Knowing No One’s Listening

By Gerry CanavanJune 6, 2014

Knowing No One’s Listening

Unexpected Stories by Octavia E. Butler


In this two-part series, Gerry Canavan looks at the publication of previously unpublished stories of Octavia E. Butler and the opening up of her papers at the Huntington Library.

“I AM A 34-year-old writer who can remember being a 10-year-old writer and who expects someday to be a 70-year-old writer,” writes Octavia E. Butler in the short author’s note she updated year after year and decade after decade between 1981 and the publication of her final novel, Fledgling, in 2005. Naturally over the course of her life the autobiographical details shift around a bit. In the earliest versions she still describes herself as a student, as well as a “quiet egotist,” both of which quickly fall away in later versions; “usually hopeful” makes a very late appearance as a self-description for the first time in 2004; as she enters her forties, she decides to give herself another ten years, expecting to someday be an 80-year-old writer. But by and large the nearly forty separate versions of this “Brief Conversation with Octavia Butler” that can be found in the Huntington Library’s collection of her papers are identical to one another: “I'm also comfortably asocial—a hermit in the middle of Seattle—a pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist, a black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.”

For decades the only black woman in America earning her living writing science fiction, Octavia E. Butler has been widely recognized as one of the genre’s most important and influential figures. Perhaps more than any other SF author from her period she is read and loved by multiple audiences both in and outside SF fandom; she is as frequently included in the syllabi for college courses in English, African-American Studies, Women’s Studies, Postcolonial Literature, and Queer Theory as she is on “best-of” and “must-read” science fiction lists, and alongside her Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards one must include her lifetime achievement award from the PEN American Center from 2000 and her McArthur “Genius” Grant from 1995 (the first one ever awarded to a science fiction writer). Butler’s too-young death in 2006, at only 58, left those many fans bereft and her work unhappily unfinished. Now, after years of anticipation, her voluminous papers have finally been opened to fans and scholars at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, allowing access for the first time to thousands of pages of unseen and unpublished material. A self-confessed “packrat” — the more contemporary, less polite diagnosis might be “hoarder” — the finding aid for the archive runs 500 pages just by itself.

What we discover as we begin to dive into this immense archive is that — for an author who famously created a religion predicated on adaptability in the face of the inevitability of change — Butler had a remarkably stable sense of herself both as an individual and as a creative force. Her first novel, Patternmaster, published in 1976, derived from the stories about psychic mutants she began writing in 1960 when she was only twelve years old, written in composition notebooks she very carefully preserved; this troubled universe of superpowered anti-heroes battling with humans, monsters, and each other for global supremacy would go on to drive all of her creative work through its four prequels (Mind of My Mind in 1977, Survivor in 1978, Wild Seed in 1980, and Clay’s Ark in 1984) as well as the discarded early drafts of Kindred in 1979 and the Xenogenesis books from 1987 to 1989 — that is to say, the vast majority of her published fiction. The archive even has the seeds of still more, uncompleted Patternist books: thirty pages of a novel based on the life of Christ, revealing Jesus himself as the child of a sexual liaison between a not-so-Virgin Mary and Butler’s villainous anti-hero Doro, as well as notes for another book, set in Egypt, that would have focused on the tragic childhood that made Doro into a monster. In her notebooks and journals, we can trace how her intense fidelity to her dream of becoming a successful writer sustained her through years of desperation in dead-end jobs without selling so much as a short story, much less a novel, as she wrote and rewrote her childhood fantasies over and over, trying to hone them into work that the market would finally accept. 

This month’s publication of the Unexpected Stories eBook from Open Road Media demonstrates the singularity of this connection between Butler’s childhood stories, her early unpublished work, and her later mastery of the science fiction genre. Unexpected Stories contains two of Butler’s previously unseen works: the novella “A Necessary Being” from 1972, which depicts a crucial event in the backstory of her disavowed novel Survivor, andthe short story “Childfinder,” written for Harlan Ellison for his workshop at the Clarion Writer’s Workshop in 1970 and solicited for the third volume in his paradigm-shifting Dangerous Visions anthology series, which has still never appeared in print. “Reading these tales,” writes Walter Mosley, “is like looking at a photograph of a child who you only knew as an adult. In her eyes you can see the woman that you came to know much later; a face, not yet fully formed, that contains the promise of something that is now a part of you; the welcomed surprise of recognition in innocent eyes.” But what we have in these stories is actually something less like a childhood photograph, or juvenilia, or apocrypha, and more like the miraculous discovery that the beloved book you’ve read a dozen times has an extra chapter you’ve somehow never noticed. These stories don’t feel different; they feel like just her.

