Book Review

Portals Between Worlds: Recent Sci-Fi and Fantasy and Vintage Octavia Butler

In early February I saw that Kazuo Ishiguro had a new novel about A.I. companions due out in March. All I had to see was “Ishiguro” and “A.I.,” and I knew I wanted to read it—my favorite novels lately are genre novels written with literary flair. Give me sci-fi, fantasy, thrillers, crime lit, but only if they’re written by, say, Kate Atkinson, David Mitchell, Rivers Solomon, George Saunders, Tana French, or . . . Ishiguro. I jonesed for that latest novel, and the admiring preview I’d seen assured me that advance copies had already been printed. Like a squirrel scheming to disgorge sunflower seeds from a bird feeder other squirrels have given up on, I figured I would be clever enough to get a copy of Klara and the Sun weeks before the mere mortals waiting for the official pub date. To that end, I proposed writing a sci-fi/fantasy fiction chronicle for this journal and put Klara atop my list of desired books.

Not long after, the assistant editor of The Hudson Review and I discovered that getting actual, physical copies of forthcoming books was not the breeze it used to be. Publishers discovered during the pandemic that reviewers could and would read digital galleys. When most non-essential businesses shut down—including the places that print books—there wasn’t any other choice. Now the world is back, but publishers have learned it saves money and time not to ship hard copies to non-paying customers who might, or might not, review them. Thus, the presses whose books I wanted had titles available to reviewers on NetGalley, or they offered to send pdf galleys to my inbox. With prodding most of them eventually sent an actual book, but at least one place stated they no longer sent hard copies for free to reviewers. Luckily, the magazine bought me a copy in that case.

The thing is, I hate reading on a device. I want to hold a book in my hand, I want to smell it, I want to write on it, I want to scratch my nose with its sharp corners. In the end, I only reviewed the books that arrived as hard copies. Everything worked out except my cunning plan to get the Ishiguro ahead of publication. Not only did I not receive a copy before readers who had to buy it themselves, mine didn’t arrive—after a couple of requests—until over a week after publication! However, while waiting for it, I read the titles that had come and discovered new writers whose novels looked interesting enough for me to ask for copies, and whose publishers were gracious enough to mail them promptly. We were still in the pandemic’s penumbra when I read the first of those, and it pulled me back into the dark time of sickness.

Christina Sweeney-Baird began writing The End of Men in 2018 and then experienced the shock of real life catching up to her fiction in 2020.[1] In fact, the science behind the development of Covid-19 vaccines informs the last section of her novel about a worldwide plague. The End of Men describes the effects on society of a lethal virus that only infects men, killing nine out of every ten of its victims. Set a few years from now, this is obviously an alternative history, since no one in the novel references the coronavirus pandemic. However, the emotions of the characters going through it resemble the ones many of us have experienced since March 2020.

A variety of voices tells this story, from journalists to doctors, to incels who think women have cooked up a plot to kill most men and yet still refuse to have sex with some of the ones who remain! My favorite two characters are Amanda, the Glaswegian doctor who treated “Patient Zero” and eventually discovers what caused the virus, and Lisa, the arrogant Canadian scientist who perfects the vaccine and figures out how to make a fortune selling it. The compassion of the doctor juxtaposed with the ruthless capitalism of the scientist mark two ends of a spectrum whose colors we lived with throughout 2020 and into 2021, though perceptive hindsight still remains elusive for many of us. Amanda hammers home something the rest of us heard but mostly didn’t register during our own plague.

Healthy people get so wrapped up in their grief for their husbands and families and friends that they forget that millions of people across the world were already sick before the Plague, and that their illnesses didn’t magically cure themselves once the Plague started. Emergencies like sepsis, meningitis, appendicitis, pneumonia and kidney infections don’t stop just because the world is in crisis. I wish I could say to all the old women in Glasgow, “Would you stop fucking falling, the lot of you, I only have two orthopedic doctors left in this entire hospital.” Alas, I can’t. Even in the midst of a crisis, I have a better bedside manner than that.

Lisa, the hard-driving scientist, intent on both selling the vaccine she perfected and winning the Nobel Prize for its creation, succeeds at the first and nearly achieves the second. The call comes from Sweden, and Lisa tells her wife, Margot, “So, bad news is I’m sharing the Nobel Prize. Good news is, it’ll probably take me down a peg or two” . . .

