by Octavia Butler (2005)
I needed this book right now. After a run of short stories, some better than others, followed by an unfortunate encounter with a string of frustratingly poor genre writing (to protect the guilty no names will be named), I didn’t even know how much I needed a good, compelling, competently-written novel. Octavia Butler to the rescue with, of all things, a vampire courtroom drama. Yes, you read that correctly: I was saved from my reading doldrums by a vampire courtroom drama.
Anne Rice, eat your heart out, because while you did something a little different and a lot enchanting with Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat, THIS is how you re-imagine a genre. This right here. (And a special note to Ms. Rice: you also have to refrain from then running your franchise into the ground.)
I devoured this book (this review might have a lot of unintentional vampire puns, but so be it). Devoured. Sucked it dry in less than two days. Or, to switch sides, it hooked me and left me craving more, like I’m now one of Butler’s symbionts. The boldness, the humanity, the utter originality. I love Octavia Butler. I feel like I’ve been griping for months about wanting to find bold female writing. From now on I need to save some Octavia for those occasions, because she brings the boldness no doubt.
This is my third Butler novel, the Parable series being the other two (see my reviews here and here), and there are definitely some patterns at play in all three books. Young, black, female protagonist learning a new world, deeply humanistic themes with an emphasis on community, the evolution of species, the use of technology to aid said evolution, etc. This is all stuff that is deeply resonant with me, even if I’m much more suspicious of technology than Butler appeared to be.
There are also some problems that seem to characterize Ms. Butler´s writing: bad dialogue and issues with pacing and tension. To put it bluntly, it doesn’t seem like she knows how real people talk. Lots of smart writers have this problem, and without trying to armchair psychologize too much, it usually seems due to the writer being socially awkward themselves. The pacing/tension issues I have less explanation for. But this book didn’t really feel like it had a climax, and despite being captivating throughout it really felt like a great first half or first 2/3 of a novel. It sounds funny to call it a courtroom drama but that’s really all it turned out to be, “A Few Good Men” with vampires. I wanted more, for example at least a 10-15 year follow-up in epilogue form. Perhaps plans for future exploits were interrupted by Butler’s unfortunately untimely death? It feels that way.
But yeah, that stuff is really small potatoes compared to what she achieved here, creating a mythology of vampirism that feels at once like the most realistic and intuitive mythology you’ve ever encountered, in addition to the kindest (toward both vampires and humans). The idea of symbionts is fascinating and introduces all of these strange and quite subversive ideas of communal love and polygamy. Did I mention that Butler was bold as shit? Hell, she opens the book with the statutory rape of her protagonist, which only seems marginally less creepy when the explanation comes a few chapters later.
Butler offers a strange mix of audacity and incredible warmth and compassion. While she pushes the boundaries with her premises and never shies from depictions of the uncomfortably grotesque, her faith and optimism in the human spirit permeates all of her work.
At this point I feel like I want to read everything Butler ever wrote. She’s got world-building chops on par with any of the best, but the humanism she brings to the table, the unwavering empathy, sets her apart from most others. My one real ideological gripe is her apparent conviction that something like genetic modification could be an evolutionary stepping stone — I think playing God is a terrible idea for many different reasons — but I can look past that given the startling vision she realizes with her unique and enchanting stories. Highly recommended.