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Vote: Should We Read Octavia Butler’s Survivor?

July 11th, 2011

Survivor Cover

So, Book Clubbers, I need to resolve a little problem that’s popped up.

Over the weekend, I read Survivor using the link that commenter FtrYBFMD provided.

On one hand, I can see why Butler hated the novel. Her novels are generally known for complicated morality – this one reads pretty clearly. There aren’t really good guys but there are clear bad guys, and it’s more in line with a lot of the other sci-fi I read. (As a matter of fact, it’s forcing me to reflect on how easily I accept the idea of colonizing other planets, lands, and worlds – and how easily authors accept human superiority, even when they question it.) Jo Walton, writing for Tor, provides some context for Butler’s distaste:

Survivor (1978) is part of the Pattern series, but has not been reprinted since 1981. Butler repudiated the novel and refused to allow it to be reprinted:

    When I was young, a lot of people wrote about going to another world and finding either little green men or little brown men, and they were always less in some way. They were a little sly, or a little like “the natives” in a very bad, old movie. And I thought, “No way. Apart from all these human beings populating the galaxy, this is really offensive garbage.” People ask me why I don’t like Survivor, my third novel. And it’s because it feels a little bit like that. Some humans go up to another world, and immediately begin mating with the aliens and having children with them. I think of it as my Star Trek novel.

All I can say is, she clearly watched a better grade of Star Trek than I ever did. I can understand her problem with the biology, but what she seems to be saying there is that Survivor is a dishonest novel. Well, I kind of like it. I’m sorry you can’t read it.

Oh, but we can. In addition to the link, Racialicious readers have emailed in and volunteered to scan their copies. So if we wanted to, we could. But there’s a couple ethical questions here.

First in my mind – respecting the wishes of Butler herself. Octavia Butler did not want this novel back in rotation. (And, aside from that, posting it in full violates copyright, which could get us in a whole kettle of mess if we officially endorse reading the pirated copy and her estate objects. Though, we could just ask her estate…)

Second, though, is the whole idea of why we are reading her in the first place. Survivor may be much more in line with sci-fi norms, but it also is stamped heavily with Butler’s complexities. Most compelling for me is how much Survivor is a story of a mixed race, transracial adoptee. Considering the community here, I think readers would have a lot of fun applying their own interpretation of Butler’s work with their own experiences, and how they think the novel symbolizes that type of environmental tension.

And this area is ripe for debate. Walton believed that a scene in the book where some of the human settlers ask Alanna’s foster family to allow her live with one of the black settler families was an act of racism – but I heavily disagree with her take. To me, it seemed like Butler was illustrating the futility of social norms. The black settlers didn’t really trust Alanna’s past (she was a feral child, raised outside of the settlement), but still felt obligated to offer her refuge from what they saw as racism in the settler community. There are other references to race mixing, and the idea that all the settlers were not in favor of it – and this is before we get to the Garkohn and the Tehkohn. So, yes, race is an issue, even in space. Because we’re still human.

So, think there is a lot of value in the conversation. If we do read it, I would probably have us read Survivor between Clay’s Arc and Patternmaster. But I want to know how we feel about it. If there’s enough folks who want to do it, I will write the Butler estate for permission and accept their decision. (Conversely, we could just hold a conversation for folks who want to read the book and find some way to obtain it. Some library systems have copies.) Or, we could respect her wishes and skip it.

Readers, the floor is yours.

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Categories: Octavia Butler, Octavia Butler Book Club, Racialicious Reads, survivor

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