Octavia E. Butler | Critical Review by Jim Miller

This literature criticism consists of approximately 4 pages of analysis & critique of Octavia E. Butler.
This section contains 1,172 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Jim Miller

Critical Review by Jim Miller

SOURCE: "The Technology Fix," in American Book Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, February/March, 1996, p. 28.

Miller is the author of the short story collection, Las Vegas Everywhere. In the following review, he asserts that Butler is "not just a good science-fiction writer, but also one of the most interesting and innovative political writers around today."

At a recent speaking engagement in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Octavia Butler told the story of how she was hassled by the police in L.A. for trying to pay for her groceries with a hundred dollar bill her mother had given her for Christmas. The money was hers, but she was black with no I.D. and that was all that was needed to make the store manager and the police suspicious enough to confiscate the money. She followed the cops to the station and waited to get the hundred dollars back, but paid a price in pain and humiliation. This was a story about power and perseverance as are most of the fictions in Bloodchild and Other Stories, Butler's most recent collection of award-winning tales. Whether she is dealing with the role of medical science, biological determinism, the politics of disease, or the complex interrelations of race, class, and gender, Butler's dystopian imagination challenges us to think the worst in complex ways while simultaneously planting utopian seeds of hope.

The title story, "Bloodchild," interrogates the paradoxes of patriarchy by thrusting us into a world where "Terrans" live on "preserves" provided for them by the "Tlic government." The Terrans are human-like creatures who must serve as "hosts" for the "eggs" of the disturbingly inhuman Tlic creatures. When the male Terran narrator must serve as a host, we are treated to a defamiliarizing view of "sexual" relations that raises interesting questions about how natural or inevitable our present, "human" gender relations are. The presentation of the "preserves" in the story also begs the question of whether or not even the most benign-seeming protectionist social policies are ever completely innocent. Running underneath these themes is a horror of the blood and guts reality of human existence.

"The Evening and the Morning and the Night" investigates the role genetics plays in making us who we are. It posits unsettling questions about biological determinism, Social Darwinism, and the status of medical science in an inescapably political world. The horrible "Duryea-Gode disease" is the side-effect of a wonder drug that cures cancer, and a figure for the double-edged sword of the technology fix. Those who suffer from it are held in "concentration-camp rest homes and hospital wards," kept open by "greed and indifference." The cure is foreseeable, but progress is slow. One cannot help but think of our current problems with AIDS while reading this complex and disturbing story.

In "Near of Kin," Butler's only non-science fiction story, she gives us a sympathetic portrayal of incest. The story deals with family tensions and issues of love, power, and responsibility, but, despite the startling theme, it lacks the imagination and vitality of the other pieces in the volume. In principle, the idea is interesting, but the tale is told with a flatness that fails to deliver any impact. The cunning, defamiliarizing strategies of the other stories work far more effectively.

"Speech Sounds" is the finest story in the volume. Like Butler's brilliant novel, Parable of the Sower, this fiction thrusts us into a post-apocalyptic L.A. where "There was no more LAPD, no more any large organization, governmental or private. There were neighborhood patrols and armed individuals. That was all." Most of the people in this world have fallen victim to "an illness" which may be the result of global conflict, "a new virus, a new pollutant, radiation, divine retribution" or something else. The "illness" takes away speech or reading skills, making for profound difficulties in communication that result in frequent conflicts and acts of random violence. Unlike most of the worlds brought to us by cyberpunk, this world is unplugged. The technology fix has failed and people are left to learn new, more human ways of surviving. The narrator, an exuniversity professor who has lost the ability to read, negotiates the mean, Social Darwinist streets, finds and loses a lover, and ends up adopting two small children against her own best interests, because the children need a "teacher and protector." This is what makes Butler's work stand out. She does not, as many others do, play with the idea of cool new technologically sophisticated toys or revel in the dystopian world she creates. There is a utopian seed of hope in her often dark vision, a lesson on compassion and the value of regarding the other as part of one's greater self.

The final story in the volume, "Crossover," is a good explication of the psychological costs of shitwork, an investigation of what causes people to lose it. In this case, the female narrator has to deal with the stress and drudgery of work as well as the scars of an abusive relationship and the hard life of the street. All of this pushes her too far and she crosses over into the bizarre, dark corners of her imagination. Butler's portrayal is sympathetic without being sentimental; it is both emotionally compelling and intelligent.

Two essays, "Furor Scribendi" and "Positive Obsession," comprise the rest of Bloodchild and Other Stories. Of these two, only one, "Positive Obsession," should have been included. "Furor Scribendi" is a list of suggestions for beginning writers which might be interesting to some, but doesn't go much past a Creative Writing 101 lecture. This essay and the afterwords which follow each story struck me as filler, and the small commentaries might bother readers who prefer not to be given a packaged meaning after each story. On the other hand, those interested in Butler's work do get some interesting tidbits of information about the inspiration for each story. "Positive Obsession" is a far stronger essay that conveys how Butler's background and past experiences speak to her writing. Here she discusses personal fears, work issues, and race among other things. Perhaps the most interesting part of the essay is her response to the question of what good is science fiction to black people:

What good is science fiction's thinking about the present, the future, and the past? What good is its tendency to warn or to consider alternative ways of thinking and doing? What good is its examination of the possible effects of science and technology, or social organization and political direction? At its best, science fiction stimulates imagination and creativity. It gets readers off the beaten track, off the narrow footpath of what "everyone" is saying, doing, thinking—whoever "everyone" happens to be this year.

Octavia Butler's work is science fiction at its best. The fictions in Bloodchild and Other Stories get us off the beaten track and encourage us to think differently about the way we live, the way we treat ourselves and each other. This makes Octavia Butler not just a good science-fiction writer, but also one of the most interesting and innovative political writers around today.

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This section contains 1,172 words
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Jim Miller
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