Review: Unexpected Stories

Unexpected Stories (Octavia Butler; Open Road Integrated Media) is a slight but revealing work; a novelette and a short story, one set in an alien ecology among photophore-skinned not-quite humans, another set in a near future barely distinguishable from her own time. The second piece (Childfinder) was originally intended for publication in Harlan Ellison’s never-completed New Wave anthology The Last Dangerous Visions; this is its first appearance.

These stories do not show Butler at her best. They are fairly transparent allegories about race and revenge of the kind that causes writers to be much caressed by the people who like political message fiction more than science fiction. The first, A Necessary Being almost manages to rise above its allegorical content into being interesting SF; the second, Childfinder, is merely angry and trite.

The only real attraction here is the worldbuilding in A Necessary Being; Butler explores the possible social consequences of humanoids having genetic lines that differ dramatically in physical capabilities, mindset, and ability to express varying colors in the photophores that cover their skins. But having laid out the premise and some consequences, Butler never really gets to any moment of conceptual breakthrough; the resolution of the plot could have gone down the same way in any human tribal society with charismatic leaders. The counterfactual/SF premise is effectively discarded a half-step before it should have paid off in some kind of transformative insight that changes the condition of the world.

This illustrates one of the ways in which allegorical or political preoccupations can damage SF writers. A Necessary Being fails as SF because Butler was distracted by her allegorical agenda and forgot what she owed the reader. This is a particular shame because the story displays imagination and an ability to write.

Childfinder is not merely flawed, it is an actively nasty revenge fantasy. There’s very little here other than a thin attempt at justification for a black woman psychically crippling white children who might otherwise have become telepaths. The framing story is rudimentary and poorly written. It would probably be better for Butler’s reputation if this one had remained in the trunk.

23 thoughts on “Review: Unexpected Stories

  1. Butler pretty much wrote about nothing but race. But she usually did it well, and had useful things to say about it. And the medium of SF allowed her to write about race without using the examples of black and white humans, and the historical baggage that comes with those particular races. It allowed her to write about races that actually have significant differences between them. I see a lot of her work as holding up a mirror to people who pride themselves as “anti-racists”. It’s easy to be anti-racist when dealing with races that are almost identical. Butler’s work makes them confront significant racial differences, and examine whether their ideology still holds.

  2. I have taken flak over Olivia Butler. My wife is black, and we have teenaged granddaughters I am busily corrupting with things like math, computers, science fiction. You know, stuff like that. And there aren’t a whole lot of black female SF writers out there, so it was natural for wife Debbie and me to send some of Ms. Butler’s works to the g-kids.

    Horrors! These books have SEX in them. And they’re for ADULTS! So the teachers at the middle school and high school in Baltimore were alarmed. They were alarmed by Heinlein books, too, although Podkayne of Mars has got to be the best book in the world to give a teenage girl, right?

    So, I chuckled, “Now that the teachers have told the girls these books are dreck, they’ll eat them up, heh heh heh.” And so they did. I have ruined 3 teenaged girls — who are now no longer living in the city of Baltimore (whew!) but in a pleasant, mixed-race suburb. And the whole family is coming to FL next week, which is where g-ma and I live. We’re going to have a great time — and I have new books for them, including lots of ebooks for their tablets.

  3. @Milhouse:
    > Butler pretty much wrote about nothing but race.

    Well, sometimes about gender / sex instead of race like in “Bloodchild” (which I have read in one of Don Wollheim Presents anthologies).

  4. @Milhouse:
    > Butler pretty much wrote about nothing but race.

    Terry Pratchett also writes about race in most of his books. That did not bother anyone AFAIK.

  5. >Terry Pratchett also writes about race in most of his books. That did not bother anyone AFAIK.

    Right. That’s because Pratchett, when he writes about “race” isn’t angry, or grinding an axe.

  6. @esr
    “Right. That’s because Pratchett, when he writes about “race” isn’t angry, or grinding an axe.”

    I am not completely sure what “grinding an ax” really means, but Pratchett really does make fun of racism a lot (and gender discrimination). Just as Rowling is directly attacking fascism in the Harry Potter books. The way they do it is unparalleled, I agree.

  7. >I am not completely sure what “grinding an ax” really means

    It’s an English idiom suggesting aggressive hostility. Someone who is grinding his axe can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. Pratchett is wiser than this.

  8. @esr
    “It’s an English idiom suggesting aggressive hostility. Someone who is grinding his axe can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject. Pratchett is wiser than this.”

    Certainly, he is.

    Thanks.

  9. And just to continue the lesson, “having an axe to grind” means one is aggressively hostile about a particular subject. I suspect, from this review, that Butler has an axe to grind about race.

  10. Grinding of axes —
    In my world — rural pacific northwest —
    Someone with an ax to grind is someone with an issue that they are going to force upon the group or opponent. They are not going to drop it until the matter has been settled in some way.

    The term is pretty neutral about the merits of the ax — it may be a worthwhile important ax, or a petty ax, only important in the ax grinders mind. The strong implication of the term is that it is important to the ax grinder and he will insist on making others aware of this.

    There is also no implicit assumption that the ax grinder will pursue the issue beyond making others truly aware of his concerns — although in many cases the grinder will go well beyond that level.

