The world lost author Octavia E. Butler too soon in February 2006. My favorite author, I was just beginning to discover her thanks to my African-American literature class in grad school. Butler was only 58 and had many more years left to share her vision of afrofuturism, race, power and gender with her readers around the globe. Winner of both the Nebula and Hugo awards, as well as the MacArthur Grant, many of her books were housed in the sci-fi section of bookstores and libraries, not in the African-American section, which definitely extended her popularity across gender and color lines. While her themes of class, being the Other, and racial/gender discrimination were prominent in all of her books, she never preached. Butler entertained with strong, memorable characters and situations, rendering her books page-turners and best-sellers.
Now eight years after her death, Butler fans have been gifted with two previously unpublished short stories in the collection, Unexpected Stories, penned before her fame. These stories both have strong female protagonists who must weigh a decisive a turning point. She had submitted the first story, a novella, “A Necessary Being” a few times, but then shelved it, while the shorter story, “Childfinder” was sold to Harlan Ellison’s anthology, Last Dangerous Visions, but it was never published.
“A Necessary Being,” moves right into world-building without any reader confusion. One of the main characters, Tahneh, is having dinner in her apartment with her chief judge, who is also an ex-lover. Tahneh is a powerful being, called a Hao, who is a different species than the rest of her desert tribespeople. She glows blue and is said to bring peace and order to a community—the trouble is that her people need a successor and she is barren. Haos come into the communities they rule by force and then after they are physically handicapped to prevent escape—this is what happened to her father.
In one of the oldest plot points around, a stranger comes to town in the form of a young Hao, hailing from the mountain region. Diut (we get a great backstory on Diut for all of you Patternist series fans) is traveling with two high-born companions to run away from a choice he must make to ensure his people’s survival. He doesn’t want the war his people want and believes that his people won’t listen to his unpopular decision. Tahneh is thrilled to meet someone of her own kind again and hopes that he can be the successor of her people, which must involve pain and sacrifice. The two form a romantic union, she teaches him to believe in his power and leadership, while he shows her his capacity for compassion and trust, amidst a backdrop of her people wanting to maim him so he can belong to their tribe.
“A Necessary Being” could have used some editing to pick up the pacing—Butler went into far too much detail about how the Haos, judges and chiefs flashed their different colors and the fight scenes at the end lacked a clear direction. I liked her point of view choice of getting into both Diut’s and Tahneh’s heads in third person, rather than going omniscient or first person. Her ending felt justified and not rushed.
In the much shorter story, “Childfinder,” we enter in medias res a modern world where Barbara the Childfinder is living in the black projects, escaping the Organization. The Organization uses telepathic people for their own ends and had employed Barbara to recruit the kids. I loved the description of one of her mentees, named Valerie. “Ten years old, dirty, filthy, even at this hour of the morning. Which meant she had probably gone to bed that way. Her mother worked at night and her older sister knew better than to try to make her do anything she didn’t want to do. Like bathe.” Conflict ensues between the Organization and the kids who do great work getting Barbara out of a jam. She knows she has to keep going, no matter the obstacles. This story ends far too soon and I wish Butler could have written at least another five pages.
These two stories are examples of Butler’s early work; she even noted herself that she preferred writing novels over short stories. While they have their flaws, they are undeniably glistening with Octavia E. Butler’s soul. I’m so glad she was a pack rat, so perhaps even more of her old stories can be found.
If you haven’t read any Octavia Butler yet, do yourself a favor and pick up her two most popular books, Kindred (1979) and Parable of the Sower (1993)—you’ll be wanting more soon enough.
Click this link to Order the 82-page ebook, Unexpected Stories by Octavia E. Butler