Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Book Hungry
February 2007

Seed to Harvest by Octavia E. Butler
Warner Books, 2007, Softcover, 765 pp, $18.99

Pain is a funny thing.

Like most of us sci-fi/fantasy readers, I am decidedly masochistic.

Wait, wait, let me explain: it ain't because we continually choose to put ourselves through the excruciating torture of Tolkien-rehash after Tolkien-rehash, or voluntarily walk down those dark aisles lined endlessly with shelves of Star Wars and Star Trek spin-off novels. It's not even because we'll quite readily read the works of authors so mortified to be shunted into our section of the bookstore that they strain embarrassingly for the legitimacy of mainstream literature by modestly shrouding their voluptuous science-fictional strangeness within the ill-fitting but more respectable strangeness of that stream-of-self-consciously-affected kind of prose starving freshmen English majors suck up faster than ramen noodles.

No, the proof is found in the proverbial pudding when we who live in this little unappreciated literary ghetto deliberately -- nay, gleefully -- seek out the pain of true identification. So long as my realworld self is safe and it's only the little surrogate-mes running around being put through the wringer in book after book, I'll cheerfully suffer through even the most horrifically cruel-to-the-characters of plots, all for the sake of a bit of well-wrought cathartic release at the climax.

What happens, then, when one of your main characters is capable of dying not just once, but more times than we can count, and that very transition from life to death and back to life is actually the most powerful pleasure he can experience? Surprisingly, this premise is actually one of the least painful things about Octavia Butler's classic Patternist series.

After I got through her Xenogenesis trilogy a few years ago, I wasn't looking for more of Butler's work right away. It simply hurt too much, the morally ambiguous dilemmas faced by the characters were too overwhelming. Besides, whenever I saw her books on sale, they were always in the middle of a trilogy, of which half the books were usually out of print. That, or the store never carried the same editions of all the books, resulting in a deeply disturbing lack of cohesive jacket designs -- painful enough in itself for those of us cursed with a profoundly over-exaggerated sense of bookshelf aesthetics. Always meaning to get back to her work when I was more up to the task, I usually passed in favor of something a little less meaty.

Thankfully, Warner Books has seen fit to collect one of Butler's best series for those of us who have been languishing tragically out of the loop. (I, for one, didn't think of my reading habits as being criminally negligent until I realized that the newest book in the collection was written a year before I was born. For shame, brother.)

Seed to Harvest, which collects the books Wild Seed, Mind of my Mind, Clay's Ark, and Patternmaster, begins as a rigorously-detailed fantasy, but ends as a kind of mythic, romantic science fiction. This functions as a cheerful middle finger of sorts to those who would argue the merits of one genre to the exclusion of the other, as Butler is equally skilled at both "kinds" of writing, and in fact blurs the already-hazy distinctions between them into irrelevancy. I suppose a few old crustaceans will complain about such blasphemous co-mingling, but really -- charming insanities like the attempt at predicting detailed future histories are meant to be taken as legitimate "science," even though no one ever seems to be able to find an example of the last "current trend' that continued indefinitely? Faster-than-light spaceships and time travel are somehow more "realistic" because they're achieved through whatever we're calling hyperdrives this week and time-warping blackbox thingies rather than through ancient runes and magic rings? Nonsense. Butler has the right of it, using the best techniques of both genres to give us powerful stories.

Though to start with, I must say that the collection, like every book in existence, is a long way from perfection. It's obvious that Butler matured in leaps and bounds over the course of her career, as the books individually improve the later the original copyright date. I'm pretty weary of the conventional wisdom that says that an author's first work is -- because it is usually the most passionate of their oeuvre -- inherently better than their latest. In some ways, the earliest fans can actually make the worst readers of an author's new books, because they bring all the baggage that comes with the enjoyable experiences they've had with the author's work in the past and are too familiar with the author's voice to really appreciate the innovations within the latest yarn.

