if she refuses, someone else will be chosen; if she agrees, she betrays her own people.  She collaborates in the hopes that some of the people she awakes will resist and that she’ll have a better chance than others would of teaching them how to survive.  The price is that she becomes a scapegoat and is forever viewed with suspicion and loathing by other humans.

A lesser writer than Butler would have focussed on the story of the human resisters who refuse to collaborate with the aliens, because that would have been a much easier story to tell, but Butler is not interested in easy.  By telling the story mainly from the point of view of Lilith and her half-alien children (or “constructs”), she does something much more challenging.  She makes us empathise with those who are, for whatever reasons, unable to resist.  We all like to think we would be the rebels don’t we? But would we, really? She doesn’t allow us the relief of identification with the resisters and makes no effort to romanticise them. Their grievance is acknowledged as justified, but most of them quickly confirm the aliens worst suspicions, descending into murder, rape, theft and the kidnap of the half-alien children.  Perhaps these behaviours are due to their being oppressed by the aliens, but Butler seems to be asking whether these behaviours are inherent to humans.  Nor does she allow us the comfort of reading about aliens who are physically attractive or “like us”.  The Oankali are grotesque, grey-skinned, tentacled beings. Their species has three sexes: male, female and Ooloi, and every marriage (or, as they would call it, “mating”) involves at least five people. They are utterly unable to understand the pain they are inflicting on the humans – it just doesn’t make sense to them because they believe that they are being benevolent.  However, Butler doesn’t represent the Oankali as evil, or allow us simply to hate them – some of them are the most interesting characters in the book, especially Nikanj the Ooloi with whom Lilith has an ambivalent, symbiotic relationship.

The second and third books, Adulthood Rites and Imago continue to work out these themes through the stories of Lilith’s children; first Akin, who with some success attempts to champion the cause of the resisters, and then Jodahs who metamorphoses into the first human/Oankali construct Ooloi.

Lilith’s Brood could be interpreted on several levels.  It could be an allegory about slavery and colonialism, although saying this would probably have annoyed Butler. It may be mainly about her interest in the possibilities of genetics.  There’s clearly a lot going on with gender, since we have an alien race with three sexes. However you read it, it’s very much a product of the mid 1980s, a period during which people really thought nuclear war was imminent and the future of human race seemed highly uncertain.  Butler uses the alien Oankali to ask the then pertinent question of what the hell to do with a species that seems bent on destroying itself?

A classic of science fiction.

A short post about Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild (1996)

It turns out that Octavia Butler hated writing short stories, but I’m glad she made the effort.  Each story in this collection is accompanied with a short commentary by the author.  The first two, ‘Bloodchild’ and ‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night’ are classics.  The content of the former is pretty much my worst nightmare and my girlfriend had to listen to me shrieking my way through it.  “Stop reading then!” she cried, “No, I have to find out what happens now!” If you are at all squeamish about insect life, beware this tale of very unusual love.  The second story also veers into the territory of horror.  It is set in a future in which a percentage of the population are infected with a disease that will eventually cause them to attack their own bodies.   ‘Speech Sounds’, ‘Amnesty’ and ‘The Book of Martha’ are also strong stories.  Butler had a very clear writing style and a real gift for playing on our fears.

The two essays about writing included here are also interesting and useful.  ‘Positive Obsession’ recounts her own development as a writer and ‘Furor Scribendi’ contains refreshingly direct no-nonsense advice for aspiring writers. In summary:

  1. Read everything you can get your hands on and never stop learning
  2. Take every opportunity to attend writing courses and workshops
  3. Write every day
  4. Revise constantly
  5. Submit your work for publication no matter how much you get rejected
  6. Forget about inspiration and talent – writing is about habit and hard work

Finally, don’t worry about imagination. You have all the imagination you need, and all the reading, journal writing, and leaning you will be doing will stimulate it. Play with your ideas. Have fun with them. Don’t’ worry about being silly or outrageous or wrong.  So much of writing is fun. It’s first letting your interests and your imagination take you anywhere at all. Once you’re able to do that, you’ll have more ideas than you can use. Then the real work of fashioning them into a story begins. Stay with it.


The Best Things I’ve Read all Year: 2007

Octavia Butler, Kindred 1979

Everyone should read this book. It’s a profoundly disturbing read, but as such reminds you why such disturbing literature is essential. Dana, a young black woman and writer who’s recently married a white man, suddenly finds herself pulled back into the past with responsibility for protecting the life of her distant relative, a white child who grows up to be a slave owner. What follows is a terrifying look at history and the things that have brought us to the place we’re at now.

Ursula Le Guin, The Earthsea Quartet, 1968 – 1990

I became addicted to Le Guin this year and read everything to do with the world of Earthsea. Le Guin is a wonderful world-builder and the original Earthsea Quartet still stands out. I guess it would now be designated young adult, but if buying for young people I think it’s important to be aware that the fourth book in the series,Tehanu, is a serious feminist novel with some disturbing content concerning child abuse which probably isn’t suitable for younger teenage readers.

Neil Gaimen, Coraline 2002

I don’t generally like reading books aimed at children. This isn’t because I’m a literary snob; it’s because I didn’t much enjoy being a child and I don’t particularly like being reminded what it felt like, which a lot of children’s books have a habit of doing to me. But while Coraline is a scary book for kids, I suspect it’s even more terrifying for adults, a story that hits of a lot of our pressure points. Masterful; I’ll be reading it to my nephew as soon as he’s old enough to appreciate it.

Alison Bechdel, Fun Home 2006

This book turned me into the kind of annoying person who comes right up nose to nose with you and insists you have to read something because “it’s a masterpiece, a masterpiece I tell you!” But really, it is. No easy answers here and all the better for it.

Virginia Woolf, Between the Acts 1941

On a June afternoon just before the beginning of the Second World War people gather at the big house for a village play. In her last novel, Woolf looks at the problems faced by the artist. So, you want to challenge people and make them think, but what about elitism, and what about the risk of alienating your audience? A modernist novel about modernism, it’s also incredibly beautiful.

Fanny Burney, Evelina 1778

Being as Fanny Burney was a major influence on Jane Austen and I’m a big Austen fan, I really should have read this already, but Evelina stands up as a serious classic in its own right. It’s the story of a beautiful, but penniless, young woman’s entrance into the fashionable world of eighteenth century London. What surprised me most about Evelina was how disturbing it is. Burney’s analysis of the position of women in this period is quite uncompromising. The threat of rape hangs over the narrative as Evelina is repeatedly accosted by men who want to have sex with her, but don’t want to marry her because she has no money. The serious points are tempered with frequently hilarious scenes. I thought Austen was the great writer of embarrasment, but Burney got there first.