The incredible treasures of the Octavia Butler archives

Jaimee Hills writes, "Gerry Canavan has done a short writeup in an academic publication called The Eaton Journal of Archival Research in Science Fiction on the (amazing) contents of the Octavia E. Butler papers at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California."

Indeed, the Butler archive sounds amazing. It contains alternate versions of several of her best novels including the Lilith's Brood stories and the Parable novels, as well as significant unpublished works, including an unfinished story from the Patternist universe, an unpublished novel called Blindsight, and a nearly complete third Parable novel.

One of the things I became most interested in as I read Butler’s alternative drafts
and unfinished work is the sharp tonal divide between the drafts and the final
books. Butler had a theory of bestsellerdom that preoccupied her and motivated her
writing, but which she was unable to ever quite put into practice: she sought
endlessly to write what she called YES-BOOKS, but felt they always seemed to
collapse into NO-BOOKS instead. (YES BOOKS, she thought, were bestsellers—NO
BOOKS sold, alas, the way her actual books did.) One of the things I was personally
surprised by in the archives was the way that optimism—usually an optimism
predicated on what Lee Edelman has famously called “reproductive futurity,” the
presence and survival of children2—was quite often a late or unwilling addition to
her novels, something that emerged as she struggled to turn her many swirling
ideas into concrete forms she believed would actually sell. Perhaps relatedly, we
often see the drafts are actually much more disturbing that her famously disturbing
published fiction, particularly with regard to physical and sexual violence, and
frequently ending with far unhappier resolutions. (This is all the more remarkable
for how pessimistic and horrifying Butler’s published fiction often was.)

We might perhaps say that her published works tend to be MAYBE-BOOKS,
somewhere between YES and NO—but in her drafts the form of the NO-BOOK is
allowed to fully flower, precisely because these unfinished tales were never
hammered into what she saw as final, publishable, salable shape. Not having to
conform to what she saw as the market’s mandatory optimism, the drafts represent
in some sense the excess, or the remainder, of “YES.”

Thus we find the sketches story where the typical logic of reproductive
futurity is turned completely on its head, a number of which I have mentioned
above: the fascinating novel fragment where Doro impregnates the Virgin Mary and
produces Christ, who is so talented as to almost be the two-thousand-years-too early
fulfillment of his breeding project and yet who instead becomes a famously
chaste, sexless reproductive dead end; or the version of the future of the Fledgling
universe where she imagines Shori not as the liberator of the Ina but as the
destroyer of the planet, as her children would be too powerful, too successful, and
would in their thriving overthrow the delicate ecological symbiosis that holds
humans and Ina in balance. Likewise, some of her notes for the end of the PARABLES
series (the so-called Parable of Clay) suggest that the children of the Earthseed
colony worlds would be deeply psychotic or (by our standards, at least) severely
autistic, almost monstrous in their difference from the humans of Earth—tokens of a
future so utterly posthuman as to be at least potentially anti-human.3 Her first
sketches for Lilith, the story that would become XENOGENESIS, see “Lilith’s child,
mercifully born dead, is an armless, legless horror with some skin disorder that has
left it looking raw, flayed. Lilith’s child is only the first ‘mistake” to be born. Sadly,
some of them live, in spite of the lack of medical care or knowledge.”4 In its original
formulation the Oankali breeding project is a horror after all, whose failure we are
glad to see. (Echoes of this plan can actually be found in the published Imago,
though the situation there resolves somewhat differently, and much more in accord
with both the optimism of reproductive futurity and with Butler’s growing
sympathy for the Oankali.) Even the happy ending of the Canaan version of Kindred,
in which the Alice character is rescued from slavery and raised in the 1970s as Dana
and Kevin’s child, is a NO-BOOK, albeit of an unusual sort: it refuses the
reconciliation with the history that the published book enforces in favor of a
fantastical utopian alternative that is utterly impossible to make real, and which has
no future anyway in the face of the inevitable rise of the Patternists.

The Octavia E. Butler Papers [Gerry Canavan/The Eaton Journal of Archival Research in Science Fiction] [PDF]

(Image: Octavia E. Butler Tribute NYC 2006-06-05,
Houari B., CC-BY-SA