Reading: Survivor by Octavia Butler Part One

survivor-smallSurvivor is technically a part of Butler’s Patternist sequence, except Butler disowned it. She also referred to it as her “Star Trek novel” for reasons which may soon become clear. I acquired Survivor via slightly sneaky means, in this case a pdf. file that I downloaded. The copy has a lot of typos and in general is kind of cruddy but still readable.

Here is an overview of the Patternist series. Once upon a time there was a powerful telepath named Doro and a powerful shape changer named Anyanwu. They got along like a literal house on fire by which I mean there was screaming and dead bodies. Doro had a personal mission to create a race of telepaths with awesome powers and Anyanwu had the most awesome powers ever. He did not particularly care that Anyanwu did not want and he did not particularly care that the people he was breeding did not want. He successfully created a telepathic race of total sociopaths, and found this out too late when one of them destroyed him and took over the telepathic race of total sociopaths who use enslaved humans to do most of the jobs ordinary people can do because they aren’t sociopaths. (The only reason the race of telepaths is even partly functional is because they are part of a gestalt run by the more powerful telepaths. That and they “program” the enslaved humans so that their fear, anger and resentment doesn’t cause the telepaths to flip out.) These guys are called Patternists.

Meanwhile there is this disease brought from an alien planet by accident. This virus is not quite sentient and re-designs the dna of its host so they will be more effective predators. The awesome part is that someone with the virus can’t be telepathically read by the sociopathic telepaths. The less awesome part is that the disease decided humans should be quadrupeds and the least awesome part is that the mutated humans infected by the disease consider everyone and everything else to be food.  These guys are known as “clayarks,” named after the space ship Clay’s Ark. (Special note: The ship was created, designed and powered by telekinetics created by Doro’s eugenics program.)

So! Survivor is about a colony founded by “normal” humans calling themselves “Missionaries” who have been freed by the Patternists and allowed to find a new planet to settle. Unfortunately, this planet already has sentient inhabitants. The colony appears to be on wary if amicable terms with them, though they are kind of traumatized by their experiences back home with the cannibal mutants and the sociopathic telepaths. Our Protagonist is a young woman rescued from a mostly-feral existence by the “normal” humans.

Chapter One: Alanna

The narrative switches between first person to third. In first person, Alanna tells us about how she was caught by “Missionaries” and is taken in and adopted by their leader, Jules Verrick. We learn that there was some doubt about letting her join the community, but Jules gets his way, more or less. We also learn that most humans outside this community are feral to the point of not being capable of speech. It’s the opinion of the doctor examining Alanna that she is incapable of becoming part of their community, that all she’s capable of is pretending to act like a person.

In third person, the present story involves Alanna being rescued after having been kidnapped by “Tehkohns” a tribe that is the enemy of the Garkohn, and living in apparent captivity for two years. I say apparent because it soon becomes clear that Alanna has become part of the Tehkohn community and now considers the “Garkohn” who are allied with the human colonists to be her enemies. We also learn that Alanna has very good reason to consider the Garkohn her enemies: it turns out that the Garkohn have addicted the human colonists to “meklah” in order to control them. (To be fair they also addict their own kind to the fruit.)

Alanna is interrogated by Natahk, the leader of the Garkohn. During the interrogation we learn that Alanna managed to have a child with one of the Tehkhons, and her husband is probably among the prisoners. We learn that the child was killed during the raid and that Natahk is extremely terrible and also manipulative. He coerces Alanna into eating meklah, which she does with great reluctance. There’s also a little interplay where we learn that the human colonists are extremely xenophobic and will be less than happy that Alanna had a child with one of the natives.

After some more threats and promises, Alanna returns to the human town.

Chapter Two: Alanna

Once again, the chapter is split between first person past recollection and third person present timeline. In first person Alanna tells us about the founding of the colony, the first contact with the Garkohn and how completely unsuited the Missionaries are to interacting with other cultures. We also learn that the Garkohn have some control issues in that they want to make the Missionaries dependent on them. (This becomes pretty clear to the reader, but the folks inside the story take a while to figure it out.)

Alanna, who is pretty much the only person in the human colony with the kind of mindset that would actually be useful in a first contact decides she wants to learn the Garkohn language. The Missionaries are mostly disgusted by Alanna’s curiosity but her foster father Jules backs her up. Alanna meets with a hunter named Gehl and they teach each other their respective languages.

We also learn in this chapter that Alanna had a very hard time integrating with the Missionary community. Fortunately, Alanna has a very analytical personality and quickly figures out that she is acting in a way that is not actually acceptable for the community. (This is something of a theme. Alanna has a talent for learning and then implementing cultural mores and norms. She is suspiciously good at this in fact.)

In third person, Alanna re-enters the human community, where she is suffering some serious culture shock after having assimilated with the Tehkohn community. This does not go smoothly as she is disinclined to speak to anyone except her foster mother Neila Verrick. (Because she doesn’t speak to anyone trying to talk to her, the Missionaries talk about her. It seems they have a very low opinion of Alanna’s intelligence! Gee, I wonder why Alanna doesn’t want to talk to anyone except her foster mother!)

Once Alanna is taken home by her foster mother, Alanna appears to open up a little. Her foster mother is happy to see her, and had optimistically kept Alanna’s room the way it was. It quickly becomes clear that Alanna is mostly attached to the Verricks rather than the community the Verricks lead. When she learns that she’s speaking with an accent, she immediately assures Neila that she will work on correcting her accent, because she doesn’t want to cause trouble with other people.

Next, Gehl reappears and it becomes clear that because Alanna spent time among the Tehkohns, they can no longer be friends for political reasons.

Neila questions Alanna about how she survived, and Alanna states that she’ll tell her when Jules comes home.

I think Butler was right to refer to this as a “Star Trek novel” though possibly not for the same reasons she thought of it that way. What we have here is a pretty classic set up! Group A hates Group B and then someone actively tries to get them to cooperate. Of course, you could just as easily state that this is a Andre Norton set up. Or a YA science fiction set up. It’s a very simple set up, but I don’t think its necessarily a bad one, though I can certainly sympathize with a writer not being happy about the way a book turned out, and orphaning it as a result.

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Filed under Octavia Butler, racism, Reading, science fiction, Survivor

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