Octavia Butler Has A Book Coming Out Posthumously But Should We Read It?

May 1, 2014  |  

There are only three people in this world, who I can honestly say I am a stan for: Michael Jackson, Erykah Badu and Octavia Butler.

Okay two of the three are no longer in this world however that’s how impactful their art was to me that I will drag a witch for disrespecting their ghostly greatness.

So imagine my surprise when I saw a report the other day in the Washington Post, announcing that a new Octavia Butler book is forthcoming.

Yes let me say that again: there will be a posthumous book from the greatest science fiction writer (notice I didn’t prefix that with black science fiction writers) of our time featuring two recently discovered and never published early stories. Now you can squeal like the nerd girl you really are.

More specifically:

Open Road Integrated Media, a digital publisher, announced Tuesday that “A Necessary Being” and “Childfinder”will be compiled in a single volume titled “Unexpected Stories” and will be released June 24. Walter Mosley, the best-selling crime writer, has contributed an introduction.

“’Unexpected Stories’ reveals the themes that would become Butler’s lexicon: the complicating mysteries we assign to power, race, and gender,” Mosley writes. “Reading these tales is like looking at a photograph of a child who you only knew as an adult. In her eyes you can see the woman that you came to know much later; a face, not yet fully formed, that contains the promise of something that is now a part of you; the welcomed surprise of recognition in innocent eyes.”

According to the Post, the two stories, which are said to date back to the early 1970s, were recently found by Butler’s literary agent among some of the prize winning author’s old papers, currently being housed in archive. The first story called A Necessary Being is described on the Open Road website as the tale of a young heroine of an endangered race, who one day meets another of her kind and must decide between imprisoning him or living the rest of her life alone. And in the second story, entitled Childfinder, which was commissioned for an anthology by Harlan Ellison but never published, tells the story of a telepathic woman, who mentors another young telepath that is in desperate need of controlling her powers.

Two science fiction stories with woman-leads? Count me in.

Seriously, no one quite mixes imaginative, time-traveling content with race, sexuality and gender issues quite like Butler. However, as excited as I am, there is also a part of me, who is hesitant about reading any unreleased material from an author, who has long since passed on and therefore, can’t offer her consent as to whether or not she wanted either project to see the light of day. Although Childfinder was supposed to be published in an anthology – so technically she did provide her consent to that – however what Butler felt about the publishing of the other novel remains unclear. For all we know, she could have hated the quality of the story, felt it uncomplete or disavowed some of its themes.

This, especially, is of importance considering that a just a couple of years ago, a digital copy of Butler’s Survivor, which was originally published in 1978 as part of the Patternist Series (and has not been reprinted since 1981), started making the rounds on the Internet. As my second favorite Butler series (the first being the Parables series), I quickly downloaded a copy. However a small moral dilemma erupted when word also began to circulate that Butler actually hated the novel and refused to allow it to be reprinted.

According to the website Tor, what she actually said of the book was:

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.

As someone, who only got down with Star Trek Generations (and that was because it was like a soap opera), I have to admit that the novel didn’t sound all that interesting. Likewise being such a dedicated fan of her work, I really did want to honor her wishes and skip the novel all together. But I have read just about every single Butler novel. And being in possession of a the only Butler novel I hadn’t read was just too much temptation for me. And despite my desire to stay loyal, I ripped through those pages like the hungry lioness on a gazelle.

Boy do I wish I hadn’t. It’s not that I didn’t like it but I definitely see where Butler was coming from. Simply put: it just was not her best work.

And that’s the thing about unreleased material is that most times, it is compiled of half-finished thoughts, reedited and mixed so that people and the estate can make money off of the posthumous notoriety. Nothing wrong with that. And sometimes it works, as in the case of Tupac Shakur, whose posthumous record releases have all landed pretty high (sometimes number one) on the Billboard top 100 charts and sold over 75 million albums worldwide. However, there is also the other time that Tupac physically showed up posthumous at Coachella in hologram form, which did nothing but cheapen his legacy.

I doubt that the publishers of unreleased material will be sending a hologram Butler on book tour any time soon – although I would kind of be down for that. And the purely selfish side of me really wants to read and own both of these stories. Plus bad Butler is way better than good-mostly anybody else any day.

So what folks think about the posthumous release of an artist’s materials? Good idea or just read the old stuff?

 

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