Margot nuzzles her head into my neck in a way I’ve always found to be the most comforting thing in the world. “You know I thought this might happen. Sharing the prize.”

Ah, Margot. Always knowing more than she lets on. “Why?”

“Because,” she says, pulling back and looking me square in the eye, “my maddening, wonderful, arrogant, amazing wife, they deserve it too. They didn’t create a vaccine but they helped you. They made stepping-stones you walked over on the way to the ultimate prize.”

“You know how I always said I didn’t understand your instinct for fairness?” She nods, smiling softly. “Well, I still don’t.” She barks out a laugh and we are happy.

Lisa is a breathtaking narcissist, but she’s also brilliant, and the love of a good woman redeems her for this reader. I’m also grateful that the author made her a Canadian rather than the obvious choice for a self-centered capitalist.

Although The End of Men held my interest, I’d grown tired of pandemics. By then I’d gotten both my shots of Pfizer, and the world was beginning to open its doors again. The Ishiguro novel hadn’t come yet, but some good-looking hard sci-fi titles had. I took up Stephen Leigh’s Amid the Crowd of Stars because its title reminded me of the first poet I ever really read.[2] In my teens I devoured William Butler Yeats’s verses by the meter, stumbling only when I picked up his prose, the mystical and maddeningly opaque meditation on spiritualism, A Vision. (If there’s anyone who understands what that was all about, please explain it to me.) Though Leigh doesn’t write as well as Yeats, he is good at what fantasy/sci-fi practitioners call “world building”—creating an imaginary place that feels completely believable to readers. The world Leigh builds isn’t Yeatsian, but it does owe a lot to Ireland. Many of the protagonists of Amid the Crowd of Stars are the descendants of Irish space colonists, abandoned on the planet Canis Lupus when a massive meteor strike devastates Earth.

Marooned, with no way to repair their technology, many from the original colony died of diseases spawned by local bacteria and viruses. Long years later, a ship from Earth has finally come to see what might be done with or for the colony. Ichiko, the ship’s scientist, has been assigned the task of learning “all she could of these people, undoubtedly changed from their long exposure to their world.” Ichiko wonders “if these descendants were now more Homo lupus than Homo sapiens. . . .” To meet them, Ichiko must wear a bio-suit, and she takes advice from the AMI (“artificial mind implant”) in her head. This idea of mind implants—Google even closer than our fingertips, and with more personality—seems to be a popular theme in contemporary science fiction. Several of the novels I examined explored the concept in different ways. After all, speculating on the possible consequences of technology pretty much defines science fiction as a genre. Brain implants in the real world are already being used to treat epilepsy, with mixed results and murky ethics (even The New Yorker had a spring article about those implants by Christine Kenneally), and Leigh uses fiction to take the concept much, much further. Ichiko’s implant, which should simply be giving her facts to help her on her mission, has begun to offer more advice. Nor does it always shut down when she tells it to.

Reader, can you say “sentient” AI? Another theme well covered in sci-fi, and certainly in this novel. Where Yeats comes in is with the colony, whose citizens are Irish to the core, and they’ve simply developed in their own way after being marooned on Canis Lupus for a few hundred years. (One would think their language would have changed more—sounds like yesterday in Dublin to me—but that’s a quibble). Early on, Ichiko meets the teenager who will soon be the second most important character in the novel.

“My name’s Saoirse, of Clan Mullin.”

<That makes her the daughter of the Banríon Iona Mullin,> AMI commented. Ichiko started at the unexpected commentary . . . so AMI hadn’t disconnected as it should have. Ignore it for now, have it fixed later.

Saoirse and her clan are shanty Irish compared to the lace-curtain townsfolk. The Mullins live out on the island of Great Inish (Yeatsy name), part of an archipelago off the mainland, and they suffer from a fungal infection called “plotch.” The Mainlanders mock their rashy skins and bumpkin manners, though they need the fish the Inishfolk catch, and the Inish need supplies that can only be bought in town.

