Survivor by Octavia Butler

Title: Survivor
Author: Octavia Butler
Genre: Science fiction

Rating: 4 / 5

Goodreads | out of print (you might be able to pick one up on eBay for ~$50)

Octavia Butler is one of my favorite authors, and this book is famously her “worst” one–she herself was seemingly embarrassed of it, requesting that it not be reprinted. It’s been out of print since 1981, so you can imagine my glee when I was browsing the local library recently and came across a copy of it–one of only two Butler books they had on the shelf! Even better, the last Butler book I read was Clay’s Ark, the book preceding this one in the Patternist series. So I got my hands on it and checked it out!

What did I think? I can see what she means–this isn’t up to the standard of Kindred, Wild Seed, or the Earthseed books. It’s the lowest rating I’ve given to a book of hers. Still, 4 stars is a more-than-respectable rating (3 being “I liked it” and 4 being “I really liked it”). Despite its flaws this book is still better than a lot of what’s out there.

The biggest problem I see with this book is that it is kind of “settler” or colonial. Missionaries (like an actual religious group that calls themselves Missionaries) go to some already-inhabited planet, without asking first or anything, and just start living there. There is not a whole lot said about how the original inhabitants of this planet feel toward them or react; we can guess based on some of their actions that they didn’t really respect them, but were definitely on the lookout for how they could use Missionaries in their own power struggles and what they could learn from them technology-wise. Based on reading well-researched historical fiction about first contact between Europeans and indigenous Americans like The Moor’s Account, the response of the native people of this planet (which is never named) to the Missionaries definitely seems plausible or realistic–the Missionaries in this book were, after all, a small group basically at the mercy of the native people, with no chance of more coming behind them, and unequipped to make it there on their own. The Missionaries don’t come off looking good, and Butler did not make them out to be a particularly sympathetic group, which goes a long way (in my opinion) to making the book come off as less colonialist–but I still would have liked the narrative to go into the Kohn response a bit more.

The thing I liked best about this book was probably Alanna, the main character and a narrator for part of the book (there are two alternating narrators who begin each chapter from their first person perspective telling the “past” or background of the story, and then the rest of the chapter is a third person narrator talking about the story unraveling in the present). She’s interesting because she’s constantly on the edge of two or more groups: wild human/Missionary or Missionary/Tehkohn. Like with earlier books in the series, there is a theme of submitting to survive, and yet still retaining your own essence or beliefs. It raises the question of assimilation versus belonging. To me, it read like it could be a comment on being mixed race (in addition to walking these boundaries, Alanna is also Black/Asian) in that mixed race people report feeling like they sometimes don’t fit in anywhere, not trusted fully by either group they belong to. Butler could also be alluding to Du Bois’s double consciousness.

Fitting in with the “submitting to survive” thread, it comes as no surprise that Butler continues to write about some of her most recurring themes (that I’ve come across anyway): power, abuse, and domination–between both genders and “races” (in this case it’s more like “people from different planets,” but same idea). There were a few moments where I felt like this book, more than others she has written, seemed somewhat comfortable with abuse, sort of–at least not as condemning of it. It was still nowhere near as permissive of abusive dynamics as many many books on the market–some are even downright celebratory of them (All Souls Trilogy, anyone?). And in the context of everything Alanna has been through and is ultimately able to accomplish, maybe it’s not so huge a gripe, but it was something that I noticed nonetheless.

Overall it was a story with some substance and I am really glad I found it at my library.

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