Survivor by Butler, Octavia, 1978

Survivor by Butler, Octavia

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According to all of the interviews that I have read of Octavia Butler, she disavowed her own third novel Survivor shortly after it was published in 1978. That explains why it is so hard to find. It is as far as I can tell the only thing by her that is no longer in print: It is not even available in the Patternmaster omnibus, called Seed to Harvest. In the in-story chronology of the Patternmaster series, this was the fourth of five books; the next-to-last volume in the story of the people of Doro and Anyanwu. I think that it is every bit as layered and interesting and as well conceived as the others, though it does have some glaring problems, not the least of which are some serious gaffs with science, and the fact that it just runs on and on and takes far too long to get to the crescendo. Even though it is not critical to following the story of the descendents of Doro and Anyanwu, it is a book that should be sought out, especially for Butler completists like me.

In order to understand Survivor you need to understand what happened in the other Patternmaster books. In order of internal chronology (but not publication) they are Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, , this one, Survivor, and finally Patternmaster. They tell the story of a group of mutant humans that came to fruition in the shadows of humanity. The race of mutants were the children of the two mentioned above. In the seventeenth century Doro, a powerful mutant who could jump from one body to another at will, met and mated with Anyanwu, an even more powerful mutant who could shape shift. Doro ran a breeding program in the New World, and Anyanwu fit well into his plans to breed a race of supermen. Doro and Anyanwu succeeded, but just as their descendents were planning on asserting themselves in the dominant society, the world was struck by an unanticipated attack from the stars. The first FTL starship put to use, called The Clay's Ark, returned from a voyage to deep space and crashed on Earth. Most of the crew was killed in the accident, but one survived and escaped. Unfortunately he was infected with an alien life form that changed his genome. As a result of infection humans gained wild mental powers that made it easy for them to dominate other people, but because of their altered genes they were only capable of having children that appeared animal-like, and which had lower intelligence. The disease forced the individual to want to interact with other people, and communicability was 100%. When the disease started to spread the Patternists (descendents of Doro and Anyanwu) pledged to help humanity to survive, and began a containment program and started building interstellar craft to get them off of Earth. Unfortunately the Patternists could not leave Earth because they were all psychically bonded to one another, and whenever one left the vicinity of the planet, they would die horribly painful deaths from the breaking of the psychic connections. But they did help the normal humans, and frequently would put their children onto the arks, as the psychic connections generally did not form until puberty. This brings one up to the time of Survivor.

The crew of one particular ship, made up of normal humans, was piloted to a planet called Kohn and landed on a large island where two different races lived. The humans had the misfortune to land in the territory of the Garkohn, who were in the middle of a long-term, low-level war with their rivals, the Tehkohn. After "accidentally" killing the humanís herds, they Garkohn befriended the men and offered to help them gather food supplies to survive the coming winter. The Garkohn presented the humans with supplies of a fruit called Meklah, which was very tasty and quite versatile. Unfortunately it was also highly addictive and would not grow outside of the Garkohn valley. Within a matter of days the Garkohn had made the humans completely dependent on them for survival, and the humans did not even know it. They soon discovered though that because of their addiction and the inability of the fruit to grow elsewhere, the humans were stuck in their one valley permanently. From that point on the Garkohn used human villages to launch raids on Tehkohn territory, thereby escalating the war, and bringing the humans into it. The humans had a hard time withstanding the Tehkohn retaliations, as the Tehkohn were generally stronger and smarter than the humans. the Kohn also had a natural ability to change color that made them virtually invisible against any background, even a wide open one.

When the story began Alanna, a human orphan had been returned to the human village after a two year captivity in the Tehkohn camp. Alanna was the only human so far who had survived withdrawal from Meklah. During her two year captivity Alanna had been taken as a concubine by the chief of the Tehkohn, named Diut. Though she was taken against her will at first, Alanna and Diut had not only fallen in love with each other, but had made a child; a child that was later killed in a Garkohn raid. When she returned to the human camp, which sat firmly in Garkohn territory, the leader of the Garkohn became suspicious and tried to find out where her loyalty lay. Obviously it no longer lay with the Garkohn. Alanna had figured out how badly the Garkohn had fooled the humans, and learned that the Garkohn also were raiding the human villages, pretending to be Tehkohn, and stealing women to be moved south to mate with Garkohn males. Why exactly the Garkohn wanted to introduce the genes from an obviously inferior race was never made clear, but the fact was that the Garkohn had also discovered that Kohn and human could produce viable offspring. After Alanna returned to her village Diut allowed himself to be captured by the Garkohn, and when he was in custody Alanna convinced Jules, her adoptive father and nominal leader of the humans, to meet with him. Together they planned a way for the humans to escape from under the thumb of the Garkohn, but before they accomplished that they would have to work through the distrust from years and years of combat and skirmishes.