Ichiko learns that the Inish community resembles a kibbutz (“‘Everyone raises the bairns,’ Saoirse told her”), and the islanders are devoted to large, multi-limbed sea creatures known as “arracht.” Just as humans no longer hunt whales in our world, the Inish have enforced a ban on hunting the arracht in their waters, and they’ve enforced the law on Mainlanders. The Inish almost seem to worship the arracht, and Ichiko wants to know why. Saoirse is her best source, but she’s also a lonely lesbian on a remote island whose leaders, like her mother, urge every young man and woman to couple up and bear children. Not surprisingly, Saoirse crushes on the exotic Ichiko, and fantasizes, like many on Canis Lupus, of returning to Earth. Ichiko feels guilty because she knows the colonists will probably never get that opportunity, but she has to dangle it as a possibility in order to get their assistance with her research. Ichiko and Saoirse engage the reader and seem like real people, but many other characters exist only to serve the plot by explaining things the reader needs to know. Leigh has certainly built a world, and his ideas are strong, but he doesn’t ascend to a Yeatsian level of literary skill.

When I picked up the next book, I realized how much the science fiction I love needs both: great characters and prose, but also a believable plot. The first attributes are the hallmarks of literary fiction, the second a requirement of genre fiction. Aliya Whiteley delivered the prose and characters in Skyward Inn, but her plot went rogue about two-thirds of the way through the novel.[3] The ending actually uses an idea that appears in Crowd of Stars, but in a creepier way. I won’t tell what it is, because what didn’t work for me in this novel might be someone else’s favorite moment. Actually, more than one idea reappeared from book to book, and it’s because a few concepts seem to be givens in contemporary sci-fi: a fascination with high-tech space suits, brain implants, and the possibility of mind melds.

Skyward Inn’s Jem once had a job much like Ichiko’s. She served the Western Protectorate (Earth, basically) as an ethnographer and was sent to study a planet called Qita. There, she met a Qitan and fell in love. She brought Isley, the Qitan and a translator, back with her to run an inn (really the local pub of what looks very much like an English village) in the Western Protectorate, where people have chosen to live without advanced technology, though they certainly know about it and used it in the past. Early on we learn

Coach was the device implanted in my head by the Coalition, providing for all my information and entertainment needs—how did Coach already know about Qitan life, I wonder? Qitan workers on the base? I had Coach removed years ago, at the end of my contract, but it has left its ghosts. Sometimes I still ask a question to it, expecting an immediate answer to pop into my brain. Living that way can be addictive. I think maybe it’s why I hate questions so much now. My thoughts need to be my own. Mine, and in the wake of Jarrowbrew, as I talk to you of our past, yours.

Jarrowbrew is Qita’s chief export, and it’s what Isley makes and he and Jem serve at the Skyward Inn. This liquor clarifies and heightens memories and gets drinkers happily high. Imagine truth serum mixed with heroin.

Jem and Isley love each other, but there’s a problem. Isley isn’t interested in having sex with her. “He has always been very clear that there can be nothing physical between us, but I’ve imagined moments like this: the possibility of this. Finding a way to be compatible.” Jem sounds like a straight woman in love with a gay man. They’re best friends, but he just can’t give her the “more” she wants. For him, however, she gave up her son Fosse, choosing instead to live in the inn with Isley. Fosse, now a teenager, hates his mother for that and has been raised by his uncle Dominic, Jem’s brother and the head of their small community. Fosse seethes and whacks things with an ax he’s found at an abandoned farmhouse. In short, he’s the perfect portrait of a disgruntled teenager. His idyll at the farmhouse dissolves when three strangers—two women and a man—begin to squat in what he thinks of as his special place. No more masturbating naked in the barn for Fosse, no more taking an ax and giving thirty whacks to the nearby trees! Fosse’s feelings about the three encompass both anger and longing. The man is a threatening brute, but Fosse is drawn to the maternal qualities of one of the women. Then he sees them do something really weird, which they tell him is magic.

The three of them created a tight circle, their shoulders hunched, their eyes on their joined hands. . . . Wait—their hands were sinking, Cee’s hand melding into Annie’s, into Victoria’s, and their skin was no barrier as Cee pushed down. Their fingers merged and pushed out at odd angles. A shared ball of flesh was being created at the end of their arms.

Of course, you have to see where Whiteley will take this phenomenon, but don’t be sure you’ll like it. The ending disappointed me, but the prose and the characters were good enough that I know I’ll look for other of her books. She’s spunky and young and knows how to write.

