Octavia Butler may be best known for her many Pulitzer-winning novels—but ever since she was a teenager, she’s been writing—and not in a traditionally grim, apocalyptic vein. In the context of the contemporary literary world, that’s also something of a rarity. In the history of dystopian and sci-fi literature, the return of disillusioned young adults to teen fiction has generally resulted in a much less rebellious reimagining of classic literature’s bleak terminologies.But since 2000, while one of the authors nearly everyone respects for her escapist, romanticist-friendly escapism has appeared, it’s one question the dystopian melodrama still stumbles over: Why, when it’s so that feature right now?
It’s funny, what a story.
For one thing, Butler’s novels, with their non-linear narrative angles and conversational approach to character studies (i.e., isn’t thinking about the situation from the viewpoint of a person trying to escape) often take a relaxed, conversational stance. Readers know their protagonist is a real person, instead of a fantasy found at some nebulous location.
Another reason for this, though, is more practical. During the mid-2000s, The World Before Us made good on the idea that young adults are living a hodgepodge, no-rules, intimate society full of niches. But despite being well written, The World Before Us was never a medium unto itself, and it became apparent that humor and even a bit of sharpness were far too difficult to come by in alternative fiction like Butler’s.
She has also struggled mightily to secure the narrative footing for her typically bleak escapism. Her most recent novel, One Star Is A Star, essentially unwinds our journey with its protagonist and her friends and family and is set in and around a crowded dystopian town a la more recent novels in this subgenre, like The Hunger Games and Alien Vs. Predator. Such a novel requires much more coherence, and the author’s ability to provide that has been largely at the mercy of her own momentum.
The third and main reason is much harder to explain: Utopia isn’t exactly planned for in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.As Butler pointed out, if you look at a classic novel set in the present-day and look back to where those events happened, they’re different. “The one film I would recommend [from my library] is To Kill a Mockingbird, not for the part of time jumps but more specifically for the way it closes.” This gets to something Colson Whitehead discussed in his recent memoir Escape, where the author thinks about her and most of the dystopian thriller classics of yesteryear:
Despite the fact that the endings are the only ones that matter, they are the most often explained, but not deeply explained. For example, there are no room puzzles in David Lynch’s labyrinthine Lynchian world. Likewise, there are no questions about the consequences of the human responsibility for human choices.
Though she understands when it’s best to break the silence with live blogs or commentary, Butler has never written a purely pre-meditative novel like Margaret Atwood’s over-the-top and malleable The Handmaid’s Tale. Instead, The World Before Us’ aspirations are much more feminine. However, because Butler makes her characters more of a sort of travelogue on their adventures, readers of her novels and those of her sci-fi contemporaries will still be able to relate to her, including those who have a romantic bent. This, combined with Butler’s ability to make her heroines even more likable than they already are, makes for great escapism.
Ultimately, The World Before Us is about the end of one thing, when lives both drastic and mundane, change drastically. However, the world itself seems set in a better place than those who live it, and Butler feels that, especially in the context of the current political and ideological climate, that can’t be ignored.
The ending of the novel sees protagonist Lydia (a 22-year-old current college freshman) return to the shebeen, driven by a personal experience of not just unmaking her once-green life, but taking down a grotesque single-parent African-American couple who are killing livestock, a trend that concerns her, and which, had something been going on recently, would have caused a great deal of anger. As this story unfolds, Lydia figures out what she needs to do to counter those injustices. And it helps that her author’s worldview on life and female equality is much more apt to make the best of the situation, even if some of its lessons are not so good.
One Star Is A Star is published by Harper Collins on September 27.