The books are shuffled into chronological order story-wise but all over the map date-of-publication wise. The effect, in this case, is that we begin the book with a very strong start, continue to a slightly less moving effort, then swing up into the most harrowing and well-written story of all, only to slide back down and end on the weakest note. And yet, even the weakest of the stories is still quite good; it's only when being compared to works by the same author with a better understanding of her own storytelling tools that we're able to see how much she's improved with age and experience. The collected series as a whole is uneven; as individuals, though, they all sing.

We begin Wild Seed in slavery-era Africa, with Doro, the aforementioned death-is-a-pleasure guy. He's a sort of wandering spirit who is able to jump from one body to another whenever one is killed, effectively murdering the soul of the new body he moves into. He quickly finds Anyanwu, a genetically unique human who is also immortal, but in a different way: she's a shape-shifting healer, able to change herself from old to young, from human to animal. Doro is actually on a mission to take her back to his home and phase her and her lovely genes into a monstrous breeding experiment nestled within a blossoming early America.

Doro begins inscrutably and gradually reveals himself to be a horror, and yet as Anyanwu lives longer and longer, she begins to see that his obsession with genes and breeding is (perhaps unconsciously) a mirror of her own eternal loneliness. Doro is hoping to create others as long-lived as he is, and we see through the deaths of people Anyanwu has to come to care about that in the end, it's understandable over an eternity of singleness to become obsessed with finding someone else who will be able to share that eternity with you. Someone who can share the experience and see it from a different point of view. And yet we're still repulsed by the methods Doro uses, even as Anyanwu forms her own countersociety.

Hers is more humane, and works better in the short run for the happiness of the individuals within, but worse in the long-run goal of ruthless animal breeding to produce companions for her and Doro. If we mere mortals end a bad relationship, we can always just move and hope we never see the other person again; plenty of fish in the sea and all that. The only way Doro and Anyanwu can form any truly lasting relationship is if they do it with each other. They're forced to deal with the effects they caused lifetimes ago, confronting the long-term results of their own actions and bearing the consequences. There is no escape beyond learning to actively deal with everything, instead of merely putting aside problems.

(Naturally, the trouble with trying to encapsulate scifi/fantasy plots like this is that they all sound so debilitatingly stupid when you paraphrase them. "Well, it's about, like, this old woman who's really a young woman who's also, uh, kind of a dolphin, and there's this spirit-thingy that is farming people, and we see how they're different from other humans by the way they manipulate each other and have weird, purposefully gender-confusing sex and stuff" -- but that's because we're not actually telling the same story, we're telling a much shorter story that involves many of the same elements. Trust me, if we immerse ourselves in the world Butler creates, we're able to receive the story as a deeply tragic, mythically-scaled romance.)

In Mind of My Mind, Butler continues the story into the near-present. In the run-down slum that devolved from one of the breeding-experiment communities Doro founded centuries earlier, we meet Mary, a descendant of Anyanwu's. As she goes through her "transition" -- the period when she and her genetically-odd relatives grow into their unusual psychic powers -- she realizes that she is unique even within such an already-strange community. She generates a psychic "pattern", becoming the center of a vast web that snares the minds of all the psychically-gifted people around her and draws them to her. The result of so many painfully strong-willed people being forced to live with each other is an explosion of power-struggles both intimate and epic.

For Mary and Doro are trying to form a new kind of community, one where people can read each other's minds and truly understand each other's motives, which of course buggers everything all to heck. Gone is the deeply useful practice of polite hypocrisy, gone is all but the smallest hope of shielding anyone's intentions from the Patternmaster. And in this maelstrom of true belief, subversion of expectation is everything; religion, for instance, is shown to be an abhorrent process of brainwashing, and yet Mary is forced to indoctrinate others when she needs them to join her newfound causes, replacing one religion with something that functions in effectively the same way.

When does the need for privacy become a kind of cynical facade behind which it is possible to manipulate people through the withholding of information? Does the need for this privacy change when in certain types of relationships, and if so, why? To what point do we tolerate an alien and contrary belief? Butler examines how the inferred beliefs of others compound upon each other and give shape to violent misunderstandings. Such questions are still important decades after Butler explicated them, in this day when a tragically large number of people who claim with shocking earnestness to be lovers of tolerance and diversity of thought will nevertheless proceed to excoriate anyone who disagrees with them the moment an inconsistent viewpoint rears its pustulous head. (Why, if only others were possessed of the same facts as I, then they couldn't possibly think anything other than what I think! If they're being non-conformist in the incorrect way, then they must be either stupid of deceptively malicious.)