In the genre of spunky, smart-ass sci-fi, Martha Wells has invented a Hugo and Nebula Award-winning series, The Murderbot Diaries. The protagonist is Murderbot, an AI who is really a piece of work. It’s used in murder investigations on planets where humans have established a base. No need for such humans to have brain implants when they have these canny robots filled with data. In the novel I read, Fugitive Telemetry, Murderbot investigates a dead body in a mall on Preservation Station, and its superior data base and reasoning quickly eclipse that of the local authorities.[4]

The full station threat assessment for murder was sitting at a baseline 7 percent. (To make it drop lower than that we’d have to be on an uninhabited planet.) (I’ve never been on a contract on an uninhabited planet because if I was on the planet on a contract then we’d be inhabiting it.) You never found dead humans lying around on the floor like this.

Murderbot doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and it has a wonderfully snarky voice, its overlapping thoughts contained in parentheses.

Murderbot recognizes that the greatest danger to a human is another human, and its primary concern is to protect its employer, Dr. Mensah. Soon enough I recognized that I was somewhere in the middle of a series of sci-fi crime novels, because obviously Murderbot is a refugee at the station where it’s acting as a security guard for Mensah. Murderbot hopes to get asylum (why?) but instead gets a contract from Pin-Lee, the chief bureaucrat overseeing the operations of Preservation Station.

Pin-Lee’s contract would make sure that they couldn’t make me do anything I didn’t want to do and I would get a hard currency card out of it. . . . Pin-Lee had promised, “Don’t worry, I’ll preserve your right to wander off like an asshole anytime you like.”). . . . (I said, “It takes one to know one.”). . . . (Mensah said, “People, please. . . .)

Murderbot is a wonderful character, a cantankerous robot forced to deal with stupid humans, only one of whom has earned its devotion. If I’d read the earlier novels, I think this one would have resonated more with me, but instead I was always trying to figure out the backstories of the main characters. Who is this rogue group, GrayCris, that they’re afraid of? Why are they here, on a space station they don’t really want to inhabit?

At least Murderbot describes itself pithily: “a construct made of cloned human tissue, augments, anxiety, depression, and unfocused rage, a killing machine for whichever humans rented me, until I made a mistake and got my brain destroyed by my governor module.” Murderbot loves musical theatre, which it watches as background streaming media while doing its other tasks. It’s a crabby misanthrope, but, as in the first novel I mentioned here, its devotion to a smart woman redeems it. Probably, I’ll go back to the first Murderbot Diary, because I like this character. A lot.

As for the much-lauded sci-fi title of the spring, Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary, I have only one word: Meh.[5] Well, okay, I’ll add a few more. This is an Earth-is-threatened-by-aliens novel (other popular Earth-is-threatened-by subjects include climate change and its attendant rising seas, as well as the more usual plagues, nuclear holocausts, etc.). In Project Hail Mary the aliens are plankton-like creatures feeding on the sun’s energy and blocking it from Earth; humans capture a clump to study and name them “Astrophage.” While studying them, they discover they have amazing energy—a tiny amount of Astrophage is enough to power a spacecraft to an outer galaxy. Our hero, a middle-school science teacher named Ryland Grace, has been sent on a one-way flight to that galaxy far, far away, to try to find the solution before Earth freezes and everyone dies.

The novel begins with an old trope (used to much better effect in an Octavia Butler novel I’ll discuss shortly) of someone waking up with no knowledge of who or where he or she is. Otherwise, all the character’s abilities and knowledge remain intact. Our protagonist uses his reasoning powers to figure out who he is. When he notices a ten-foot ladder leading to a hatch in the ceiling of the room where he’s awakened, he deduces, “I think in imperial units. That’s a clue. I’m probably an American. Or English. Or maybe Canadian. Canadians use feet and inches for short distances.” Our character also notices that he’s awakened in a bed with robot arms above it that have been feeding him and monitoring catheters and IVs in his body. Two other bodies are mummified in nearby beds: he survived a long coma and they didn’t. He climbs up the ladder and into a well-stocked lab. Our hero’s body is beautifully toned, and yet he’s weak. A few experiments with a stopwatch timing a test tube as he drops it to the ground confirm for him what the problem is: “Everything weighs one and a half times as much as it should.” If gravity is behaving oddly, there’s only one possible explanation: “I’m not on Earth.”

