Octavia E. Butler | Critical Essay by Ruth Salvaggio

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Octavia E. Butler.
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Critical Essay by Ruth Salvaggio

SOURCE: "Octavia Butler and the Black Science-Fiction Heroine," in Black American Literature, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 78-81.

Salvaggio is Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and University. In the following essay, she discusses Butler's black, female protagonists in the Patternist novels.

A traditional complaint about science fiction is that it is a male genre, dominated by male authors who create male heroes who control distinctly masculine worlds. In the last decade, however, a number of women writers have been changing that typical scenario. Their feminine and feminist perspectives give us a different kind of science fiction, perhaps best described by Pamela Sargent's term "Women of Wonder." In a sense, Octavia Butler's science fiction is a part of that new scenario, featuring strong female protagonists who shape the course of social events. Yet in another sense, what Butler has to offer is something very different. Her heroines are black women who inhabit racially mixed societies. Inevitably, the situations these women confront involve the dynamic interplay of race and sex in futuristic worlds. How a feminist science-fiction character responds to a male-dominated world is one thing; how Butler's black heroines respond to racist and sexist worlds is quite another.

Butler's concern with racism and sexism is a conscious part of her vision. As she herself explains, a particularly "insidious problem" with science fiction is that it "has always been nearly all white, just as until recently, it's been nearly all male." Confronting this "problem" head-on, Butler places her heroines in worlds filled with racial and sexual obstacles, forcing her characters to survive and eventually overcome these societal barriers to their independence. Sometimes her black heroines are paired with white men who challenge their abilities; sometimes they are paired with powerful black men who threaten their very autonomy and existence. And, always, the society in which they live constantly reminds them of barriers to their independence. Tracing the plight of each heroine is like following different variations on a single theme, the yearning for independence and autonomy. That Butler's women, despite all odds, achieve that autonomy makes her science fiction a fresh and different contribution to the genre and makes Butler herself an exciting new voice in the traditional domains of science fiction, feminism, and black literature.

This article is intended to introduce Octavia Butler through her science-fiction heroines—beginning with the defiant Amber in Patternmaster (1976), then moving to the confused but powerful Mary in Mind of My Mind (1977) and the compromising Alanna in Survivor (1978). The heroine I leave until last is one we encounter as the old woman Emma, hovering in the background of Mind of My Mind. She later appears as Anyanwu in Butler's most recent science-fiction novel, Wild Seed (1980). In Anyanwu we discover the inspiring force of all of Butler's heroines. And in Wild Seed we discover dimensions of Butler's fictive world—not the typical feminist utopia, but a flawed world in which racially and sexually oppressed individuals negotiate their way through a variety of personal and societal barriers.

Germain Greer's term "obstacle race" seems particularly appropriate when discussing Butler and her fiction, largely because the women discussed in both situations confront peculiarly social obstacles. Just as women artists, according to Greer, should be seen "as members of a group having much in common, tormented by the same conflicts of motivation and the same practical difficulties, the obstacles both external and surmountable, internal and insurmountable of the race for achievement," so Butler's heroines share in this social and personal struggle for assertion and understanding.

Their particular struggle, however, is accentuated by the extraordinary mental facilities they possess: Each of Butler's four science-fiction novels is built around a society of telepaths linked to each other through a mental "pattern." Thus when Anyanwu, the African woman in Wild Seed, is transported on a slave ship to colonial America, she senses the horror of slavery well before she actually witnesses its real-life horrors. Or when Mary, in Mind of My Mind, ultimately confronts her oppressive father, she kills him through the machinations of a gruesome mental war game. The violence that accompanies such racial and sexual conflict rarely centers on women in the way that it does in Butler's novels. Here we have females who must take the kind of action normally reserved for white, male protagonists. White males, curiously, play an important role in Butler's fiction—sometimes as enemies, sometimes as foils to the women. We might begin with a discussion of them in Butler's first novel, Patternmaster. There they dominate the plot until, as one female science-fiction writer describes in a different context, "a woman appeared." Let us begin, then, with the traditional science-fiction plot, and the sudden intrusion of a woman.