Of the two stories, “Childfinder” stands more completely on its own as an independent work. The story takes place in an embryonic version of what would eventually become the Patternist universe, depicting the confrontation between a “childfinder” (a mutant psychic with a special facility for identifying and locating untrained mutant psychics) and the larger clandestine organization from which she has recently fled. (If this sounds a bit like Marvel’s X-Men, there may well be something to that — Butler was an avid reader and collector of superhero comics and borrowed liberally from their standard tropes in her early work.) The unspooling of these events contains many of the important themes that would come to define Butler’s later writing: the persistence of race and racism, even in progressive, future-facing communities; the lengths a person will go to survive; the extremes a mother will endure to protect her children; how terrible power is, and how intoxicating it is to wield.

But the most interesting feature of the work to me is the presence of bookends at the beginning and end that seem to have fallen to us out of the far future, as with the interstitial Encyclopedia Galactica entries in Asimov’s Foundation series. “Standardization of psionic ability through large segments of the population must have given different peoples wonderful opportunities to understand each other,” this voice from nowhere intones at the beginning of the story. “Such abilities could bridge age-old divisions of race, religion, nationality, etc. as could nothing else. Psi could have put the human race on the road to utopia.” Only at the end of the story do we get the citation; the text this book is derived from is actually called Psi: History of a Vanished People. In a clever inversion of the famous “Principles of Newspeak” appendix to George Orwell’s 1984, whose past-tense discussion of the Airstrip One language suggests that we might yet hope for the eventual end of Big Brother’s reign despite the bleak ending of Winston Smith’s personal story, the quotes from Psi: History of a Vanished People point to the unhappy events of “Childfinder” as the seeds of destruction for the entire nascent Psi project. In her afterword, Butler tells us this was exactly her intended point: the story is the product of her “generally pessimistic” outlook, a “warning” issued in futile defiance of the fact “I know no one’s listening.” “After a few years of watching the human species make things unnecessarily difficult for itself,” she sighs, “I have little hope it will do anything more than survive and continue its cycle of errors.”

“A Necessary Being” seems at first glance to be the counterweight to this cynicism. The story is unusual for Butler in a number of ways: Set on an alien planet and featuring entirely nonhuman characters, the story is a prequel to (or perhaps a deleted scene from) her 1978 novel Survivor, which she abhorred, explicitly disavowed, and which alone of her books has never been reissued since its initial print run. Survivor is set at the margins of her Patternist universe; its protagonists are normal, unaltered humans who have fled Earth after the Patternist takeover of the planet and who are attempting to keep the species alive in tough conditions on an alien world, which they name Canaan. That world is populated by an intelligent species called the Kohn, a tribal people who inhabit the ruins of what was once a technologically advanced, continent- (and perhaps world-) spanning empire. The Kohn have a humanoid form, but are super-strong and furry with have camouflage capabilities; they are socially organized in a strict caste system organized around the blueness of an individual’s fur, with the bluest Kohn recognized as born leaders called Hao. The differences in human and Kohn biology and culture would make détente difficult at the best of the times; in a parody of nineteenth and twentieth-century “scientific” racism, each group is aggressively species-ist against the other, and considers them little more than animals. But (even worse) the humans have landed in the middle of a war between tribes and been forced to pick sides, aggravating the violence and putting everybody at risk. The narrative arc of Survivor is to see the humans recognize that they’ve made a bad choice of allies and switch sides, which they are able to do with difficulty, despite their fear and mistrust.

Butler was frustrated by Survivor; although published third, it was actually her first completed novel, and one she came to believe should never have seen print. She told an interviewer:

"When I was young, a lot of people wrote about going to another world and finding either little green men or little brown men, and they were always less in some way. They were a little sly, or a little like ‘the natives’ in a very bad, old movie. And I thought, ‘No way. Apart from all these human beings populating the galaxy, this is really offensive garbage.’ People ask me why I don't like Survivor, my third novel. And it's because it feels a little bit like that. Some humans go up to another world, and immediately begin mating with the aliens and having children with them. I think of it as my Star Trek novel."

