Book Review: Unexpected Stories, Octavia E. Butler (2014)

March 6th, 2015 10:46 am by Kelly Garbato

Two New-to-Us SF/F Short Stories from Octavia Butler

five out of five stars

Published eight years after her death, Unexpected Stories contains two all-new stories written by the great Octavia E. Butler: one fantasy, the other with more of a science fiction bent. As Walter Mosely observes in the forward, “In these stories we find two women faced with war or with peace. Carrying on their backs society’s future or its end.” One works within the confines of her position and the system which holds her there, while the other has escaped – albeit temporarily.

The beings in “A Necessary Being” are humanoid – but decidedly non-human. Their skin shifts and shimmers in shades of blue, signaling their emotions and intent; highest among them is the Hao, a pure blue being thought to be divine – a harbinger of good luck. Unfortunately, Hao are rare; occasionally a member of the judge caste may birth one “out of the air,” but more often they’re descended from a long line of Hao. Kohn tribes without a Hao are “tribes[s] in the process of dying.” This has caused a great many tribes to find a Hao wherever and however they can – even if this means kidnapping another tribe’s Hao, imprisoning him or her – sometimes crippling the captive Hao to prevent future escape.

Tahneh’s people – the Rohkohn – belong to one such tribe. After the death of her father, she became the last of her kind. Unable to produce an heir, she and the Rohkohn are desperate. So when a young Hao ventures into their desert territory while sightseeing, Tahneh’s people vow to capture Diut and make him stay – no matter what. Tahneh’s own father was a captive Hao, robbed not just of his freedom but also his ability to walk. Tahneh knows all too well what will become of her cousin Hao – with whom she feels a profound kinship – and yet she’s powerless to stop it, as matters of succession are the one thing beyond a Hao’s control.

Or are they?

“Childfinder” is much shorter, but no less enjoyable and engaging. Barbara, a disenfranchised psi, leaves “the organization” in order to work on her own. Gifted with the ability to feel out pre-psi children, she has been gathering and teaching them how to harness their psychic abilities – outside the purview of the organization. Add to this the fact that Barbara and her protégés (including Valerie, Jordan, and Jessie May) are all black kids from the court, rejecting the established, white-controlled order, and “Childfinder” becomes an interrogation of race, power, and privilege.

Whereas “A Necessary Being” is fairly well fleshed out, “Childfinder” left me wanting more. The story intro/outro hints at a failed utopia (“Historians believe that an atmosphere of tolerance and peace would be a natural outgrowth of a psionic society.”), felled by forces from within or without – but so much is left to the imagination!

5/5 stars. Two stories isn’t nearly enough – but whatever the number, it’ll always have me wishing for just one more.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

 

Comments (May contain spoilers!)

Diversity: Unexpected Stories consists of just two tales. “A Necessary Being” is populated by humanoid aliens whose skin color changes according to their mood and needs (e.g., camouflage). The society is separated by caste, with the divine ruler – the Hao, whose skin is pure blue – governing over all the others (judges, hunters, artisans). In “Childfinder,” Barbara, a disenfranchised psi, leaves the organization in order to work on her own, gathering and teaching black children (including Jordan, Valerie, and Jessie May) how to harness their psychic abilities.

 

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