And yet, as we watch how the characters influence and act on each other's beliefs, we come to see that that very intuitive leap, that spark of "madness" -- the very bias that makes any perspective, any individual perception valuable -- is exactly what makes humans great. The idiosyncratic way of refusing to look at the world through any eyes but your own, so easily claimed by so many and yet truly achieved by so few. When nine people look at a situation and see the same thing, it's the tenth one who sees something different who changes the world.

Octavia Butler saw something different, and if she didn't change the world, she at least made an indelible mark on our little corner of it. She gives us, through these intertwined tales of twisted motive, the experience of becoming an entire community of people -- different from us, while remaining understandable nevertheless. Fresh eyes to see what we missed, the whole point of storytelling.

Clay's Ark, perhaps the most harrowing, viscerally powerful story in the collection, is also the most tragic. We meet Blake Maslin and his two daughters, Rane and Keira, as they become caught up in a near-future struggle between violent street gangs on one side, and a mysterious village of genetically-altered recluses on the other. The recluses, we quickly discover, have become infected with an alien life form that would spread to epidemic proportions if they did not consciously choose to seclude themselves. In addition to beefing up their own physical conditions, the disease is mutating their children into catlike beasts, grotesque parodies of the mythological sphinx.

Blake and his daughters are kidnapped first by the recluses, who are starving for new blood in their little town. Intended as mates to those villagers whose animal instincts and reproductive drive have been unbearably enhanced, they each contract the disease as they are separated from each other. While they are horrified at their circumstances, there are reasons they never despair entirely of returning to civilization to warn the world about the looming danger they themselves suddenly represent. Keira, for instance, who had been suffering from leukemia, grows strangely stronger with the introduction of the virus.

They eventually do escape . . . but not for long. Instead, they are caught once again, this time by the street gangs that have taken over a local waystation. As the violence between the village and the even-more-depraved gangs escalates, Rane and Keira see that what they thought of as brutality in the villager's life was actually a sort of kindness in contrast to the true horrors of the gang life. And as for Blake, he is forced, in the end, to confront the enormous responsibility of being the one who might or might not have spread the disease to the rest of humanity.

I must warn you, this is by far the bleakest book in the series. The immeasurable responsibility forced on the characters, the well-intentioned choices they make that lead to disaster, the moral ambiguity they face when making decisions, it all coalesces and crescendos higher and higher until the book screams a violent, almost nihilistic climax.

And yet it is not nihilistic, in the end. For in the sheer act of telling such an ambiguous tale, Butler is making a positive contribution to the well of memories we each must draw from when we make our own decisions based on unclear information. She's helping us to understand why we do the things we do with more clarity, and while it might be painful to go through the experience, we're better off for having faced it.

Patternmaster, one of her earlier works, is something of a let-down after Clay's Ark. Set far in the future, the Clayark disease has transformed entire nations into roaming man-animals, and the community Mary set up in Mind of My Mind has grown into an entire empire. Even as both factions clash with each other, the political intrigue of the Patternist society is about to get more interesting, what with the impending death of the current Patternmaster.

We follow young Teray, ambitious and craving the power of the Patternmaster, as he attempts to escape from the slavery of his cruel older brother and instate himself as the ruler of all. For all that the book is basically one long chase scene with forays into Machiavellian political maneuvering, Butler is even at this early date taking her first steps on the road to the gloriously truthful tales she will spin off this first book. Amber, for instance, the healer who joins Teray on his journey and becomes a sort of teacher/lover, is far more interesting a character than was at all necessary for what is at root a pretty traditional story. It's not in the plot so much as the character interactions that Butler shows us what she's about to unleash in her later books.

