Survivor: Octavia Butler’s “Star Trek” Book

Readers, it’s been a while since I posted. I’ve been reading and thinking, but sometimes it’s hard to sit down and get the words out. Lucky for you, my blog got a face-lift and you get a post on a rare, Octavia Butler novel: Survivor

Originally published in 1978, Butler was later so unhappy with the book, that Survivor is one the only book that Butler refused to allow to be republished. She said in an interview with Amazon.com:

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 (Source).

I think this is important, and while I see Butler’s point in regard to how “the natives” are viewed as being “less than” their human counterparts, I think Butler does a great job of showing us deeply flawed humans who only think they are superior to the native population. The story surrounds Alanna, a human of mixed Black and Asian ancestry and three groups: The Missionaries, a group of humans who have escaped Earth on a Clayark ship, the Tehkohn and the Garkohn, two factions of the warring Kohn species. The Kohn are a furred species who have a natural hierarchy based on the color of their fur. Their fur changes color based on emotion or for communication.

The story surrounds Alanna as she moves between the three groups, trying to make peace but there are some really important underlying themes that I think are worth mentioning. There’s transracial and transspecies adoption and I think that this is a way in which Butler makes the humans extremely flawed. Even though they are on an Alien world and have escaped from mental slavery at the hand of Patternists, they’re still pretty racist. Before the story beginning Alanna’s parents are killed by wild Clayarks, and the white humans who adopt her declare her an outcast because she’s of mixed background. On the one hand when reading this, I had a knee jerk “but it’s the future that shouldn’t matter”, but then I remember that it’s 2017 and yeah, I can believe it.

The human’s view the Garkohn and the Tehkohn as being barbaric and uncivilized, and while both have their own class systems based off of fur-coloring and profession, all are viewed as necessary. Their treatment of Alanna is very interesting in this regard, while physically she is othered she’s still able to work and live among them and gain levels of trust and status. This brings up the second theme that I think Butler executed very well: Assimilation. While assimilation might not be something a lot of people think about, Ihink that it’s something we all do. This could be something as simple as code-switching when talking to family or like Alanna does, fully immersing yourself into the culture. Learning everything you can, working side-by-side and living as one of them. This isn’t to say that Alanna doesn’t experience discrimination because she’s human, but she is allowed a level of autonomy, acceptance and respect that the humans don’t give her.

While Alanna doesn’t fall into the stereotype of the ever-sacrificing black woman, she does sacrifice a lot to save the Missionaries, the only thing she refuses to sacrifice is her own happiness, which leads to her ultimate rejection.

Overall, I think this is a very well nuanced work of art and while it isn’t my favorite of her work, I think it’s definitely an important part of African-American Science Fiction and Afro-Futurism.

Advertisements