Sunday, October 21, 2007

Trifecta of Neat Stuff Part III: Evening Reading

I first read "Amnesty" last week. It was the last new piece of Octavia Butler's that I will ever read. I think I was unconsciously saving it as a kind of treat. I've been reading her novels since I was six or seven, and her short stories since I first got my hands on her short story collection.

This story was published in SciFiction after the edition I own of her short story collection was printed. I'd put it on the syllabus for the class I'm teaching because, this year, I've decided to teach only fiction that's available online. I had previously read the other story of Octavia's which is online, and it's all right, but I wanted something that would hit the gut. I'd heard descriptions of "Amnesty" and knew it would fit the bill, which it does.

Octavia was probably the world's first professional, black female science fiction writer. She wrote about race and biology. Many of her stories seem to ask whether human beings are redeemable. A common theme that appeared in her writing was the way that the bigotry and violence in human nature skew all our loving relationships, so the great loves in her stories tend to be things that seem off-kilter -- for instance, in her story "Bloodchild," the two lovers are a scorpion-like alien and the enslaved human child whom the alien has chosen as ahost for her eggs. Octavia wanted to write about a loving male pregnancy, she wrote, adding that the story was supposed to be about love and not slavery. For many in her audience, it's the latter that comes through, which demonstrates the ways in which love and slavery distort each other.

Octavia Butler's humans often find redemption only after being destroyed. Yet the agents of that destruction (often external and biological: aliens, alien viruses, alien alterations to human physiology) are never simple; they are not pure, but nor are they villainous. Sometimes they are morally ambiguous, and sometimes they're amorally mindless. Usually, the worst evil comes from inside humanity. Here's an excerpt,

Noah shook her head. "The only difference between the way they treated me and the way the aliens treated me during the early years of my captivity was that the so-called human beings knew when they were hurting me. They questioned me day and night, threatened me, drugged me, all in an effort to get me to give them information I didn't have. They'd keep me awake for days on end, keep me awake until I couldn't think, couldn't tell what was real and what wasn't. They couldn't get at the aliens, but they had me. When they weren't questioning me, they kept me locked up, alone, isolated from everyone but them."

..."It mattered more than I know how to tell you that this time my tormentors were my own people. They were human. They spoke my language. They knew all that I knew about pain and humiliation and fear and despair. They knew what they were doing to me, and yet it never occurred to them not to do it."

I found the story moving -- and of course, I am deeply saddened by the fact that I'll never again have a chance to read a new stoiry that evolved from Octavia's singular, amazing view of the world. If you can still read this story for the first time, I envy you. Read here.

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