It should not be surprising that Patternmaster, Butler's first novel, revolves around that typical science-fiction plot: It employs two of the most traditional mythic structures—the inheritance of sons and the journey motif. Rayal, the Patternmaster, is dying; his two sons, Coransee and Teray, vie for control of the Pattern. This rivalry of sons for possession of the father's empire follows the outlines of an archetypal literary construct: Coransee, the stronger and more obvious heir, is defeated by the young and inconspicuous Teray, who ultimately proves himself—despite all outward appearances—to be the righteous heir. Ostensibly, then, Patternmaster is a novel which presents us with a "good-son" hero. We are glad when the honest Teray defeats his sinister sibling; we are glad that this decent young man has overcome the corruption and power lust of the older brother.

But all this is not really what Patternmaster is about. Before the adventures of our hero begin to unfold, our heroine appears—Amber. The circumstances of her appearance are just as curious as she is. Teray, captive in his brother's household, calls for a "healer" to treat a woman who has been beaten by a man. Enter Amber—a Patternist with extraordinary mental abilities to mend the human body. Immediately, her strong-minded, judgmental character emerges, and before long she and Teray, both captives in Coransee's household, plot to escape.

The story of their escape, their quest for freedom, now begins to change the typical "quest" motif that defines so much science fiction. For one thing, Teray soon realizes that he cannot physically survive their journey without Amber's healing powers—she may, in fact, be more physically powerful than Teray himself. For another, the fascinating relationship between hero and heroine overthrows all of our expectations about conventional romantic and/or sexual love. Because Teray is white and Amber black, their relationship continually reminds us of racial distinctions. And because Amber is a woman who refuses to act out traditional female roles (she will not be any man's wife, she is sexually androgynous, she is stronger and more independent than most men), their relationship continually highlights sexual and feminist issues.

Racism and sexism, then, are matters fundamental to an understanding of both plot and character. Coransee's household, for instance, is hierarchically structured so that those who possess power necessarily abuse those who are powerless: "Housemasters" control "Outsiders" who control "Mutes." In this futuristic mental society in which people have the ability to comprehend each other's thoughts, mental understanding gives way to mind control and ultimately mental oppression. The great "Pattern" itself—holding forth the promise of a mentally-unified culture which might use its combined intellectual powers for human advancement—instead has become the prize for Machiavellian power seekers. No wonder Butler continually uses the term "slavery" to describe the "mental leashes" which keep this society in its state of oppression.

Though Teray, the good son destined to inherit the Pattern, is the figure in whom we must place our trust and hope, it is Amber who most dramatically personifies independence, autonomy, and liberation. Forced, as a captive in Coransee's household, to be one of his "women," she nonetheless boasts, "'But I'm not one of his wives…. I'm an independent.'" Asked by Teray, whom she truly does come to love, to be his wife, she refuses, "'Because I want the same thing you want. My House. Mine.'" Discussing with Teray her former sexual relationship with another woman, she explains, "'When I meet a woman who attracts me, I prefer women…. And when I meet a man who attracts me, I prefer men.'" This is clearly not your typical romance heroine. This is certainly not your typical science-fiction heroine. Ironically, Patternmaster makes Amber out to be the perfect prize for two rival brothers. Instead, this "golden brown woman with hair that was a cap of small, tight black curls" turns out to be a model of independence and autonomy.

All ends well in Patternmaster. Teray and Amber, with their combined powers, defeat Coransee. And Teray, as the good son, will inherit the Pattern. But it is Amber who somehow stands out as having transcended this political war of wits. In a final exchange between Amber and Teray, she reminds him of how easily she can tip the scales of power. Teray's response is filled with respect, but tinged with fear: "Not for the first time, he realized what a really dangerous woman she could be. If he could not make her his wife, he would be wise to make her at least an ally."

