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The Essential Octavia Butler – The New York Times

DAWN is the core of the series, setting the stage for the Oankali’s protracted and perverse colonization. Many critics read the Oankali as benevolent saviors and Butler certainly does not make them outright villains, but the first book renders clearly their manipulation. Chemical essentialists, the Oankali see reality in narrow terms that ignore verbal consent and are always patronizing. Despite the condescension of her captors, Lilith, a resilient Black woman, comes to accept a future with them, a fraught choice that Butler characterizes with haunting nuance. The book, researched in Peru, also features her most scenic writing.

Butler’s vampires are an unusual bunch. They are nocturnal and they drink blood, yes, but they also worship a goddess, own vineyards and farms, and form intimate harems with humans. Butler’s vampires are more cultured than monstrous, and FLEDGLING, an action-packed whodunit that builds into a riveting legal battle, teems with ideas about the creatures as well as the mechanics of relationships. In charged, erotic prose, Butler weaves a mystery that’s as titillating as it is disturbing. Fledgling is a work of fantasy, but it explores many of the ideas of consent and desire that Butler broaches in Lililth’s Brood. Even when she wasn’t writing about aliens, she was.

UNEXPECTED STORIES features two stories that went unpublished in Butler’s lifetime. One, “Childfinder,” was supposed to be Butler’s big break. She sold it at a writing workshop for an anthology that was never released, a false start that haunted her early in her career as rejection slips accumulated. The other story, “A Necessary Being,” takes place in the world of “Survivor,” Butler’s out-of-print third book, and was one of her many rejected stories. Both stories demonstrate how early she discovered her voice as a writer.

Butler’s private papers are collected at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. Drawing from the Huntington’s archives, OCTAVIA E. BUTLER, by Gerry Canavan, covers Butler’s career, life and works, teasing out the many overtones and themes in her books. Canavan is an excellent critic and formidable researcher, and this book, written in accessible, quick-moving prose, is rich with perspectives and ideas. The best sections detail the stories Butler didn’t publish or complete, using those fragments to dive deeper into the texts that she finished. Like all good criticism, the book is both authoritative and invitational. Read it and you’ll marvel at the arguments and feel invited to develop your own.

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