Butler

I just completed my reading of the works of the science fiction writer Octavia Butler. I fell in love with her writing a couple years ago when I read her best-known novel, Kindred. Her writing is gripping and harrowing because she writes about heroes who are out of options. Rather than the plucky science fiction hero able to seize on an opportunity to escape the clutches of a fantastic peril, her stories tend to focus on heroes in the grip of a peril that is vast because it is so fantastic, heroes who simply must survive their predicament because the problems that have engulfed them are too enormous for something as pathetic as mere pluckiness to overcome. Thus, Butler’s fiction, even though it variously involves time travel, extraterrestrial aliens, and dystopian futures, feels touchingly and frighteningly closer at its heart to the predicaments of our own lives than even most of the realistic novels I have read.

As I say, I just finished making my way through her stuff. She passed away before I ever found her. Her final book was in 2005 and she died in 2006. After Kindred, I committed to a course of reading all her other works in order of publication, and doing so slowly. Rather than binge-reading, I wanted to let each book sit with me for a while, returning to Butler only when I was ready again.

But here is the thing: Not all of her books are good. At least, not in terms of this one reader’s response to them. Her short story collection is excellent. Either that collection or Kindred is probably her best book. The consecutive novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents (little related to the Bible stories of these names) are both excellent as well. But she also wrote books in which I found so little interest that I chose to set them aside unfinished. This point is on my mind, because my experience of her came to an end more quickly than I expected. Her final novel also failed to interest me, and also proved to be one I put aside.

No matter. I experienced the fullness of this writer’s gifts and this writer’s heart. I experienced these things through the fruit of her effort to use the former to express the latter. I was changed by Kindred and I am still changed. It does not concern me that other books, other attempts, did not change me the same way. My love for Butler’s genius that was fed by the works that nourished me is not in any way unfed by the works that did not.

A few points from this:

1. Our lives are not straight-line ramps of progressive becoming. Instead, who we are—the best of who we are—rises up and finds it fullness in moments and in seasons when the idea, opportunity, or dilemma offers the right context for this best self to attain its full extent. Rather than a straight-line ramp, our becoming knows many peaks.

2. We need not be driven to fear by the good fortune of our having succeeded. Success in any endeavor is a result of more than just our effort. The effort was there and it deserves praise, but anyone who has done something surprisingly great knows how important it was that this effort also somehow found the right soil and also the right environment and water to germinate into something beyond that effort’s aim. We need to joyfully keep on planting and it is no discredit if the next effort does not germinate the same way.

3. “What have you done for me lately” is not the relationship between artist and audience. If you are fortunate enough and talented enough to be able to express something out of your heart that can move and inspire other hearts, then this work will always be there. The manifested love will always be there, and nothing will change what love was able to express through your effort and choices. Recall that God is love (1 John 4:8) and God is timeless (John 8:58). Therefore, to be with him and even to be like him, pursue the way of love, and do not worry what pattern your work might happen to make in the course of your life in linear time.