The Re-Re-Rewriter: Octavia E. Butler and the MAYBE Book
JANUARY 13, 2018
I REMEMBER sitting shell-shocked in front of my computer when I read about Octavia Butler’s sudden death in February 2006 at the young age of 58. I watched emails fly back and forth on a feminist SF listserv registering the aftershocks her death set off in the community. Butler had already significantly changed the SF world, and many of us were eagerly awaiting her next novel, wondering where she might take us. (I also harbored a fantasy of meeting Butler someday.)
Gerry Canavan’s Octavia E. Butler — a recent entry in the University of Illinois Press’s Modern Masters of Science Fiction series — fills in some of the gaps left by the author’s too early death. Canavan was one of the first scholars to access the letters, journals, unpublished fiction, notes, and other writings Butler bequeathed to the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. His resulting book walks us through Butler’s life and writings chronologically. While acknowledging the significant number of articles and book chapters on Butler, Canavan tells us that his project differs from previous academic scholarship because he proposes to “consider Butler’s work in its entirety […] seeking to trace her career biocritically and holistically, primarily through references to the Huntington archive.” The book is organized around Butler’s writing output, with each chapter focusing on her major works — both published and unpublished — as well as on contemporaneous events in her life. For example, Chapter One begins with Butler’s birth and ends in 1971 with her first short story sales, while Chapter Two covers the years 1971 to 1976, when the early novels in her Patternist series appeared.
In many ways, I am the ideal reader for Canavan’s book. Like Canavan, I am a scholar who has long been captivated by Butler’s fiction. Another Butler fan recently related to me his unscientific — but anecdotally supported — theory that whatever Butler novel fans read first becomes their favorite. There is something transformative, he claimed, about that initial Butler experience. My first — and also favorite — Butler novel is Wild Seed (1980), which I picked up in 1994 while working on my doctoral dissertation. In my journal, I wrote about “my first Octavia Butler,” which “was like nothing else I had ever read” and a story that “I wanted to continue and continue.”
Canavan’s favorite is Dawn (1987), the first novel in the trilogy Lilith’s Brood (1987–’89) — though actually the second Butler novel he read. He writes that, after he “devoured Dawn (and then Adulthood Rites, and then Imago) over a single weekend,” he “set about tracking down […] every other novel Butler had published”; he also affirms multiple times that he “genuinely love[s]” this series. I must assume that Canavan, like me, has been taught that such professions of personal devotion have no place in academic scholarship. In any case, his clear passion for Butler’s writings and his excitement about the new insights the archive material at the Huntington affords is infectious.
Such insights begin in the introduction, even before Canavan delves into specific novels or stories. I knew about Butler’s frustration with the writer’s block that plagued her in her last years, but what I didn’t know until I read this book was that Butler was an obsessive rewriter her whole life — or, as Canavan states, “a re-re-rewriter, almost to the point of compulsion.” She “sought endlessly to write what she called YES-BOOKS” — volumes she thought would be universally loved best sellers. Canavan’s exploration of the archive shows “that Butler typically edited her writing […] to make it more optimistic” so that it would appeal to readers. Butler’s notes, however, reveal that she felt her fiction “always seemed to collapse into NO-BOOKS” — ones that she or her publishers determined were too grim for the public to embrace. Canavan shows us evidence of many unpublished NO stories, including almost complete novels, alternative and abandoned versions of her published works, and false starts at the third Parable book and the sequel to Fledgling (2005).
Butler’s inability to write a YES book, I believe, is why her fiction had such profound effects on SF. I agree heartily with Canavan’s contention that Butler “made science fiction messy” by forcing the genre to acknowledge “blackness, womanhood, poverty, disability, and queerness.” This messiness kept her — thankfully for us — from writing those best-selling, but probably less compelling and memorable, YES-BOOKS. Canavan calls Butler’s published works her “MAYBE books” — stories that contain an ambiguous hope some have failed to see.
For example, he shows how Butler resisted suggestions from the editor of her first published novel, Patternmaster (1976), to include a more optimistic view of a non-Patternist future, “pointing out multiple instances [in the story] where society was more egalitarian and the females stronger than the editor recognized.” Canavan explains that Butler certainly grasped that the Patternist world, in which psychic talent and not race, gender, or wealth determines power and status; it was no utopia, but for a black woman living in 1970s California, it was “an attractive fantasy.”
Butler’s struggle between the YES and NO versions of her stories also helps us to better understand her 1978 novel Survivor, which she castigated as her “Star Trek” novel. Canavan sets up the unpublished manuscript “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” (which bears little if any similarity to the story eventually published under that title in 1987) as “an interesting counterpoint” to Survivor, arguing convincingly for a reconsideration and reprint of the published novel — something Butler actively blocked during her lifetime because she came to view the book’s basic assumption that two alien species could interbreed as “embarrassingly scientifically naïve.”