And of course, it's an easy critical choice to praise Butler for her emphasis on issues foundationally important to the feminist movement and black culture; that is, after all, what is emphasized in most of the critical blurbs I've seen about her work. And yet, to do that is to simplify the issues she raises into mere polemic, mere didacticism; after all, if you're at all familiar with a given sub-community's jargon, it's easy to slather a persuasive coating of reassuring buzzwords onto your ideas and -- no matter how ill-supported they may be -- gain the critical accolades of the sheep of that community.

I think, however, that Butler is actually striving for something even more universal and powerful. Obviously, her experiences as a black female living in the time she did deeply affected her work; and yet, if she had wanted to write most powerfully for whatever views she might have had with the utmost clarity, she could have simply written out an essay detailing exactly what she believed, or at least believed she believed. She could have been direct.

And yet she forgoes this in favor of the far more dangerous activity of actually giving us the experience of living through the events truthfully, no strings attached. Her work is about authority and obedience, disobedience and rebellion; if she had tried to write an essay about it, it would be a long booklength in itself. Instead, she has scene after scene about which philosophical textbooks could be written from take place in a matter of a few very-fast-moving, exciting, adventurous, and yet incredibly complex pages.

It's not a feel-good affirmation of black or feminist culture; it is in fact a much more powerful defense for the values they propound because it is deliberately exploratory, not self-congratulatory. The blacks in Mary's community, who have suffered intolerance all their lives, nevertheless turn around and become just as exclusivist. In a powerful scene, Anyanwu draws a comparison between the way the Patternist society members treat non-psychic people, "mutes," as being the equivalent of "n******."

It's not medicine, in other words. She's not writing polemic embedded within a thinly-disguised and oh-so-clever little allegory in which the climax occurs with the revelation of some petty little soundbite of "truth" that was hardly worth the effort involved in obtaining it. No, she's writing utterly brutal accounts of the way humans actually work, how they act and react to and with each other in ever-shifting communities of allegiance, brilliantly unsentimental and disturbingly accurate. Mythic stories, in which we see how humans are and can concentrate on and explore the actual situation and fundamental actions and behaviour without all the baggage that comes from using the historically-loaded terms or names we use to describe and define the analogous issues and groups in the real world.

Butler's work, the best kind of science fiction and fantasy, ends up not being about the fantastical elements per se, but rather about the individual human reaction to it. How many stories, after all, have there been about shapeshifters, about magical spirits, about mind-readers and telekinesis? And yet most are paint-by-numbers, using the forms to tell the same old stories by rote. Whereas Butler never shies away from the human implications of immortality, genetic inevitability, and on and on. Her ethical studies in the roles of submission and dominance inherent in mindreading and manipulation are such that we never know who to cheer for.

Every position is subverted, as those who most chafe at being manipulated find they must manipulate others in order to help them -- and yet it's only because they're sure they're right that they're willing to manipulate others. What makes Anyanwu so different from Doro, beyond having motives that we think of as more "pure?" The underlying behaviour patterns are the same, they're merely justified using different rhetoric. The moral ambiguity is disturbing and nearly unbearable, because the issues are never simplified into sloganeering, never reduced to mere "positions" or "stances".

Because regardless of whether or not our views are clearly marked as "religious" or "political" or "philosophical" or whatever name and community (or lack of name and supposed lack of community) we've decided to classify our self-stories as being or belonging to, the fact is that it is human nature to build vast mountains of speculation upon what amounts, in the end, to comparatively little fact. After all, we have no real choice in the matter, it's what we do when left to our own devices, how we are able to function in a world where the vast majority of the causal-chains around us are mostly invisible to we who are born half-blind.

In the intertwining tales of motive that swirl within Seed to Harvest, we realize that it is storytelling that makes us human. Practically everything important about human life is a story, a string of causal assertions. Our memories, our narrative understanding of everything from physics to gossipy family dynamics, it's all utterly content-based storytelling allowing us to function usefully in a world where the true "story" of why things happen the way they do is -- for the moment at least -- beyond of our limited understanding.

