Kindred and Wires

Following my earlier ambivalence toward Octavia Butler, and on the recommendation of ACE* editor Jason Lundberg, I finally got around to reading Kindred and basically, Jason is right, it was pretty much what I was looking for. It has that air of sparse factuality – the sense of being transparently a premise-based, “what if”-driven, story – that I strongly associate with USAmerican mid-20th-century science fiction; but it’s a lot more emotionally and politically sophisticated than I often think of that work being. The evolution of the relationships in it is superb – suspicion and distance growing so relentlessly and yet so convincingly casually. I will definitely be reading more.

I’ve also found myself dipping into and out of my collected Larkin over the last week or so and it has felt like stretching some lately seriously underused language muscles, in intense snatches on the bus or as I finish my morning cup of tea. In any case, it might interest ACE readers to know that in an earlier draft I prefaced chapter two, the 1987 sequence, with a few lines from ‘Wires’. I really felt my sapling novel needed a stake (or two, or a dozen) – it was more fiction than I’d strung together for about a decade, at the time, I think – and ‘Wires’ it was; though the supports came off in the final product.

by Philip Larkin

The widest prairies have electric fences,
For though old cattle know they must not stray
Young steers are always scenting purer water
Not here but anywhere. Beyond the wires

Leads them to blunder up against the wires
Whose muscle-shredding violence gives no quarter.
Young steers become old cattle from that day,
Electric limits to their widest senses.

* I’m going to start calling A Certain Exposure that on this blog, because, well, laziness and extra characters to type and having to refer to my own book a lot and that.

Bothered by Butler

I’ve been reading Octavia Butler. Some time ago I made it through Fledgling, which I found interesting but also troubling. It seemed to me a sanitised depiction of a fundamentally coercive set of relationships – a romanticised take on non-consensual dynamics of sex and control. I was told it was far from her best, however, so I’ve begun the Lilith’s Brood trilogy on strong recommendations, but it’s been if anything even more disturbing to see that these are longstanding Butlerian themes.

I’ve only sampled Dawn and a small amount of Adulthood Rites, so I may be off the mark. But even though we are invited to sympathise with the human resentment of the Oankali’s colonising project of enforced “trade”, it’s hard not to read the work as in the main vindicating the Oankali belief that they know what humans need better than we know ourselves. Stripping Lilith and the others of reproductive autonomy seems to be presented as unpleasant and unfortunate, while still ultimately in some greater sense necessary or wise. Though the books are compellingly written, I find this underlying ethos rather horrifying, and I’m slightly baffled by the strong feminist support Butler nevertheless seems to command. What am I missing?