The One with Greater Non-Human Powers

Octavia Butler, Collected Stories, from Library of America (2021)

I jumped on the opportunity to read Octavia Butler’s short stories when I saw this Library of America volume on Netgalley. I rarely read true science fiction (I do some fantasy, some time-travel and some post-apocalyptic novels, but aliens and flying saucers? No thank you!), yet Kindred had been such a memorable book for me in 2019, and I couldn’t pass the chance to read short stories of this author. I was sad to learn that she has published so few short stories, preferring to publish bigger volumes and even series. I enjoyed this compiled edition edited by Gerry Canavan, and with an interesting preface by Butler’s friend Nisi Shawl, although the barebones ARC format makes it difficult to go back and forth within the volume. I didn’t read Fledgling, although I intend to come back to it one day.

The book collects all seven stories from Bloodchild collection, as well as Childfinder (from Unexpected stories). The themes and genres are very wide, and none are related to Kindred. Each story is followed by a short afterword by Butler who presents the context of the story, or why she chose this theme. I liked the Utopian vision of The Book of Martha, where God addresses a female writer (Octavia herself?), so that she would chose the destiny of humans. It was by far the lightest story of them all, and readers should be warned that the worlds Butler creates are often dark and disturbing. I was awed by Butler’s imagination in Bloodchild, when she imagines a sort of love relationship between a human young man and a powerful creature. Speech Sounds is more like a standard postapocalyptic book, but I liked the metaphoric themes. Childfinder felt more like an excerpt of a complete novel. And The Evening and The Morning and The Night dealt with the consequences of a rare genetic disease.

In all those stories, I could not help but wonder at the unique point of view that Butler takes. A bit like Ken Liu, humans are often weaker creatures who have little choice but to obey to greater alien powers, but the relationship with others is not just a confrontation, there are complex feelings on both sides and plot twists that are voluntarily uncomfortable for the reader.

Thanks to the publisher and Netgalley. I received a free copy of this book for review consideration.

The One about the Ancestor in the Plantation

Octavia E. Butler, Kindred (1979)

I don’t know about yours, but my first week of September is just brutal! I have so many books I want to talk to you about and so little time… I am back to writing under the strict control of the clock (Pomodoro, here I am… for 25 minutes).

Speaking of brutal, what about the story of a black woman to gets to know a relative of hers, only to discover that the person is brutal, vicious, sexist, racist (she is black) and… a slave owner? (That makes my tough week seem not so bad, after all). And she doesn’t have the option to turn her back on him, it even becomes her duty to make sure that this despicable person does live, even if he has some bad self-destructive tendencies.

It took me a ridiculously long time to start this post, because I didn’t feel qualified to write anything interesting about this book. But I’m still processing it, months after finishing it, because it was so powerful!

The first time I heard about Kindred was through a writer friend to whom I’d asked for recommendation on books about slavery. Then this book was everywhere, in lists about time travel novels, about female unjustly overlooked writers, about POC writing science fiction. Yes, this book is all that and more!

Dana is a black woman living in California in the 1970s. She is an aspiring writer with a boring day job and a white boyfriend who also writes. Out of the blue she develops fainting spells where she suddenly finds herself in the Antebellum south (precisely, Maryland in 1815). What a ride!

As you may remember I enjoyed Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, so that was for me the first point of comparison. (I rarely if ever read any fantasy with time travel or otherwise, but I seem to develop a certain taste in recent years). But my mind was blown. Kindred is so much more powerful than Outlander. It’s not a romance so it doesn’t have to follow certain tropes. Instead, the present and the past keep intersecting as she goes back and forth, and Dana very much keeps her 1970s level-headed mind to solve very complex questions, both practical (I love that she gets to prepare her next fainting spell by packing a knife and some painkillers) and ethical.

It is a harrowing read by definition, but it wasn’t graphic and also not as controversial as Outlander, where sexual abuse is sometimes seen as just another plot point. Instead, it explores race relations in history and in the 1970s present time, family ties, hatred and love. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

PS. May I confess something shameful? The first time I heard about Octavia Butler, I confused her with Octavia Spencer. Uh-oh. Now there’s no risk I’ll make the same mistake again, but I love them both!