Flashbacks interspersed with his dawning awareness tell us the whole backstory of Astrophage’s assault on the sun and its subsequent effects on Earth, where a global collective figures out a long-shot chance to save the planet. For readers fond of math and chemistry experiments, and a main character who says “Darn” a lot, this novel will probably appeal. For me, it was a long slog. I didn’t read The Martian, but I liked the movie. Hail Mary, even with its alien encounters and suspenseful set-up—can one lone astronaut on a suicide mission find out how to stop the Astrophage from eating the sun and send that knowledge back to Earth before it freezes?—didn’t engage me. It felt more like a week-long trip to Epcot, something junior high kids might enjoy, while the adults simmer around like Murderbots.

Space epics were getting tiresome, so I turned to the one good fantasy novel in my batch, The Absolute Book, by the Kiwi author Elizabeth Knox.[6] One critic compared it to Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, another fat and magical novel I couldn’t put down, and the comparison works. Thirty-something Taryn Cornick is mourning her dead sister, killed by a motorist –willfully? accidentally?—while running on a road near their grandparents’ house. Taryn wants revenge on the killer, something that won’t be good for her soul, but she’s a secular modernist and hardly knows she has one until strange things begin to happen. Really, though, we learn that strange things have been happening to the Cornicks for years, starting with a big fire in her grandparents’ library that scarred her sister and burned a lot of books, but not “the Firestarter,” an ancient scroll box that contains a mysterious text.

Taryn grew up in New Zealand, relocated to London, earned a Ph.D., and turned her dissertation into a book on library fires. It’s a wildly popular book, but some of the people it’s attracted are weird indeed. Taryn feels herself starting to fall apart, and at her friend Carol’s wedding, she completely unravels and winds up in the hospital. “Taryn had only two further memories from Carol’s wedding day. In one she was standing at the mirror in the hotel bathroom—once more recalled to herself by the sight of her own face. She had her eyeliner in hand and had used it to draw a cat’s whiskers on her cheeks. The bathroom stank of accretions of fermented soap and rotted human skin.” The second memory from the wedding is even more disconcerting.

The last window of recollection opened onto the footpath outside the church, and the sight of the bridesmaids sitting on their heels to make adjustments to the drape of Carol’s dress. Taryn was frozen, icy cold, though sweat was pouring in rivulets under her silk slip. She felt as if she’d dropped something and, were she to stoop to retrieve it, things would pass over her head. Things like Edgar Allan Poe’s pendulum, the planes that flew into the Twin Towers, the howling Chelyabinsk meteor, and the angel of death. Stop and tie your shoe, Taryn, said a voice in her head. You have work to do, Taryn. Walk away. Taryn’s shoes were closed toe, open-waisted sandals with buckles, not laces, so the voice in her head couldn’t see what was on her feet.

This is an early snippet of a novel that just kept getting better and better. One of the people attracted to Taryn, a character who led her and her divorced husband on a high-end hunting expedition in Banff, and who is known to her as The Muleskinner, acquiesces to her unasked desire and kills her sister’s killer when he’s released from jail. He, too, wants something in return and begins to stalk her.

Meanwhile, Jacob Berger, a police detective, suspects she’s behind the death of the man who ran over her sister. His investigation pulls him to her, and through her, to the mystical places that have power over human lives, such as Princes Gate, the name of the estate where her grandparents live. Gates are portals to other worlds, and Princes Gate leads to the land of the Sidh, or fairies (thank you Mr. Yeats, for you dwelt among them too), and Knox’s wonderful (“world building”!) descriptions of their land and lives. Even Odin and his ravens make it into this book, not to mention a wonderful half-fairy being named Shift, who turns out to be one of the greatest characters I’ve met after a half century of steady reading.

The book is 626 pages long, and its inventiveness never stops. For me, Taryn and Shift’s trip to Purgatory to discover dead souls who can help them find “a cipher key to a language capable of commanding nature, a kind of absolute book, one they had dreamed up out of their different personal needs” is the most compelling section of the novel. Knox’s Purgatory is not unlike the after-death realm Sylvia Plath described in a story recently published in this magazine, “Mary Ventura and the Ninth Kingdom,” in that it involves a lot of old-timey train travel. It also features a big hospital where Taryn hopes to find her dead mother. She asks Shift why there’s a hospital in Purgatory, since everyone is dead. He answers, “They built a hospital because they think people who are sick might be healed. . . . They think themselves in need of healing. And that a hospital might attract healers.”

