Canavan on Octavia Butler

Gerry Canavan’s new book on Octavia Butler is smart and useful. It gives a good introduction to Butler for people who have never read her before, but it also provides much food for thought to those who (like me) have already read all of Butler’s published works, and know them well. This is the case both because Canavan offers fresh and original takes on Butler’s published writing, and also because he is one of the first people to have done research in the Butler archives at the Huntington Library. Butler wrote prodigiously, and left behind a vast quantity of work that she never published: unfinished stories and novels, alternate versions, and texts she completed, but decided weren’t good enough for publication. Canavan goes through a lot of this work, and situates the actual publications in the light of many things that Butler tried out but couldn’t resolve to her satisfaction. In part, this is because she was a perfectionist, always feeling that she hadn’t done well enough. In part, also, this is because Butler suffered from periods of writer’s block, when she was unable to give her work the point and focus that she needed.

But above all, Canavan shows, Butler’s enormous quantity of unfinished and unpublished work testifies to the fact that she was a genuinely original and creative thinker. At their best, science fiction and speculative fiction are indeed acts of speculation and experimentation as rigorous and as insightful as philosophical speculation and scientific experimentation can be. Creating fictional characters, and telling fictional stories, can itself be a way of probing the unknown. This was certainly the case for Butler, all of whose work, even the most polished, is unresolvedly conflictual. As Canavan says explicitly at one point, Butler’s work always grapples with what Kant called Antinomies — that is to say, with dialectically opposed perspectives, both of which have their valid points (or their “truth”) but which remain incompatible with one another. Kantian Antinomies may be distinguished from Hegelian Contradictions in that the former, unlike the latter, cannot be reconciled by jumping to a meta-level with a supposed higher truth that accommodates both.

[Irrelevant digression: To my mind Hegel’s vision is a catastrophe for human thought, and a dishonest denial of the stubborn intractability of actual Antinomies. You know Zizek is engaging in mystification when he says that Hegel is really about rupture rather than reconciliation; for if that were the case, Hegel would have stayed with the “bad infinity” of the Kantian Antinomies, instead of making a bogus claim to “sublate” or resolve them. Sorry for this detour, which has nothing to do with Canavan’s book, but only reflects my own obsessions.]

In any case, Canavan’s accounts of the unpublished material work to show how complex a thinker and writer Butler was; how she always rejected facile resolutions, and only published novels and stories in which unresolvable difficulties were articulated in many dimensions, remaining intact through all their developments and metamorphoses. Butler’s work is largely concerned with utopian desire as it meets the horrors of actual human history. Encounters with alien beings work to sharpen these terms. Butler’s books look at human-created predicaments like exploitation and enslavement and bigotry and other sorts of violence and destruction, without willing into existence a solution to these more-than-difficulties, and also without cynically accepting the status quo on grounds that it is supposedly inevitable. This leads to opposed valorizations at the same time, which is what makes her books so knotty and difficult and uncompromisingly clearsighted. For instance in the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, it is both the case that the Oankali (the aliens who rescue the few human survivors of a global nuclear war) stand for a cosmopolitan, hybridizing and civilised remedy to the intractable racism/sexism/etc of actual American and world culture, and, at the same time,  that the Oankali are arch-oppressors, whose actions encapsulate and repeat all the horrors of colonisation, exploitation, and enslavement, from the Middle Passage to the current day. Canavan is very good at outlining these antinomies, which drive Butler’s fictions, and are their main expressive content.