The story presented here is very complex; probably the most complex of any Butler story that I have read before, which is no small feat. But Butler did an excellent job relating all the various story threads and tying them up in the end. Almost nothing was left unexplained or unexplored, save for the one minor story thread which suggested that Alanna was the child of Patternists, and may one day develop some psychic talent. Actually, Butler was so silent about that one after introducing the idea in the first act that it felt to me like she just plain forgot about it. I have forgiven less in lesser authors, and have no trouble giving Butler a pass on this one. But the one part that I found almost impossible to swallow was that humans would be able to land on a planet and could not only eat the indigenous life, but would also be susceptible to drugs in the same way, and could even mate with the natives without some serious changes to physiology. There was simply no explanation at all as to how this would be possible, and in fact save for two different sections of the book where two different characters express shock that inter-species mating would produce offspring, Butler ignored this issue too.

One thing to remember about Butler is that she had some fantastic ideas about the themes that she worked with. But she recirculated those themes and even substantial plot elements through all of her later novels. In her three major stories, Patternmaster, Sower and Lilith's Brood, and possibly even in her last book, Fledgling, if it was intended to be the start of a new series, a major plot contrivance was the need for humanity to get off of the Earth and spread to different planets. Often she created situations where for social reasons, usually centering on social justice, mankind was just too preoccupied to worry about extra solar exploration. Some readers and critics have complained of this repetition in the past, and opined that the entire body of Butler's work suffers for it. My opinion is that while this is not a particular strength, it is very interesting to watch Butler work through these issues, and come to better and more reasonable and believable resolutions to them during the course of her career. The last novel noted above, Fledgling was a vampire novel where the relationship between humans and the vampires was more gentle, and is better described as a partnership instead of a hunter/prey relationship. The central issue was whether a black vampire, who was the end product of an experiment to genetically engineer a vampire who could withstand the light, had a right to live. Vampires in that story bred to replace themselves, and could not turn normal humans into vampires. Though it is not stated explicitly the real problem with the main character was not that she was some sort of laboratory-created abomination, but that she had black skin. I often wonder if Butler was restarting her most important story line, and if she was working the vampire race through its own social justice issues, and if she intended to set this race to space eventually. That is certainly what Butler was doing in her Patternist series. The factor that drove men off of Earth in this series was not nuclear war, or social injustice, or population and economic pressures, as it was in her other books. It was plague, which fits within a reader's expectations and sounds reasonable enough to carry the day. But in this series Butler made some pretty serious scientific mistakes or at the very least, failed to adequately explain why two different races from two different planets could mate with each other. Some of these kinds of mistakes have to be overlooked in SF stories, because without certain assumptions the stories just will not work. For example, in the real universe if we ever are able to send humans to other planets, it would be foolish to assume that they would be able to eat native food or drink untreated water without dying from trying to digest an incompatible biochemistry, or from poisoning by native microscopic life. Some authors, the hard SF authors, deal with these issues in their books, but not all do and sometimes it has to be forgiven and glossed over, or the real story would never be told. The author simply would not have time to do so in the face of every little problem that the crew of such a voyage would encounter. Butler certainly did gloss over the problem of consuming native food here. She even gave us a drug that was equally addictive to Garkohn and human alien alike. I have a bit more problem with that one, but it was important to the story. Without that drug, the Garkohn would have had to actually enslave the humans, and had they done that the ambiguity over the relationship between human and Garkohn would have been radically different. But I personally cannot get past the mating issue. Itís just too big and too glaring, and I suspect that is why Butler was not interseted in seeing this book in print again.

As usual, there is much more in this book, but it is probably best discovered by you, the reader. According to library databases on the internet there are thousands and thousands of copies of this book in various library systems. Usually you can find it either in the SF or African American section.

Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 3 star(s)

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