They spend hours on a ghost train, then in a rail station. People wait and wait, but “no one settled in on the platform and made themselves comfortable, as people normally would in the case of unreliable transport.” Passengers come and go, preoccupied, carrying sheaves of documents to explain their lives. “Many of them voiced complaints. But no one seemed to listen to anything anyone else had to say.” The souls know they must do something good for someone else to escape the sad country in which they’re trapped, but they also know that helping anyone else in Purgatory won’t help them. Taryn, who is only a visitor, sees what they cannot: “Purgatory wasn’t forever living with your mistakes; it was forever defending your decisions.”

This book blew me away, and I’m glad it did because none of the other fantasy titles I tried to read warranted a review. Elizabeth Knox is not only a fine writer, she’s an epic writer. I finished this doorstop of a book wanting to see what else her imagination has wrought from its heady mix of Milton, Tolkien, Plath, Norse sagas, and who knows what else.

Finally, Klara and the Sun arrived, and it did not disappoint.[7] Klara is a solar powered “artificial friend” who starts her life in a store on a busy street. She and a companion, Rosa, occasionally get to sit in the storefront window, where children and teens—the people for whom these AFs have been designed—can see them. It’s also the best place to see the sun, which is the source of their energy and, for Klara, the supreme being in their lives. But Klara is more curious than her companions.

I should confess here that for me, there’d always been another reason for wanting to be in the window which had nothing to do with the Sun’s nourishment or being chosen. Unlike most AFs, unlike Rosa, I’d always longed to see more of the outside—and to see it in all its detail. So once the grid went up, the realization that there was now only the glass between me and the sidewalk, that I was free to see, close up and whole, so many things I’d seen before only as corners and edges, made me so excited that for a moment I nearly forgot about the Sun and his kindness to us.

What’s fascinating about this novel is how Klara, newborn to the world, tries to make sense of it without access to anything besides her vision and her empathy. She decides that a road paving machine is the source of all pollution, and since sometimes its black smoke blocks out the sun, the sun must hate it too.

A sickly girl named Josie chooses her, against her mother’s objections, but Klara is hardwired to love and empathize with this child. Through Klara’s innocent observations, we see a world of isolated teens, some of whom—like Josie—have advantages that their rich parents can buy them, and others, like Josie’s childhood companion Rick, are doomed to a life “unlifted.” Ishiguro used the technique of an innocent observer viewing and not understanding cruel behavior to great effect in The Remains of the Day, and it works very well in this novel too.

Until Josie takes her home, Klara, like a primitive human, tries to understand her world as she has seen it through a glass (darkly when the Cootings Machine is in operation). Josie’s home in the countryside of England broadens her perspective somewhat, but she’s still looking through windows and misapprehending the perspective. She tries to get outside to see better, but even there she comes to the conclusion that “the Sun’s resting place really was inside the barn itself.” At any rate, that’s where she’s seen it go down, and the barn becomes the holy place where Klara will barter with God to spare the life of the girl she loves. Rick is the most compassionate human in the novel, but Klara exceeds him by far. She has no resentment about where her life winds up. Like the butler in Remains of the Day, having been of service to someone she adored is all that matters. I loved this novel, and it’s one I will buy for friends.

The last volume I read, however, was truly the best, and it’s several books in one: the Library of America edition devoted to Octavia Butler.[8] Butler died in 2006, but her fiction resonates now more than ever. Kindred, the story of a liberated black woman in 1970s Los Angeles who is forced to travel back in time to her white ancestor’s Maryland plantation whenever he is threatened, feels like it was written yesterday. Dana’s experience of slavery speaks to us now because she is forced to live it as a free, privileged woman. Her inability to fake subservience eventually gets her sent to the fields to chop down corn stalks. When she can’t wield her knife well, the overseer lashes her with his whip, first on the back and then across her breasts.

I fell to my knees and doubled over in a blaze of pain. Tears ran down my face. . . . Fowler was an animal. I glared up at him in pain and hatred.

“Get up!” he said.

I couldn’t. I didn’t think anything could make me get up just then—until I saw Fowler raising his whip again.