All of Butler's heroines are dangerous women. Perhaps the most conspicuously dangerous is Mary who, in Mind of My Mind, has a tremendous potential for destruction. Perhaps the least conspicuously dangerous is Alanna who, in Survivor, exerts a subtle but radical influence on a foreign society which she and her parents have colonized. Mary and Alanna, both young black women, sport two very different types of feminism: Mary, a confused and disoriented child raised in the slums of twentieth-century Los Angeles, eventually becomes the leader of a mental empire; Alanna, an orphan in a futuristic Earth society, becomes a unifying force on a foreign planet inhabited by warring tribes. Mary must fight with and ultimately kill her father to achieve "freedom"; Alanna must reject the Christian beliefs of her parents to bring peace and respectability to her new culture. Mary is forced to marry a white man in order to establish and control her mental empire; Alanna chooses to marry the leader of a non-human tribe in order to survive and establish a home on a new planet. Whereas Mary learns to control and dominate, Alanna learns to compromise and survive. In these two women, we discover that the source of female strength can foster very different kinds of feminist power—and very different kinds of human response.

Mary's appeal derives from her brute force. Even as a child, she becomes conditioned to life in a sexist and violent world. The novel opens with threats of male aggression:

I was in my bedroom reading a novel when somebody came banging on the door really loud, like the police. I thought it was the police until I got up, looking out the window, and saw one of Rina's johns standing there. I wouldn't have bothered to answer, but the fool was kicking at the door like he wanted to break it in. I went to the kitchen and got one of our small cast-iron skillets—the size just big enough to hold two eggs. Then I went to the door. The stupid bastard was drunk.

This same young girl who almost kills one of her mother's "johns" will end up killing her father, a man who forced her to have sex with him and who tries to control her mental powers. Not surprisingly, Mary's opinion of men is filled with bitterness. When her father forces her to marry Karl Larkin, a white man, she can only smirk and reflect how much "Karl looked like one of the bright, ambitious, bookish white guys from high school." When she later questions Karl about their racial difference, her suspicions about his character prove correct: "'How do you feel about black people?'" she asks him, only to hear him reply, "'You've seen my cook.'"

Such racial differences call attention to other forms of enslavement in Mind of My Mind. When Doro, Mary's father, tries to explain the nature of "Mutes" to the old woman Emma, she snaps back: "'I know what you mean, Doro. I knew the first time I heard Mary use it. It means nigger!'" Unlike her father, however, Mary comes to sympathize with the people under her mental control. When she kills Doro, patriarchal domination becomes maternal caring. Having the potential for destructive power thrust upon her, Mary learns to control that power, to use it wisely and cautiously. She is Butler's study in brute feminist force.

Alanna's appeal derives from her steadfast character, from intense psychological control and determination. Unlike Mary, Alanna possesses no extraordinary mental abilities. She is Butler's study in the power of human endurance. Instead of combating violence with violence, Alanna accepts the social obstacles which a foreign society imposes on her. Her object is to learn to survive among these obstacles, to accommodate to a culture that is far from perfect.

The most potent of these obstacles is the addictive drug meklah, a drug so powerful that withdrawal from it almost always proves fatal. Forced into addiction, Alanna not only survives withdrawal but also survives as a prisoner taken by one of the warring tribes. Living among this "Tehkohn" group, she confronts and learns to deal with even more obstacles: She proves herself to be a strong huntress (a mark of distinction in Tehkohn culture) and a loyal follower of Tehkohn customs. Ultimately, she marries the leader of the tribe and has their child.

Marriage is often a feminist issue in Butler's novels. Amber in Patternmaster refuses marriage; Mary in Mind of My Mind is forced to marry. Alanna's marriage to a non-human creature ironically turns out to be the most successful and respectable of all these marriage situations. Her joining with the Tehkohn leader at once liberates her from the enslaving Christianity of her missionary parents and the enslavement of the meklah drug. Moreover, it offers her the promise of establishing a home with people she has come to respect and love. Perhaps the most bitter irony of the novel is that the Christian earthlings, who call their new home "Canaan," cannot accept the marriage of their daughter into a tribe that will offer them their only hope of peaceful existence.

The Christian religion is depicted as notably racist in Survivor. As a young, wild black girl, Alanna is adopted by white parents and grows up in a world in which her color is always suspect. On one occasion, a Missionary suggests that Alanna would surely "'be happier with her own kind'" since, after all, "'the girl isn't white.'" When Alanna later asks her mother about this incident, she learns "for the first time how important some Missionaries believed their own coloring to be." Color, in fact, turns out to be one of the major motifs in the novel. The Kohn creatures display a variety of colors as their moods and emotions change: They are gray in sobriety, white in amusement, bright yellow in anger. Their color also indicates hierarchical structure. Only a few of them, for instance, possess the blue, a sign of honor and power. Yet these colorful, non-human creatures show none of the racial bigotry associated with the Christian Missionaries. Ironically, Alanna's parents can laughingly dismiss the fear that their "black" daughter might mix with "whites," but are repulsed when that same daughter marries the honorable "blue" Tehkohn leader.

