Unexpected Stories, posthumously-discovered short fiction by Octavia Butler, was released this week just two days after what would have been her 67th birthday. Walter Mosley writes in the foreword that reading this novella and short story is a bit like encountering the ghost of a friend. Being a relatively new but huge Butler fan, I don’t disagree with the simile. But the more cynical part of me had wondered if perhaps these were shelved because the author decided to trunk them — in other words, if they went unpublished for good reason.
Nope. These stories left me awestruck; they are quintessential Butler in their themes but departures in the usual subjects.
In the novella A Necessary Being, protagonist Tahneh is a member of a species called the Hao. Powerful, intelligent, fiercely loyal, and possessing extraordinary leadership capabilities — so much so that the other beings of this world can’t organize into societies without them — they are nonetheless enslaved. Approaching extinction, the Hao are haunted and lonely; the ones that refuse leadership are captured and forcibly crippled even by their most devoted followers. They are demigods, yet commodities.
In a world where all beings’ vivid colors indicate emotion, communication, and fighting prowess, Tahneh learns that another blue Hao is heading straight for capture in her lands. She has not seen another of her kind for decades. Diut is far younger and rasher than she, and she must navigate her growing attachment to him with her responsibility to her tribe. Her decisions will have consequences that seal all their fates.
“Childfinder” is from the perspective of a telepath, a product of an abandoned government experiment to modify the human species into one more likely to be peaceful. There are others like her. Some are children. She is uniquely capable of finding those kids and training them… And there are others who want access to this power.
On the surface these stories couldn’t be more different: an otherworldly tale of sentient animals ruling over but captive to humans versus a near-future dystopia with psychic underdogs fighting from the gutters of civilization. But these are stories of the powerful few cordoned by the many. They are complementary in their themes: those of war, of self-determination, and of sacrifice.