BUTLER, Octavia E(stelle)


BUTLER, Octavia E(stelle)
(1947-)
   US writer who began publishing sf with "Crossover" in Clarion (anth 1971) ed Robin Scott WILSON, but who made no impact on the sf field until the first appearance of tales in the Patternist series: Patternmaster (1976), Mind of my Mind (1977), Survivor (1978), WILD SEED (1980) and Clay's Ark (1984). The order of publication has little to do with internal chronology; indeed, the first volume published stands last in a sequence that runs from the late 17th century into the FAR FUTURE. WILD SEED, which begins in 1690, demonstrates the very considerable strength of OEB's imagination in being a prequel manifestly more interesting than much of the material it adumbrates. The setting is Africa. A 4000-year-old body-changer, Doro, who has been long engaged on a breeding programme designed to produce a race of superior humans with whom he can feel at home, selects for this purpose the "wild seed" shape-changer Anwanyu; their graphically ambivalent relationship is described in terms which potently evoke reflections on everything from family romance and SEX and FEMINISM to slavery itself (OEB is herself Black, and several of her novels directly and tellingly conflate this range of issues). Doro and his son both breed with Anwanyu, and found with her a sanctuary in New England and later in Louisiana where her MUTANT children can grow to adulthood. Mind of my Mind, set in contemporary California, focuses on the formal founding of the Patternist gestalt community, which begins to articulate itself into the hierarchical social organism of the final (though first-written) tale. Survivor takes place in a moderately distant future when Earth has become dominated by Patternists, whose hierarchies conflate family ties and a range of PSI POWERS into a complex whole. The novel depicts a conflict between star-travelling "mutes" - normal humans - and the ALIEN inhabitants of the planet to which, in a kind of missionary endeavour, they have been sent. Clay's Ark, set on Earth, depicts a conflict between those humans who have been transfigured by an extraterrestrial virus into intensely aggressive monsters and those, Patternist and mute, who have not been infected; an odour of plague invests the extraordinarily savage telling of this tale. In Patternmaster, Clayarks and Patternists continue what has become an age-long conflict, now brought to a head by a family dispute as to the proper inheritor of the role of Patternmaster: the one who wins will exercise paranormal control over the entire scene, making a Heaven or a Hell with his or her one voice. The strength of the Patternist books lies not in the sometimes routine premises laid down in the first published volume but in OEB's capacity to inhabit her venues with characters whose often anguished lives strike the reader as anything but frivolous.One singleton appeared while the larger series was being published, and did not fail to be similarly harrowing. In KINDRED (1979) a contemporary Black woman suffers a transition, by TIME TRAVEL, to the 19th-century South, where she becomes a slave: the nightmarishness of the concept alone is intensely educative in effect; the telling of the tale is just as effective. OEB has written few shorter stories, but those she has published are impressive. They include "Speech Sounds" (1983), which won a HUGO, "Bloodchild" (1984), which won both Hugo and NEBULA, and The Evening and the Morning and the Night (1987 Omni; 1991 chap).Her main work of the 1980s was contained in a second sequence, the Xenogenesis books: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1987) and Imago (1989), all three being assembled as Xenogenesis (omni 1989). Thematic likenesses with the previous series - once again the human race is subjected to an intense breeding programme - are evident, but prove of little importance, for the Xenogenesis books are very differently told. The human race has managed to almost entirely destroy itself and its planet, and only a few relics have survived in SUSPENDED ANIMATION aboard the great interstellar ship of the visiting three-sexed, exogamous, gene-trading Oankali, who reawake selected humans in order to breed with them. Much of the plot takes place on a rehabilitated segment of Earth, but the action there is arguably peripheral to the exposition of the central concept: the presentation of a convincingly alien species, and the marriage of that species to those humans who can abandon the territoriality/aggression knot which has proven to be a fatal evolutionary dead-end.OEB then wrote her second singleton, Parable of the Sower (1993), which is set in the early 21st century, at a period of systems collapse; the empath narrator escapes the collapsing enclave where she was raised, while simultaneously creating a humanist religion designed to focus humanity's attention on the stars. At times OEB tends to succumb to the exigencies of GENRE-SF plotting, but again and again, in both her main series and in her shorter work, clarity burns through.
   JC

Science Fiction and Fantasy Encyclopedia. . 2011.

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