In both stories, the “untelepathic” humans leave Earth to escape the powerful, telepathic Patternists, who are unable to do so. In Survivor, the title character, a mixed-race human woman, mates with one of the natives of the alien planet, ensuring one version of survival. In the initial “Evening” story, in which four women and one man crash land on a hostile planet, one of the characters becomes pregnant, but what “should be a token of hope […] is instead a disturbing reminder of the radical hopelessness of their predicament.” In some versions of the story, the fetus is stillborn, “horribly misshapen, seemingly mutated by radiation that is either ambient on the planet or already in their own cells.” In other drafts, the point-of-view character realizes that their so-called Mission is simply meant to “delude ‘fools’ into thinking they had a chance to survive.” In all versions, the characters lose any hope of survival. Canavan tells us that, in her archived notes, Butler claims the story is “saying ‘Watch us die’” — which she concedes makes it a clear NO story. Read against the unrelenting bleakness of this tale, we can see how that “naïve” hopeful birth made its way into Survivor.
Canavan’s book also helps us better understand Butler’s struggle to find her place as an African-American feminist SF author whose writing was often disparaged as being too black or not black enough. Canavan notes that Butler often recounted how Kindred (1979), her most widely read book, was inspired by a comment from a fellow black student who condemned his own parents for their complicity in holding black people back for so long. The published novel seems to be a clear response to what Butler saw as this student’s failure to understand how his parents’ actions ensured his own existence. Kindred tells the story of Dana, an African-American woman from the 1970s, who is repeatedly drawn back in time to a slave plantation where she is compelled to save the life of a white slave owner who happens to be her ancestor. Dana’s actions and her own complicity in slavery demonstrate how far she has to go to ensure her personal survival, while highlighting the complicated nature and importance of survival in such circumstances.
Canavan’s reading of the longest alternative version of Kindred in the archive, entitled Canaan, highlights the conflicts Butler encountered in creating this “clear” response. Canaan involves the Dana character being drawn back in time by the psi power of a slave girl, Barbara, who is Dana’s female ancestor. In this version, Barbara (who becomes Alice in the published novel) returns to the future with Dana and her husband “to be raised as their child.” Butler, Canavan explains, was quite attached to this ending in which Dana saves the slave girl and “sought for ways it could possibly be true despite the interior logic of the story depending on the idea of Barbara as Dana’s ancestor.” Ultimately, Butler abandoned the ending as unworkable; instead of not being hopeful enough, Canavan suggests that this version failed because of “its refusal of the bad past as the ‘necessary’ crucible for African American life in the present.” Butler’s stymied desire, represented by Canaan, shows us her own difficulty in accepting her ancestors’ survival tactics, even as she pushed for a painful acknowledgment of them.
Canavan also provides us with close readings of unpublished, sometimes almost complete novels — such as Blindsight, written in the early 1980s, about a blind man with a “compensatory psychometric power” who becomes a cult leader, or Paraclete, written in 2008, about a woman who can make anything she writes down come true. I treasure the multiple scenarios and false starts Canavan catalogs for the never-completed third Parable book, Parable of the Trickster, and I will be forever grateful to him for sharing the epigraph Butler chose for that story: “There’s nothing new/ under the sun,/ but there are new suns.” Like Canavan, I mourn Butler’s thwarted attempts to write this book — one that was supposed to take humanity away to a new hope, a new future. I find myself wondering what possibilities the Obama presidency might have opened up in Butler’s mind, though more recent events seem to bear out her abiding pessimism about the United States and humanity as a whole.
This book is not one for the casual Butler reader. If you’re not already conversant with her oeuvre, Canavan’s tendency to jump around within the Butler-verse could make your head spin. Readers who have read at least a couple of Butler’s novels, however, will appreciate the richness of Canavan’s interpretations of Butler’s work and its relationship to her life. Readers interested in Afrofuturism will learn not only how her fiction tells relevant stories but also how her efforts to edit a never-published anthology — which she insisted had to contain “stories by and about black people, as people, people whose existence in a common future would not be incidental or tokenistic or intended as evidence for some larger, grandiose notion of human process” — presaged later successful anthologies from Sheree R. Thomas, Nalo Hopkinson, and others. Those interested in the writer’s psyche will be fascinated by the glimpses we get here of Butler’s motivational writing tactics, her inner frustrations, and the way her stories and characters took hold of her.
For hardcore academics, this book may not engage sufficiently with previous criticism or literary theory. For most readers, however, that is a plus. In fact, I find that the book goes slightly off track whenever Canavan presents analysis you might find in a more typical academic piece — such as when he brings in Fredric Jameson’s theory of “world reduction” to talk about utopia or draws more heavily on previous Butler scholarship than he usually does.
Canavan ends his book with a call for more explorations of the Huntington archive, seeing his efforts as “the very beginning of a long second renaissance in Butler scholarship.” He also hopes for more publications of Butler’s lost stories, essays, and sequels. For those of us who cannot make the journey to the archive, Octavia E. Butler serves as a more-than-adequate substitute and entry into this treasure trove of Butler’s writings. I thank Canavan for bringing this material to light; in my view, he achieved the goal he set for himself at the outset: “as best as I can, to let Butler speak and argue for herself, in a manner […] she would have understood if not always approved.”