As a strong-minded black woman, Alanna submits to a surprising number of social restraints: first to the Christian Missionary code, then to the meklah drug, and finally to imprisonment by the Tehkohn tribe. But in her submission she discovers a source of strength. She learns, as Mary had learned, about herself—and about the different roles she has had to play in order to survive. We see in her an amazing capacity to compromise. Alanna's flexibility allows her to meander around some obstacles, and make other apparent obstacles into real avenues of liberation.

This ability to compromise and survive is what characterizes Butler's most fully-developed and intriguing heroine—Anyanwu in Wild Seed. Though all of Butler's protagonists are black, only Anyanwu is born in Africa. Both her African origin and her feminist determination give us every reason to think of her as the ancestress of Amber, Mary, Alanna, and the host of other prominent black women in Butler's fiction. Just as Wild Seed, by tracing the origins of Patternist society back to seventeenth-century Africa, provides a foundation for all four of the Patternist science-fiction novels, so does Anyanwu help to explain the yearning for independence and autonomy sought by Amber, Mary, and Alanna.

Before discussing Anyanwu as the character central to Butler's fiction, let me outline briefly the structure and plot of Wild Seed to show just how encompassing the novel is—in terms of both the time and space its characters inhabit.

The story spans two continents and nearly two centuries. Meeting in Africa in 1690, Anyanwu and Doro—female and male who have the potential to live forever—travel via slave ship to colonial New England. There Doro, a patriarchal dictator who aspires to breed a race of superhumans such as himself, exploits Anyanwu's abilities as a healer to propagate and maintain his small but growing empire. At first taken in by Doro's mystique, Anyanwu soon comes to realize that she is principally to serve as his breeder and slave. Forced to marry one of Doro's sons, she not only must partake in his animalistic breeding experiments, but must painfully endure their often tragic consequences. After her husband's death, she escapes from the New England colony. In 1840, Doro finds her on a plantation in Louisiana. There, in very real slave territory, Anyanwu has established her own free household only to have it invaded and controlled by Doro. After several of Anyanwu's children meet their deaths because of Doro's intrusion, Anyanwu decides that her only possible escape from his oppression is her own death. When she vows to commit suicide, however, Doro realizes how much the loss of Anyanwu would mean to him. Deprived of his only immortal compatriot, he would be doomed to face eternity alone. But more than that, he would lose the only effective humanizing force in his life. Their reconciliation at the end of the novel brings to a tenuous resolution over a hundred years of intense personal conflict. The ending of this novel, however, is actually the beginning of Butler's three previous novels, since in it we discover the origins of Patternist society.

We might best understand Anyanwu by appreciating the fundamental opposition between her and Doro. Both characters, for instance, are potentially immortal, but their means for achieving this immortality are strikingly different. Doro is a vampire-like figure who must continually kill people and assume their bodies in order to live. Anyanwu is a healer; instead of killing others, she rejuvenates herself. In this sense, she is the direct prototype of Amber in Patternmaster. Just as Teray, in that futuristic novel, could not possibly survive without Amber's healing abilities, so the superhuman Doro immediately recognizes in Anyanwu's talents a means to secure his superrace. For all Doro's control over his life and the lives of others, he is necessarily restricted in the physical forms he can assume. True, he may invade other bodies, but the constraints of those bodies are a given. Anyanwu's powers allow far more flexibility and agility: In changing the physical construct of her own body, she can transform herself into various kinds of creatures—both human and non-human. On the slave ship, for instance, when one of Doro's sons tries to rape her, Anyanwu fantastically transforms herself into a leopard and mauls her assailant to his violent death. She also possesses the ability to change from youth to old age back to youth. She may even change her sex, and on one particular occasion when she does so, Anyanwu once again becomes a prototype of Amber—this time by virtue of her androgyny.

