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Through May and June this year I read and wrote for this blog about 13 books by Octavia E. Butler.

I first met Octavia E. Butler's books around 1980, and I had these 13 books by her on my shelves, including her last novel, Fledgling, waiting to be read for the first time. I was interested to see how memory matched rereading, how the books stand up to the lapse of time, whether the reasons I had bought, read and valued them stand up to the test of time. How did I fare? How does Butler fare?

Both of us fared very well. This was worth doing, for each book and individually, and for the whole. I read three books that I think deserve classic status, several more that are important and should be remembered, and none that failed my personal tests for a book worth reading now.

I remembered reading the five Patternist books in their time, but had very minimal memories of them. They are interesting as science fiction novels, and I suspect would stand well alongside their peers (alas for the time to reread some of her contemporaries as part of this exercise). As literature, however, I think I read a writer's apprentice works, and if they were the sum of her work I would not particularly recommend their rereading.

Kindred was the literary masterpiece that integrated her skills and subjects and allowed her to move on. Kindred remains powerful and astonishing to this day, and should be remembered and reread for a long time to come. But it is still a part work, incomplete, leaving Dana and Kevin with a new understanding of their past and present, but not showing a way into their future.

After Kindred, the Xenogenesis and Parable books are about building futures in the wreck of the present. They stand individually as both science fiction and as literature, with Parable of the Sower as the best of them. But as series both are incomplete, and I speculate for different reasons. I wonder if Xenogenesis is incomplete because to write the Oankali view would require Butler to write the alien, and she couldn't find a way to do that? And notwithstanding the ending of Parable of the Talents, I wonder if the Parable series is incomplete because, knowing what she knew about humanity, Butler had lost faith in the future and perhaps also in her own ability to write it?

After Parable of the Talents we waited seven years for Fledgling, which was her final novel. In Fledgling Butler again integrates her previous work into something new. She writes both the alien and a hopeful vision for the future. And she puts both on trial. And concludes with the judgement that both can go forward even if they must do so on the basis of a flawed and violent present. I think this is another classic to match Kindred on the shelves.

I wish that Butler had lived to give us the books she would have written next. A writer this good who had found a hopeful future and a way to write about it would have been a prize worth having.

I am glad Butler lived to give us the books she did, and I'm glad that she is remembered.


Note: ISFDB identifies 14 books: 12 novels, and 2 collections written from 1971 and published up to 2014. One of the collections - Unexpected Stories - was published in 2014 as an ebook. It is not available in the UK and I haven't been able to get hold of a copy. It has Childfinder, the story she originally sold to but never published by Harlan Ellison for Last Dangerous Visions, alongside another story, A Necessary Being. I read the first (1995) edition of the other collection, Bloodchild and Other Stories, which has two editions, with two additional stories from 2003 in the 2005 later edition that I haven't read.

Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
eledonecirrhosa
12th Jul, 2016 14:40 (UTC)
Thanks for your individual reviews and this summary. It's been interesting hearing how your views have and/or haven't changed since first reading Butler's work.

Do you have a feel for how the themes in her writing might have progressed if she hadn't passed away?

I've never read the 'Parable' books - must add them to the enormous To Read pile.
coth
12th Jul, 2016 15:28 (UTC)
She might have written more books from alien viewpoints.

She might have done more about trying to write the sensorium. She always used touch, but Fledgling picked up scent, so there is an obvious opportunity to do something with taste, hearing or sight.

Most the books we have were set around the cusp of change, so she might have tried to go further into the development of the future that followed the change.

All guesses though.
coth
12th Jul, 2016 15:29 (UTC)
And if you meant progressed as a writer, that's harder to see. By the end she was really very good indeed.
dorispossum
12th Jul, 2016 16:06 (UTC)
Thank you for these reviews, which have reminded me how much I like Butler's writing. She's on my reread list (once I make more progress on my first read pile!).
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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Caroline M

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