The Stories I Didn’t Know I Wanted To Read

I’ve got a good three posts half-written for you, blog, but I just wanted to chime in on this wonderful piece by Aliette de Bodard, and add a couple of thoughts of my own.

Unlike Aliette, I fit right in to the dominant culture represented in SF when I began reading it. Other than the rabbits of Watership Down, the heroes of the stories I read mostly looked like me, talked like me, had my gender and ethnicity, and I never really questioned that. Aragorn, Hari Seldon, Ender Wiggin, Rand al’Thor, Valentine Michael Smith… they were easy to identify with, not only because they were white men, but because they dominated. They were concerned with the system. When the system broke down, the story was about how they fixed it, or made it better. Where the system was intrinsically broken, they discovered the source of the problem to build a better system. Their antics inspired me, and gave me ridiculous confidence in myself and the idea of a working system. Of course! Not many young, Mormon, cisgendered white man lacks for successful role models.

It wasn’t until I started writing that I came across Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. I discovered the book because Orson Scott Card’s How To Write Science Fiction & Fantasy used it as a prime example of a well-written SF book, but as much as Card lauded it, he still couldn’t quite capture the reason why Wild Seed blew my mind.

The main characters in Wild Seed are both of African extraction, Anyanwu in West Africa (not specified), Doro upper Nile, (although Doro, who jumps from body to body, can inhabit anyone).

I read it in one day and I knew I just read one of the best fantasy/sci-fi novels ever written, if not the best. Wild Seed was different from my other books, but not just because it starred black characters–because everything was different. The other books I had read seemed to imply there was some basic fairness in the system. Nothing was fair in Wild Seed. Doro was determined to survive not just by being vicious and killing at random, but because, in this world of slavery and codified violence, ruthlessness was intrinsic to survival. Anyanwu argued for a better way, by killing only when necessary. The peace they brokered was a fragile, brittle thing that depended on their mutual need for each other outlasting their moral incompatibility.

I read everything by Butler that year. She quickly replaced Card and Jordan as my favorite writer. She was far bleaker, but far, far more satisfying.

She didn’t give easy answers. Or any answers at all, sometimes.

Here’s the thing about reading Butler: I do not believe a white man could have written Wild Seed. Speaking for my cultural demographic, white men are ingrained with the idea that faith in the system rewards itself, that alternative means of survivance are too bleak to consider and hope is a constant. And yet, in the years to come as I became more and more disillusioned with hope in the system, I found hope in the rugged, sparse nature of Butler’s novels. In Earthseed, the religion that marks Parable of the Sower, (a novel that seems as informed by urban Black experience as Wild Seed was by the generational trauma of slavery) one doesn’t hope for a fixed system. One has a stark, almost unreasoning belief in the potential of the human species. But that belief is a distinct choice, not a value.

I believe that the current kerfluffles within SF are really about the strength of the system. The strength of tradition, and the inherent flaws that are carried over in the preservation of tradition, are set against the growing realization that the system hasn’t worked. There is no better literature than the literature of imagination for working that question out. Butler has been gone for ten years, and her best novels are twenty-five, thirty years old. Hell, The Wire is ten years old, and that’s a series written primarily by a white man for a mostly black cast about the broken system. (I know it’s not SF, but it has better worldbuilding than most SF.) The Hunger Games skirts on Butler territory.  The wonderful NK Jemisin uses Butler’s themes, but in lyrically written fantasy instead of starkly written SF.

So if you know a young, white male writer, take it from me: the best thing you can do is buy that fella a copy of Wild Seed.