Ever since I was nine years old, I’ve wanted to be a fantasy-scifi-speculative fiction writer. I gobbled up every book in the Artemis Fowl series by Eoin Colfer. Reading The Hobbit as a part of my school’s summer reading list in the sixth grade was an absolute treat for me. Once high school senior-dom came around and it was time to choose colleges and majors, I knew exactly what I wanted to be: someone with a Creative Writing minor or emphasis of some kind in fiction.
So you can imagine my shock at the appalling dearth of fantasy, sci-fi, and speculative fiction authors in my creative writing college education. (Aimee Bender is probably the only author I can think of that I studied in my fiction class that came close to speculative, but I don’t want to say that because I don’t think she identifies as a speculative fiction writer.)
Looking back, of course, I now realize why the dearth was there and why literary fiction and their authors reigned king in such schools: so that I could be exposed to “great literature” and “learn from the masters.”
But even though I understood the motivations behind it, I still wanted to know if there was any author out there, like me, who wrote fantasy fiction, science fiction, and speculative fiction and had so-called “literary merit.” So I asked my Advanced Fiction teacher and some students after class which authors in that genre they recommended or enjoyed, because I was fed up without having a writing role model to look up to.
Octavia Butler was one that came up.
Fast forward a few years later, and I get a hold of her short story collection Bloodchild and Other Stories from the library.
And after reading tons of bad books one after the other…
This collection was a breath of fresh air.
What I Thought Worked Well
Characters, Plot, Setting, Theme
Bloodchild: And Other Stories contains other stories that don’t fall in the speculative/fantasy/sci-fi genre that Butler is known for, but that doesn’t make them any less powerful to read. Her characters may not change all too much in the span of the stories they are in, but you know exactly who they are, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it. Each of the story’s plots has an arc whether slow or fast, large or small. Setting is not merely a backdrop, but an integral part of the story itself. And when all of these elements are combined, the motifs and themes ring loud and clear through her crisp, clear writing style and strong use of subtext.
Let me give you an example.
I finished the apocalyptic story “Speech Sounds” and thought I’d finally cornered Butler. In the story, the world has been ravaged by a disease in which people have lost all or part of their language faculties. So, by the end, I thought that a character that was talking shouldn’t have been able to talk. From the get-go, I knew that this character lost her ability to read and write, but I didn’t think for once that she retained her ability to talk.
“You didn’t say she could still talk, Butler!” I cried. “That’s a plot hole! That’s an inconsistency!”
And I read the story from the beginning again, only to find Butler chuckling at me from the pages.
Because she and I were both right. It was never stated that this character lost the ability to speak.
Do you see what I mean? It was never stated that it wasn’t there. Therefore, it was always there.
In that moment, I learned about one of the greatest powers a writer had: the power of not saying anything while still saying everything.
Which ties into the theme of the story as well!
What I Thought Might Not Have Worked Well
Now, since I haven’t read Butler’s other works yet, I don’t want to make too many assumptions about her style or who she was as a writer. But from what I saw in this collection, she didn’t strike me as a writer who focused on taking the reader deep into what John Gardner called the “fictive dream.” She didn’t strike me as a writer who went deep into luscious, descriptive detail and gave the reader a vivid experience. This is not to say, however, that her works aren’t vivid and detailed and rife with sensation. It’s there, but only sightly.
And that’s because what I saw as her main goal as writer was to tell a good story. Period.
And she does exactly that. It makes her stories the literary equivalent of teflon.
I can see why, though, it wouldn’t work for others, but that’s not a fault of hers. That’s just personal taste going on.
If you want a fabulous set of stories to haunt you and keep you wondering of the possibilities of our universe, Bloodchild and Other Stories is definitely a collection to get. I’m so happy I discovered her and can’t wait to read more of her masterful work.
5 out of 5 Stars