The very physical characteristics of Anyanwu, then, highlight her distinguishing qualities. She is flexible and dexterous, compared to Doro's stiffness and dominance. She uses prowess rather than direct, confrontational power. She heals rather than kills, and kills only by assuming a different form and only when she or her children are assaulted. In Anyanwu, we find a woman who—despite her imprisonment by a patriarchal tyrant—learns to use her abilities to survive. In this sense, she is most obviously the prototype of another of Butler's heroines—Alanna in Survivor.

The marriage motif in Butler's novels, which I have commented on earlier, is also crystallized in Anyanwu—not only through her willingness to accept husbands forced upon her by Doro, but ultimately through her final reconciliation with Doro himself. Like both Amber and Mary, Anyanwu has a defiant attitude about marriage, and particularly like Mary in Mind of My Mind, she initially refuses to marry a white man whom Doro has chosen for her. Defiance, however, soon gives way to acceptance—and it is here, once again, that Anyanwu closely resembles Alanna, accepting the constraints of her world and trying to make something decent and productive out of the indecent situation in which she finds herself. Left on her own, without Doro's scheming intrusions, Anyanwu is able to produce and raise children possessed of both superior powers and tremendous human warmth. Her aim is to have children who may live with her, not die after a normal life span and leave her to her loneliness. Doro's paternal concerns revolve around his mechanical breeding experiments: He does not create children, but Frankenstein monsters. Anyanwu's maternity, however, is the main source of her being, the principal reason for her existence. As she explains, "'I could have husbands and wives and lovers into the next century and never have a child. Why should I have so many except that I want them and love them?'"

It is this kind of maternal generosity that will finally save Doro. Anyanwu, repulsed by Doro's inhumanity and his enslavement of the very superrace he has fathered, can all too easily kill herself. She can at least escape oppression through death. When Doro asks her why she has decided to die, Anyanwu explains her dilemma: "'It's the only way I can leave you…. Everything is temporary but you and me. You are all I have, perhaps all I would ever have.' She shook her head slowly. 'And you are an obscenity.'"

It is tempting to think that Doro pleads for Anyanwu to live not out of selfishness but out of love. We want to believe that, confronted with the possibility of her death, he comes to understand the most important aspect of life—human companionship. Perhaps this is so. Perhaps, however, Anyanwu decides to live not because she is suddenly convinced of Doro's humanity but because she at least sees some hope for a more humane future with him. If Anyanwu lives, she at least has the chance to save their children from Doro's oppression and save the two of them from eternal loneliness. It is the promise of human companionship that finally touches her. When Anyanwu chooses life, in spite of all the horrors which her relationship with Doro has produced and may still continue to produce, she is acting out of generosity both for their children and for him. Her decision reflects the courage and generosity that is in all of Butler's heroines.

Anyanwu is the great African ancestress. She encompasses and epitomizes defiance, acceptance, compromise, determination, and courage. Her personal goal is freedom, but given the obstacles that constantly prevent her from achieving that goal, she learns to make advancements through concessions. By finding her way through that great obstacle course, she is able to bring her best qualities—healing and loving—to a world that would otherwise be intolerable.

Butler's heroines, as I have been trying to show, can tell us much about her science fiction precisely because they are the very core of that fiction. These novels are about survival and power, about black women who must face tremendous societal constraints. We might very well expect them to be rebellious. We might expect them to reverse the typical male science-fiction stereotype and replace male tyranny with female tyranny. This does not happen. Though Butler's heroines are dangerous and powerful women, their goal is not power. They are heroines not because they conquer the world, but because they conquer the very notion of tyranny.

They are, as well, portraits of a different kind of feminism. Amber has the chance to marry the great Patternmaster; instead, she prefers her independence. Mary can easily become an awesome tyrant; instead, she matures into a caring mother. And Alanna, who possesses no extraordinary Patternist powers, learns to survive through accommodation rather than conflict. That very willingness to accommodate and compromise is what allows Anyanwu to endure over a century of oppressive patriarchy. At the end of each novel, we somehow get the impression that the victory of these women, though far from attained, is somehow pending. White men control the war, while black women fight a very different battle.

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