    Jim
    Jim

  11. pTerry, on that one, is as usual, poking fun at the whole concept. As a rough quote, “Why worry about black vs white when you can both gang up on green.”

    Jim

  12. “An axe to grind” means a significant personal concern separate from the general purpose of the discourse.

    An author writing “message fiction”, for instance. Or a church elder bringing a singer into the choir to demonstrate some lkind of inclusiveness.

  13. How does “chip on one’s shoulder” differ in meaning from “axe to grind” and in what context is that phrase more appropriate?

  14. Someone with a chip on his shoulder is just looking for a fight in general, and doesn’t care what it’s about. An axe-grinder has a specific issue.

  15. >>Someone with a chip on his shoulder is just looking for a fight in general, and doesn’t care what it’s about. An axe-grinder has a specific issue.

    I would go as far as to say that for the ax grinder, the fight is not the goal — the issue is. A good ax grinder will be quite willing to forego the fight if the issue is dealt with to his satisfaction.

  16. Eric, on a completely off-topic meta note, would you see about increasing the number of entries in the comments RSS feed? With several threads in active conversation, it’s difficult to just come back after sleeping and figure out what’s being discussed.

  17. @Ian Argent:

    I, on the east side of the Atlantic, understand it, but have a knack for understanding unfamilliar language, so it may just be a US thing.

    Also, what’s up with the ax/axe spelling variation?

  18. >Also, what’s up with the ax/axe spelling variation?

    Regional. “Ax” is more common the U.S., “axe” in Great Britain, but both forms co-occur.

    (My spelling habits are slightly Britishized due to having lived there as a child.)

  19. Well, sometimes about gender / sex instead of race like in “Bloodchild” (which I have read in one of Don Wollheim Presents anthologies).

    It’s been about 30 years since I last read it, but my recollection is that that one’s about race too.

    Terry Pratchett also writes about race in most of his books. That did not bother anyone AFAIK.

    Pratchett’s work isn’t about race. Race comes into it here and there, but it’s not the theme of his work, as it is with Butler (or so it seems to me). But why do you think this bothers anyone? Race is a valid and interesting subject for writing, and in my opinion Butler did it well. This collection may be an exception. There may be a reason they weren’t published in her lifetime. Some of Heinlein’s posthumously published works were also inferior.

    Right. That’s because Pratchett, when he writes about “race” isn’t angry, or grinding an axe.

    I’ve never thought of Butler as particularly angry either. Or axe-grinding. She had something to say, like any author.

    Pratchett really does make fun of racism a lot (and gender discrimination). Just as Rowling is directly attacking fascism

    Butler certainly doesn’t make fun of racism, not does she really attack it. I’d say her work is not about racism at all, it’s about race.

    I suspect, from this review, that Butler has an axe to grind about race.

    I suggest that you read some of her work for yourself and make up your own mind. I also agree more with Jim Hurlburt’s definition of axe-grinding; it doesn’t imply hostility, just a private agenda. In fact I’d say that “she has an axe to grind” is an exact synonym for “she has an agenda”. There’s nothing wrong with that.

    pTerry, on that one, is as usual, poking fun at the whole concept. As a rough quote, “Why worry about black vs white when you can both gang up on green.”

    Ah, but that’s precisely what Butler wants to discuss. What does it mean to be black, white, green, or any other colour, how do we decide who is what, or what we are, and in what ways does it matter? As I said above, the understanding I got from her work was that she specifically didn’t want to write about white and black humans, because any mention of those two races necessarily drags in a whole lot of baggage that’s specific to them rather than to the subject of race itself. And she wanted to write about race, not about American history, or about the specifics of any particular races that exist among humans. SF allowed her to escape that trap.

    I’d say the overall theme of her work is to ask 1) “what do we mean by the human race?”, and 2) “why do we care what we mean by it? why is it important to define it?” She was constantly creating characters who are neither definitely human nor definitely not, and making the reader decide what to think of them. And the differences were important, unlike the differences between white and black humans, which it’s too easy to ignore because they’re so trivial. She makes the reader confront his own preconceptions, especially if he thinks of himself as “anti-racist”. She asks, are you only anti-racist because whites and blacks are essentially the same? What if they weren’t, would you then embrace racism?

    I haven’t read this specific collection, so I can’t say how well she achieved this aim in them, but I recommend reading more of her stuff.

  20. @ESR

    Can I make a feature request? I find your blog a great source of SF book recommendations, but it’s a pain to trawl through the history of the blog to find what I’m looking for.

    Would you ever consider making a page that collects links to all your reviews in one place? Possibly with some way of easily distinguishing the books you liked from those you didn’t?

    My other favourite source of reviews is John Walker (of Autodesk fame), and he has a special section of his site (http://www.fourmilab.ch/documents/reading_list/) dedicated to his book reviews (although he doesn’t really provide ratings, which would be useful).

    Tom

  21. >Can I make a feature request? I find your blog a great source of SF book recommendations, but it’s a pain to trawl through the history of the blog to find what I’m looking for.

    Click on the Reviews tag. That should do it.

  22. >Click on the Reviews tag. That should do it.

    That’s helpful, but it still lacks the sort-by-rating facility. However, I do appreciate that this would require quite a bit of work.

    Thanks.

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