I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Unexpected Stories by Octavia Butler
Published: 2014 by Open Road Integrated Media
Genres: Science Fiction
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Octavia Butler (1947-2006) is one of my all-time favorite authors. She uses the platform of speculative fiction to deeply explore themes of race and gender, dominance and submission, and the use and abuse of power. She sheds light on the dark side of human nature and shows how exploitation can become entrenched within a people’s way of life.
Unexpected Stories contains two previously unpublished short stories that were never released during Octavia Butler’s lifetime. As usual, I am blown away by her stories and can’t stop thinking about them.
A Necessary Being
The novella A Necessary Being takes place in a tribal society on an alien world. We never know the exact nature of the characters we meet, but we do know that social status is largely dependent upon skin color. Blue pigmentation is extremely rare, and a blue person (called a Hao) occupies the highest status within any given city. Having a Hao boosts the entire city’s status, and because people put such great emphasis on having a Hao, it is common to kidnap one from another city, forcibly crippling the captured Hao to prevent them from returning to their birthplace.
Tahneh is the Hao of her city. Her father was the Hao before her, and she’s still bitter about the fact that he was crippled and forced to rule. Tahneh has had difficulty conceiving, and it’s become obvious to the people that she won’t be able to produce an heir. One day, warriors spot a young Hao exploring the jungle outside the ruins. Tahneh is lonely because she’s the only one of her kind in her city, and she immediately drawn to Diut. She wants to spare him her father’s fate, but doing so would mean compromising the needs of the people whom she governs, and so she’s caught in an ethical conundrum. Do the needs of many outweigh the needs of one person? Is violently subduing Diut morally acceptable? How can Tahneh serve both her people and her conscience?
I loved this story so much. The Hao’s role within the social hierarchy was fascinating, and shows that power isn’t absolute and can be both a blessing and a curse. Because the Hao are so rare and so revered, they become pawns in an ecosystem that’s much bigger than themselves. I felt drawn into the world that Octavia Butler created, and I regret that I can’t learn even more about it.
In Childminder, humans with psi abilities have formed an organization. Rather than using their powers for good, the organization is rigid, exclusive, and largely white. When a woman named Barbara starts recruiting young black children in slums who have psi abilities, the organization pushes back. Barbara begins to train her prodigies in secret until one day the organization comes to put an end to her work.
Childminder takes a very pessimistic view of what can happen when people use privilege to promote values of conformity and exclusivity rather than using that power to break down previously existing social barriers. When psi powers began to emerge, people had thought that it would lower the barriers between race, gender, and class because people from all walks of life would be able to understand each other in a way that was never possible before. However, instead of building empathy, people used their power to reinforce those barriers and to eliminate anyone who saw the world differently.