Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Unexpected Stories, by Octavia E. Butler

Open Road Media, ISBN 9781497601376, June 2014

Octavia Butler was one of the leading lights of American science fiction until her early death in 2006, and one of the best-known African-American science fiction writers. The two stories in this book are early works, from the 1970s, and were previously unpublished.

One, 'Childfinder', was originally sold to Harlan Ellison for his much-anticipated, never-published anthology, The Last Dangerous Visions. It's very short, just a few pages, but reflects some of the themes Butler explored through much of her work: psi talents and the complexities of race relations. An organization of telepaths, mostly white, has formed for self-protection. Telepathy has not, unfortunately, led to universal love and happiness. On the contrary, they understand each other's resentments and hostilities all too well. Barbara, one of the few black women in the group, has broken with them, to recruit and train young black children whose talents are just beginning to manifest.

The longer story is 'A Necessary Being.' This one apparently made the rounds of various markets and never sold, for reasons that aren't apparent to me. It showcases Butler's ability to create believable alien beings, with their own biology, instincts, and culture. The Kohn people are organized by skin color into castes, with the important complication that skin color--ranging from yellow among the farmers and artisans, through green and blue for the hunters and the judges, with the deepest, purest blue marking the Hao, regarded as the wisest rulers and best fighters. A tribe without a Hao is considered deeply unfortunate and headed for rapid decline if they can't produce or find a Hao to rule them, enough so that the Hao are almost treated as luck pieces, and kidnapping is an acceptable way to get one. Tahneh, Hao of the Rohkohn, is a middle-aged woman who has not been able to produce an heir to succeed her. When a foreign Hao ventures into their territory with only a couple of companions, the Rohkohn are determined to solve their problem. Tahneh and Diut, the Tehkohn Hao,  have to be clever, flexible, and worthy of the Hao reputation for wisdom and good government to achieve a solution they can live with.

This are both early Octavia Butler, when she was still learning and growing and not yet at the height of her powers. That makes them, I think, even more impressive.

Highly recommended.

I bought this book.