Octavia E. Butler’s work presents an image of humanity as a congenitally flawed species, perhaps doomed to destroy itself by virtue of the misapplication of it native intelligence, especially in the construction of dysfunctional hierarchies. The various and highly diverse societies featured in her novels are controlled by harsh realities: exacting competition for survival and intense struggles for power, usually culminating in the domination of the weak by the strong and—more unusually, and highly characteristic of her work—exotic patterns of literal and metaphorical parasitism.
Within this rather desolate general framework, there is scope for hope, idealism, love, bravery, and compassion as well as pain and desperation. Butler always looks to valiant outsiders to challenge the systems that oppress them, and they sometimes defeat tyrants to win power for themselves, but such victories are never easy and often costly. She does not deal in straightforwardly happy endings, but in ambiguous conclusions in which, although her protagonists have done their heroic best to improve matters for themselves and others, their environments remain essentially imperfect and perhaps essentially irredeemable.
In intellectually elaborated but often vividly descriptive prose, Butler usually tells her stories from the viewpoints of characters who are initially impotent but are forced by circumstances to attempt significant action. Her protagonists are usually, though not invariably, black women placed in bizarre situations and subjected to extraordinary experiences—often so extraordinary as to seem not merely grotesque but repulsive. What begins as an act of desperate courage, however, is usually transformed into an experience of love—however commingled with other emotions—and that experience is always crucial to the understanding that provides the story arc’s ultimate epiphany. The essence of sophisticated science fiction is that such understanding is reached through a process of “conceptual breakthrough,” and Butler’s great strength as a writer is her ability to simulate such conceptual breakthroughs with a resolution and determination that is highly original.
Butler’s fiction reflects and refracts the attempts and failures of late twentieth century American society to deal with ethnic and sexual prejudice. She frequently uses standard images of horror fiction, such as serpentine or insectile creatures, to provoke reflexive aversion in the reader, which she then systematically undermines in the hope that the reader will be unable to sustain this aversion as the analogical “humanity” of the alien—not in the commonplace sense of “humaneness” but in a deeper and more complex sense that retains all of humankind’s existential flaws—gradually becomes undeniable. All of Butler’s human, nonhuman, and quasi-human societies display their own forms of competitive selfishness and have their own manifest power structures; the maturity and independence won by her protagonists never imply an advent, or even a possibility, of universal equality and harmony, but they do embody the acceptance of a pragmatic personal obligation to wield power responsibly. Characters unable to alter or escape the order of things are expected to show a sort of noblesse oblige.
Patternmaster introduces the Patternist series, although it is the last rather than the first in terms of its internal chronology. It is the story of a personal and power struggle in which the younger son of the Patternmaster—the psychic control center of a society of advanced human beings—confronts and defeats his brutal older brother in the competition to succeed their father. He does so with the aid of a bisexual Healer with whom he ultimately “links” in order that they might pool their psionic power. “Healing” is, in this context—a paradox typical of Butler’s work—a deadly species of knowledge. Trust and cooperation allow the hero to overcome the naked ambition and brutality of his brother, but the moral is by no means as simple as this brief summation implies. The principal complicating factor is the presence and status of the “mutes”—nontelepathic human beings whose vulnerability to the Patternists’ cruelty and inability to control their own destinies reflect the status of slaves in colonial America.
Mind of My Mind
Mind of my Mind describes a much earlier phase in the establishment of the society depicted in Patternmaster. Mary, the novel’s heroine, is a “latent” telepath who must undergo a painful transition to obtain command of her power. The pain and danger of this passage from adolescence to adulthood are emblematic of the turmoil of coming-of-age and of the physical or psychological pain that is required as the price of initiation in many tribal societies. The deadened, sometimes crazed, helplessness of latents who cannot become full-fledged telepaths but must continue to live with the intrusive offal of other people’s thoughts is a powerful metaphor for people trapped in poverty, and some of the horrors Butler paints are familiar.
Initially, Mary has no choice. The founder of her “people,” a nontelepathic immortal named Doro, prescribes her actions until she acquires her own power. He senses danger only when she reaches out reflexively to control other, powerful telepaths, thus forming the first Pattern. Mary’s destruction of the pitiless Doro, like the hero’s destruction of his older brother in Patternmaster, is accomplished with a barely compromised ruthlessness appropriate to the society and to the character of the victim. The development of Butler’s work is evident in the intense concentration of the narrative on psychological adaptation to and responsible use of social power.
Survivor was written before either of its two published predecessors but was considered too riskily unorthodox, in generic terms, for publication until Butler had established a reputation. It is the story of an orphaned Afro-Asian girl who becomes a “wild human” in order to survive in a harsh environment. She is found and adopted, in an atypical act of reaching out, by two members of the Missionaries—a neo-Fundamentalist Christian sect. The Missionaries’ escape from a hostile Earth takes them to a planet inhabited by furred bipeds, the Tehkohn, whom they regard as less than human. This alien species constitutes, in essence, a science-fictional version of the “noble savage”; the protagonist is inevitably alone in recognizing their nobility.
Internally untouched by Missionary dogma, the girl is successfully resocialized as a captive of the Tehkohn and, in the end, chooses them as her own people. Her survival and success require an understanding of the color classes of fur among the Tehkohn, where blue is the highest color—a tongue-in-cheek reference to the symbolism of “blue blood.” Although she succeeds by dint of qualities often found in protagonists of action-adventure novels—physical agility, courage, and adaptability—her success is defiantly unorthodox in stripe.
Kindred provided Butler with her key critical breakthrough and remains the most successful of her works, although that might have changed had she succeeded in completing the Parable trilogy. The protagonist of Kindred is shuttled back and forth between 1824 and 1976 by a series of “timeslips,” but this fantastic device serves to facilitate the moral complication of a fundamentally naturalistic narrative. The novel employs a contemporary black woman with a white husband as exemplary characters in order to probe the stereotype of the “contented slave” and the stigmatization of the “Uncle Tom.” When Edana and Kevin are separated by their inexplicable reversion into slave and master in the American South of 1824, each begins unwillingly to imbibe the feelings and attitudes of the time from that perspective. The simultaneous processes of adaptation and rebellion set up an acute dynamic tension that is further emphasized by alternations of setting.
The impact of this novel results from Butler’s skill in evoking the antebellum South from two contrasted points of view: the stubborn, desperate attempts of black people to lead meaningful lives in a society that disregards family ties and disposes of...
(The entire section is 3453 words.)