Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Unexpected Stories by Octavia Butler

A large part of the reason I picked up a particular Humble Bundle was because it included several Octavia Butler books, including the two Parables, one of which I'd read, and one of which I hadn't. I wasn't sure what Unexpected Stories would be, but my general theory is that if it's Butler, I'm in.

I guess I hadn't really been aware that Butler had written short fiction as well as novels, but it doesn't really surprise me. It did surprise me that these were two as-yet unpublished short stories, and I wondered if they were ones that were unpublished for a reason. Having read them, the first one is good, but shows some rough edges, while the second is much shorter, and a gut punch of a story. It's really great.

If you've read a bunch of Butler and are hungry for more, you'll probably want to read these. I'm not sure I'd recommend them as a place to start, but it's definitely a worthy way-station on my way through her work. I can't wait to get to the novels of hers I haven't read, although I think they're dwindling in number.

The first story, "A Necessary Being" is about leadership and difference in a world that seems in some ways post-apocalyptic, although the people populating it are so different it's hard to know if they're descended from humans, or if we're on an entirely different world with entirely different aliens. It doesn't really matter, I suppose.

Wherever we are, the tribes that remain live precariously, vulnerable to drought or famine from year to year. The tribe we meet first has been suffering from a drought, which may or may not get better. Their Hao worries about what to do when the news comes that another Hao from another tribe has been sighted. Which needs some explanation.

In this society, the colour of your skin determines your caste status, which seem to be mostly warriors or judges, with another mass of people of no particular caste. The colours, though, are what take this into the alien. One is yellow, and I think the other green? The Hao are those who are blue, and the bluer they are, the stronger they are believed to be. The Hao are the leaders, and a tribe without one regards itself as doomed.

So when the new Hao comes into their territory, the river tribe decide they must capture him at any cost, as their present Hao has had no children. Their Hao hates the necessity, having watched her father go through a crippling ritual to bind him to the new tribe and prevent his escape back to his former people, but does believe that a Hao to pass on her authority to is necessary.

What follows is a dance of personal loyalty, tribe loyalty, and some sort of racial loyalty, although the Hao can come, it seems, from any couple, although children with each other have a higher chance of being the blue. (I didn't mention that these people can all change their colour, voluntarily and involuntary, which makes emotional states easier to discern.)

It's a good story, but it doesn't feel like Butler quite at her best. Certainly worth a read, but it's the second, much shorter, story that is the one I'd go back to. "Childminder" was apparently written for a legendary and unpublished Harlan Ellison anthology, and as such, feels like it was more ready for publication than "A Necessary Being."

This one is recognizably set in a version of our world, albeit one where psi powers have been discovered, and are in the process of being bureaucratized and controlled. The lead character is a childfinder, able to find nascent psi powers. But those who set up the organization she left were more interested in people whose powers had fully manifested, and, not coincidentally, were white and of a higher class. The main character decides that she wants to find those whose powers were almost never nurtured or allowed to blossom, moving to something like a housing project to work with the Black children there.

Then, one day, the organization shows up on her doorstep, having decided they were interested in those children after all.

And I'm really not going to say any more than that. Seek out this story, in particular. It's so amazingly good and complicated, particularly by the mini-epilogue. I'd love to talk to people about it.

No comments:

Post a Comment