It’s a bit of an odd choice, then, to publish within Unexpected Stories a prequel to a novel Butler not only disliked, but which she ensured most of her fans have not only never read but will be unable to read unless they are able to find a very old, very used copy on Amazon or eBay or in a university library. 


And yet “A Necessary Being” is a very interesting counterpoint to “Childfinder.” The novella takes place years before the humans arrive on Canaan; it explains how the “good tribe” (the Tehkohn) formed as a merger of two smaller, weaker tribes in order to fight the bad one, the Garkohn (an important historical event that is described in Survivor only very briefly). What happens is that the two tribes each have a Hao, who decide unexpectedly to take a chance on trusting each other rather than fighting as tradition suggests they must; the unusual merger will allow both tribes to survive and successfully oppose the bad tribe, driving the Garkohn almost to defeat until the arrival of the humans destabilizes the situation and gives the bad tribe a chance to recover. “A Necessary Being,” taken in its own terms, therefore seems to suggest a very traditional sort of “happy ending,” in which the Hao of the now-merged tribe will mate and have children who will renew the kingdom and perhaps even begin to restore the faded glory of the fallen Empire. It’s only those who have actually read Survivor who will recognize the characteristically Butlerian sour note in all this: we know from the pages of Survivor that the union will actually prove to be barren, and that each of the two Hao have taken many other lovers in order to try (unsuccessfully) to produce some heir. We similarly learn that humans and Kohn can mate — the extreme biological improbability of this is at the core of Butler’s unhappiness with the novel — but we only learn this retrospectively after the infant offspring has already been brutally murdered during a Garkohn raid. The suggestion at the end of Survivor is that the human woman and her Hao husband will try to get pregnant again — but the scene the novel actually ends on is of her trying to persuade her hopelessly species-ist human father to accept her choice and him steadfastly refusing, rejecting her and casting her away. Survivor’s repeated interruptions of the circuit of reproductive futurity is, in this way, the Psi: History of a Vanished People of “A Necessary Being”; the novel itself is the text that falls out of the future and reminds us not to have any hope.

Butler once said of Survivor: “I thought, oh well, you can’t really erase embarrassing early work, but you don’t have to repeat it.” But really she never sought to erase her early work at all; she kept it all for us, but made us wait a long time to read it. Unexpected Stories is a wonderful and pleasing surprise for Butler fans in its own terms, but it is just as promising in what it augurs: the prospect of even more. There are hundreds upon hundreds of unpublished pages in the Huntington archive, reflecting the dozens of stories Butler wrote, rewrote, abandoned, recovered, and re-abandoned since the age of twelve. One early unpublished novel, Blindsight, dating from the late 70s and early 80s,depicts the troubled inner life of a cult leader; still another late unpublished novel from the 2000s, typically called Paraclete, describes the life of a woman who discovers she has the monkey’s-paw, genie’s-curse power to make anything she wants come true just by writing it down (though it never comes true in quite the way she would have liked, and never makes her happy). Dozens of abandoned false starts exist for her long-awaited Parable of the Trickster, alongside detailed notes and too-few pages for a sequel to Fledging; fascinatingly alternative versions of Kindred, Parable of the Sower, and the Xenogenesis trilogy; brief, furtive experiments in magazine writing, children’s literature, radio plays, and romance fiction; and even the start of an intriguing Star Trek fan fiction. It would be an unconscionable shame for this material to be left only to the tiny sliver of literary scholars who are able to make their way to the archive at the Huntington. The throwing open of her personal archive and the surprise publishing of this eBook can only invite us to continue to expect the unexpected; we have to hope there’s more like this to come.


Next Installment: Recovering Octavia E. Butler's Lost Parables

Gerry Canavan teaches twentieth and twenty-first-century literature and culture at Marquette University.

LARB Contributor

Gerry Canavan is an associate professor in the English department at Marquette University, teaching 20th- and 21st-century literature. His research projects include Science Fiction and Totality, as well as co-editing The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction and the journal Science Fiction Film and Television. His edited collection of critical essays, Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, is available from Wesleyan University Press. He is also the author of Octavia E. Butler from the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series.


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