No one who knows anything about slavery, the Holocaust, or any of the innumerable ways humans have found to torture other humans should doubt that they’d buckle in the face of extreme pain. Sadly, we rarely celebrate the victims. The conquerors get all our attention and often all our admiration. If this era of “woke” culture bugs you, consider the alternative. The mindset of the unwoke was expressed very well thousands of years ago by Aristotle: “Any man who is a slave deserves to be one.” Do you really believe that?

Much as I enjoyed rereading Kindred, the novel in this edition that thrilled me to the core—why didn’t I read this in 2005? how did I miss it?—is Fledgling. This is, hands down, the best vampire novel I’ve ever read. Nor am I alone in this assessment. One of my heroes, Junot Díaz, claimed it as his “book of the year.” Our heroine, named “Renée” by Wright, the man who finds her on the side of the road, resembles Weir’s astronaut in that she wakes up in a place she doesn’t recognize and has no idea who she is. She’s also wounded, in tremendous pain, and ravenous. No high-tech robot arms where she awakens; she’s in a cave, alone in the dark. Certain people draw her attention, and they are invariably also drawn to her. She discovers with Wright that blood is her nourishment, and taking from him only binds him to her more.

But one lover and food source can’t sustain a hungry bloodsucker. Like an ecologist, Renée recognizes the need to diversify what she eats. Rather than overharvest (and kill) a single food source, she seeks variety in her diet. After Wright, she climbs in the bedroom window of an older woman sleeping alone. When she first bites her, the woman struggles, but then she leans into her predator. “I fed slowly, licking rather than sucking. I wasn’t hungry. Perhaps tomorrow I would come back and take a full meal from her. . . . After awhile I whispered to her, ‘Is it good?’. . . She moaned—a satisfied little sound.” These bi-suxual encounters continue throughout the book, and we soon learn that Renée’s food sources are as essential to her as she is to them. Men and women, of different races and ages, become her “symbionts.” Fledgling develops a compelling portrait of a polyamorous society that works.

The narrators of Butler’s novels and stories always follow the golden rule. Renée thinks, “Whoever I was before, it seemed I had strong beliefs about what was right and what wasn’t.” Her narrators also have very well-articulated thoughts on being dark-skinned people in a white-dominated world. The vampire heroine of Fledgling realizes that she was nearly killed by people who hated her blackness. Still, she wants to understand her enemies. Discussions between people with different viewpoints matter to Butler’s characters, in a way they don’t matter to the Wokesters of today. You have no chance of converting your enemies into your supporters if you don’t know what motivates them. In a crucial moment in Fledgling, Renée tells a recalcitrant symbiont she’s inherited,

“Ask me questions when you want to know things. Tell me whatever you believe I should know. Complain whenever you want to complain. But don’t talk to other people when you mean your words for me, and speak the truth.”

Reading her novels and stories (which consistently won Hugo and Nebula awards), I realized that Butler suffered greatly from depression and battled it as she had battled all the other monsters in her life: racism, poverty, loneliness, ill health. The cruelty of humans to each other made her despair of the species she’d been born into, but she never stopped trying to imagine a better world and to write it into being. Not a wonderful world, you understand, just a better one.

Not only is Octavia Butler the best writer I read these last four months, she’s also the best writer for the time we live in now. Perhaps the Library of America brought out a volume on her now, fifteen years after her death, because they too realized her work has traveled well through time: This is truly its moment.
[1] THE END OF MEN, by Christina Sweeney-Baird. G. P. Putnam’s Sons. $17.00p.

[2] AMID THE CROWD OF STARS, by Stephen Leigh. DAW Books. $26.00.

[3] SKYWARD INN, by Aliya Whiteley. Solaris. $24.99.

[4] FUGITIVE TELEMETRY: The Murderbot Diaries #6, by Martha Wells. A Tordotcom Book: Published by Tom Doherty Associates. $19.99.

[5] PROJECT HAIL MARY, by Andy Weir. Ballantine Books. $28.99.

[6] THE ABSOLUTE BOOK, by Elizabeth Knox. Viking. $28.00.

[7] KLARA AND THE SUN, by Kazuo Ishiguro. Knopf. $28.00.

[8] OCTAVIA E. BUTLER: Kindred, Fledgling, Collected Stories (LOA #338), by Octavia Butler, ed. by Gerry Canavan and Nisi Shawl. Library of America. $35.00.