What I get from Butler is the sense that storytelling, our own unconscious "Pattern," is all but built into our biology, serving a useful evolutionary function. In this context, storytellers are no different than repairmen or plumbers, they just have a different job to do. While there are certainly more and less effective word-choice decisions to make -- depending on which audience you want to communicate with most clearly -- the particular, specific, precious words we use to tell the tale are not the tale itself. They're merely the tools we use to get the sequence of causal relationships from our heads and into the mind of another human being.

We come as close as we can to being the mindreaders from Butler's work; it's the most intimate communication possible, the place where we get the clearest, most pure understanding of another human being, where we can actually share in something of their conception of how the world works. When we speak of a piece of writing as being "deep" and "truthful", I think we're talking about how well the writer describes the causes and effects of choices, how clearly they see the consequences of actions, not which specific words they used to convey that string of relationships to us.

Butler's writing, then, is spare and clean, sparse even, direct and to the point, with no useless non-essential-to-the-plot frills. While she's nowhere near the level of a Gene Wolfe or a Mary Jane Engh at creating beautifully-constructed phrases, herprose is undeniably powerful, because the sheer clarity and persuasiveness of rhetoric and worldview is enough to sustain us. As we move through a fascinating variety of milieux, she is always adept at giving us exactly as much information as is necessary to imagine a convincing world, never crossing the line of either self-indulgently long-winded descriptive writing or inclarity due to lack of sufficient detail. Her use of exposition, the easiest thing to get wrong in this genre, is the standard others need to match; many a lesser writer makes a mess of it -- as many a teenaged couple has learned, fumbling experimentation leads more often to proof of ineptitude than euphoric experiences.

The problems Butler's characters face all have the ring of truth to them. Concerned with the real world, Butler's fiction teaches us to value ambiguity, ambivalence, the ability to refuse to make decisions blindly, to first hold ideas in abeyance and gather more information before acting on them. Even though we all must eventually act at some point -- and expose ourselves to the accompanying risk of having to alter what we thought to be a foundational worldview later -- lest we be consigned to a hell of stasis no matter how incomplete our knowledge is, we must still value stories that teach us to consider the implications and consequences of our actions, what effect they will have on the worldviews and freedoms and wills of the others we must learn to live with, even as we manipulate others and are ourselves manipulated. The real dividing line between good and evil is not whether or not someone has an effect on someone else, for we all do. It is whether or not we use that dire power to affect a positive or negative change in others, and how we define those values without resorting to recursive semantic-games.

Look, I doubt you'll go through the exact same (exceedingly long-winded) practice of speculation I've gone through here by reading these books. I doubt Butler herself would have agree with some of the conclusions I've drawn from her work. I guess the point isn't to agree with one or any of us about whatever our position on ethics or free will or submission and dominance or . . . whatever . . . happens to be; the point is to come to a more foundationally-necessary -- and by no means universally-accepted -- agreement that at least these issues matter in the first place and are worth discussing.

Her stories are important, because beyond the sheer fun of reading such action-packed adventures, we're also given powerful vicarious memories explicitly detailing what most of us find hard to put into words. The hands-on, day-to-day process of making a community work, the understanding of how to compromise with each other. It's fiction of a kind that explores the valuable community-sustaining story that if we cling to the idea that our own perspectives are an utterly objective and unbiased view of reality, we're merely reinforcing our own denial of the vast maelstrom of fictions that swirl around us every day, as we shape our stories into what we need them to be, imagining what needs to be true.

After all, who is the more "realistic" writer, the more "important" writer: is it someone who merely records the received wisdom of the group of friends he hangs out with, writing a story that serves as little more than an expression of his group's disdain for some other group? Or is it the writer of science fiction and fantasy, she with the ability to grasp the causality of real life with enough authority to effectively shape and amplify the issues we care about through the tools of the scifi/fantasy genre? We are the true literature of the strange, ever-hungry to see the world through eyes that are utterly different from our own, trying to find a more secure foothold in the real world through the clarifying lens of a stranger's new perspective.

We thrive on the pain of that dissonance of worldview, the frisson of understanding that new idea, the one we thought we understood before, but in truth didn't even know how little we knew.


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