Vote: Should We Read Octavia Butler’s Survivor?

Survivor Cover

So, Book Clubbers, I need to resolve a little problem that’s popped up.

Over the weekend, I read Survivor using the link that commenter FtrYBFMD provided.

On one hand, I can see why Butler hated the novel. Her novels are generally known for complicated morality – this one reads pretty clearly. There aren’t really good guys but there are clear bad guys, and it’s more in line with a lot of the other sci-fi I read. (As a matter of fact, it’s forcing me to reflect on how easily I accept the idea of colonizing other planets, lands, and worlds – and how easily authors accept human superiority, even when they question it.) Jo Walton, writing for Tor, provides some context for Butler’s distaste:

Survivor (1978) is part of the Pattern series, but has not been reprinted since 1981. Butler repudiated the novel and refused to allow it to be reprinted:

    When I was young, a lot of people wrote about going to another world and finding either little green men or little brown men, and they were always less in some way. They were a little sly, or a little like “the natives” in a very bad, old movie. And I thought, “No way. Apart from all these human beings populating the galaxy, this is really offensive garbage.” People ask me why I don’t like Survivor, my third novel. And it’s because it feels a little bit like that. Some humans go up to another world, and immediately begin mating with the aliens and having children with them. I think of it as my Star Trek novel.

All I can say is, she clearly watched a better grade of Star Trek than I ever did. I can understand her problem with the biology, but what she seems to be saying there is that Survivor is a dishonest novel. Well, I kind of like it. I’m sorry you can’t read it.

Oh, but we can. In addition to the link, Racialicious readers have emailed in and volunteered to scan their copies. So if we wanted to, we could. But there’s a couple ethical questions here.

First in my mind – respecting the wishes of Butler herself. Octavia Butler did not want this novel back in rotation. (And, aside from that, posting it in full violates copyright, which could get us in a whole kettle of mess if we officially endorse reading the pirated copy and her estate objects. Though, we could just ask her estate…)

Second, though, is the whole idea of why we are reading her in the first place. Survivor may be much more in line with sci-fi norms, but it also is stamped heavily with Butler’s complexities. Most compelling for me is how much Survivor is a story of a mixed race, transracial adoptee. Considering the community here, I think readers would have a lot of fun applying their own interpretation of Butler’s work with their own experiences, and how they think the novel symbolizes that type of environmental tension.

And this area is ripe for debate. Walton believed that a scene in the book where some of the human settlers ask Alanna’s foster family to allow her live with one of the black settler families was an act of racism – but I heavily disagree with her take. To me, it seemed like Butler was illustrating the futility of social norms. The black settlers didn’t really trust Alanna’s past (she was a feral child, raised outside of the settlement), but still felt obligated to offer her refuge from what they saw as racism in the settler community. There are other references to race mixing, and the idea that all the settlers were not in favor of it – and this is before we get to the Garkohn and the Tehkohn. So, yes, race is an issue, even in space. Because we’re still human.

So, think there is a lot of value in the conversation. If we do read it, I would probably have us read Survivor between Clay’s Arc and Patternmaster. But I want to know how we feel about it. If there’s enough folks who want to do it, I will write the Butler estate for permission and accept their decision. (Conversely, we could just hold a conversation for folks who want to read the book and find some way to obtain it. Some library systems have copies.) Or, we could respect her wishes and skip it.

Readers, the floor is yours.

  • LaToya Winslow

    I would recommend that Survivor be read as a bonus book and another book be chosen for it’s month. Since Survivor is a relatively quick read, another main book could be chosen for it’s month. 

  • http://OctaviaButler.net Ayana

    I feel torn. On the one hand, I’ve read the softcover version. I also obtained a digital copy long before googlebooks made it available.

    On the other hand, having it as a book club book seems like we are collectively, publicly flaunting our disregard for Octavia’s wishes.

    Since we have thirteen titles for our year, why not focus on discussing Bloodchild (an excellent collection) rather than discussing a book that she specifically would not want us to read?

    For an article about this type of dilemma, see:
    http://www.complete-review.com/quarterly/vol3/issue4/litlegs.htm

  • Anonymous

    I think that, just because the author herself is embarrassed by her work, it shouldn’t mean that the reader should actively avoid them as she wishes.  They are a part of her history.  To deal fully honestly with her as a person, those works must also be studied.  As someone who wanted to be a writer at one time, the reason I would have been embarrassed by any works I wrote as a kid was because I wouldn’t have wanted anyone judging me as a hypocrite or a talentless nerd.  I think the best way to approach this book is to judge it based on how aberrant it is to the rest of her canon, not necessarily judge her wholly based on whatever the work may represent, unless there are things in there worth judging her in that way for….  That’s probably the best middle ground this can be approached at.

    And yeah, as one of those mostly anti-piracy types, I think all reasonably legal avenues should be exhausted first before going the copying route.

  • NRey

    Ms. Butler at her worst is better than many at their very best.  If her estate is ok with it, I’d love to have it in the rotation.  If not, I’d be happy with the original suggestion of reading her short story collection instead.

  • happymilitantblackgirl

    i’d very much interested in reading the book and contributing to the conversation.  i have the utmost respect for ms. butler as the greatest sci-fi, possibly fiction writer of our time, but i think that part of her well-deserved fame is having us fans desperately crawl through everything she’s written – good or bad.

  • http://twitter.com/live_love_teach C-Beans

    I vote for asking the estate and proceeding, as a book club from there. That being said… since it is online I will probably start reading it now anyway for personal interest. I think this question is so much more than respecting the wishes of Ms. Butler. It actually calls into question right of access via the internet where anything can be scanned/uploaded and will forever exist somewhere whether or not the site has been taken down. Even if the estate says no, it is still available on google docs (as of now) and in print form (if you can find it). In fact you can save it to your google docs account and download to your hard drive. So, I guess thats why this feels like a moral & ethical dilemna. How should we proceed if the text is readily available but the author is on record stating that she didn’t want it published?

    I am a hardcore Butler fan and will be joining this book club either way. But, I will also be reading Survivor whether or not we discuss it as a group.

  • EinSC

    For people wanting to find library copies, WorldCat lists 379 copies in libraries around the United States. Do an advanced search at http://www.worldcat.org/
    and enter author and title.  Enter your zip code and it will list the closest locations to you first.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=514066051 Dawn Gibson

    I would like to read the book.

  • Anonymous

    It was digitized by fans – there are errors in the transcription. I don’t think this is an official copy.

    • Richard Louissaint

      oh really. interesting

    • http://OctaviaButler.net Ayana

      There are many errors in the print version as well. The combination of a lack of support from her publisher plus her dyslexia may have contributed to typos in her early books.

  • Redemption1999

    As Sheri Whitley said, readers are scholars. When you’re a public figure, you don’t get to erase your mistakes. (Unless you have a ton of crazy teabaggers rewriting Wikipedia for you. But Butler’s fans aren’t down for that level of batshittery.) The ability to read a work to see how a noted author’s thinking evolved over time should trump her estate’s demands. 

  • anon

    i would also respect her estate, hoping they’d say yes.

  • allburningup

    I have read it.

    The protagonist, Alanna, has an ability to adapt to painful, even oppressive situations and thrive in them. I feel this is a common theme of Butler’s work.

    Alanna comes to a new planet with a group of very religious settlers from Earth. She ends up captured by indigenous humanoids who have fur ranging from greenish yellow to blue. This particular group call themselves Tehkohn. The bluest and thus most high-status among them, named Diut, decides to have a sexual relationship with her. When she asks, he tells her that they have no tradition of “forced matings”, but he never considered that she might reject him. He beats her when she tries to escape, and she fully expects him to force himself on her. Instead, he explains that if she has a lengthy sexual relationship with him, her status (currently that of an animal, with no rights) would increase: “You will be Tehkohn when you leave me. Tehkohn, and your own person, not dependent on others to guide or guard you.” When she learns this, she agrees.

    Eventually Alanna forms a strong bond with Diut and, indeed, becomes Tehkohn, choosing to live with them rather than with the settlers from Earth.

    There’s much more to the story than that, but this is what particularly stands out in my mind.

  • http://chaosthethird.wordpress.com Kermit

    Oh, and if my phrasing it as a question left my position ambiguous at all, then I vote an emphatic NO. Out of respect for Ms. Butler, as far as I’m concerned, Survivor doesn’t even exist.

  • http://chaosthethird.wordpress.com Kermit

    Why bother to read Survivor at all when there are so many other choices from Butler’s work that by her own estimates are much better?

    If it’s reading it just because “we can’t”, then that’s a terrible reason.  If it’s to read sci-fi at its best – which Butler is – then why not read something which demonstrates her at her best?

  • http://twitter.com/NiaTrue Sheri M. Whitley

    With all due respect to Ms. Butler–and I love her work, having read all of it except Survivor–we should not respect her wishes not to read this book.

    Readers are scholars, and scholars have a responsiblity to evaluate all of the evidence they can find and address it in the context of all the evidence at their disposal. Suppose Malcomx or Zora or Baldwin had said, “Yes, do tell my life story and evaluate everything I’ve done/written–except that story, or these events, or the thing that happened April 3 that I’d rather not talk about?”

    Writers, particularly those as brilliant as Ms. Butler, should know that words are sacred in their power to tell stories, particuarly when they are combined with other sotries, but censoring them defiles that sacredness.

  • http://twitter.com/GeminiLeFay *Sarah*

    Admittedly, I am interested in reading the novel because the possibility of not being able to read it is real. Apart from gross fascination (and just plain loving Ms. Butler’s work), I have to agree with the previous comment.  Whatever the decision of Ms. Butler’s estate, I’ll respect it.

    You all are super amazing for putting together this book club! Many thanks :-)

  • http://twitter.com/nivairface Nivair H. Gabriel

    My take:  Whatever her estate says, I will respect. Thanks so much for doing this book club; I am LOVING it so far!!!