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Survivor (Octavia E. Butler, 1978)

Of the twelve novels that Octavia E. Butler wrote, Survivor is the most elusive, which is no accident. Butler disliked it, calling it her “Star Trek novel,” and she did not allow it to be reprinted along with her other works. Given that no new edition appeared after her untimely death in 2006, it seems unlikely that any is forthcoming, at least until 2076 when it enters the public domain. Until then, curious readers will have to settle for spending upwards of $200 for a copy on ebay or, like I did, using the wonders of Interlibrary Loan to request a copy.

Butler was right, in a way. It’s among her weakest works, although I’d put it slightly above her last book, Fledgling. Both works suffer from the same problem: worldbuilding at the expense of telling a compelling story. If I prefer this one, it’s because there are dashes of the kind of brutal, sometimes stomach-churning action that distinguished the two other Patternist novels I’ve read, Mind of My Mind and Clay’s Ark

It is a Patternist novel, but that’s more of a loose collection of stories set in the same universe than a series, per se. This novel has the most connection to Clay’s Ark, in that it’s set in a far future where humans have reached the stars in part to escape the ravages of the “clayark” virus that has ravaged the Earth and changed much of its population into hyperviolent mutants. The only real connection to the other Patternist novels is almost a throwaway: the ship that the Missionaries used to reach the stars was designed by the super-telepath Patternists.

Anyway. That’s all prologue. The Missionaries are a community of religious zealots who abandon Earth and land on an Earth-like planet inhabited by the intelligent, humanoid Kohn, whom I can’t help but imagining as blue-green Wookiees. The Kohn are split into two groups: the Garkohn, who live on the plains and are addicted to a plant called meklah, and who quickly turn the Missionaries into their servants by getting them addicted, and the Tehkohn, mountain-dwelling warriors who eschew the drug and sometimes raid the Garkohn and their human minions. We’re dropped into this story as the Garkohn and Missionaries rescue our main character Alanna from the Tehkohn and bring her back to the Missionary settlement.

Alanna was a “wild human” on Earth, someone who didn’t inhabit one of the fortified strongholds of the remaining humans but had managed to escape infection by the clayark virus. She’s an Afro-Asian woman whom the Missionary leader Jules and his wife adopted. She’s still an outcast: a person of color among the all-white Missionaries, a formerly feral woman among the city-bound settlers. And after her capture by the Tehkohn, she becomes another kind of outcast, as she becomes a member of their folk and bears the child of their leader, Diut.

I think what Butler was saying when she dismissed this as a Star Trek novel is a combination of the setting and the overly simplified conflicts over race that she set up. It’s very Star Trek in that the Missionaries were able to locate a planet that was so perfect for them, that had air they could breathe, plants and animals they could eat, and a species that’s so humanoid that the two groups are able to interbreed. The odds of that happening seem pretty slim. And the racial/species conflict that runs through the book is pretty simplistic: given what we learn about the Missionaries and the Kohn—especially the Tehkohn—who, indeed, are the real savages? 

Butler spends a lot of time talking about the structure of Kohn society, and in that way it falls into the Fledgling trap of too much world-building getting in the way of the story. The colors of the Kohn are almost a system of racial purity or caste. Yellow is weak, darker colors are valued, and the bluest of blues, like Diut, are in charge. The Garkohn, having killed off the “Hao” (the king-race of darkest blues) among them, are adrift, a tribe of scheming, savage drug addicts led by a thug. The Tehkohn, who maintained the caste system, are a wise, loving culture where everyone, even those of lowly yellow fur, is valued and plays an important part in society. This seems… weird, especially coming from Butler, and especially given her equal attention to the prejudice of the white Missionaries against both the brown-skinned Alanna and the furry natives.

The most interesting theme of the novel is that of the chameleon. The Kohn’s fur changes color according to their emotions—white for amusement, yellow for anger—and also gives them the ability to blend into their surroundings so well that humans can’t see them. In a way, they wear their hearts on their sleeves. More skilled or higher status Kohn can control the emotional color changes, but for the most part they seem incapable of hiding their true feelings. The humans, too, are depicted as in a constant struggle to hide their feelings, especially their racist ones. Much is made of the difficulty the white Missionaries had in accepting the BIPOC Alanna, beyond even her status as a former wild person. It seems clear that had she been white, she would have been accepted. And after she returns from her captivity with the Tehkhon, whom the humans view as subhuman animals, most of the Missionaries view her as doubly corrupt—indeed, she conceals the fact that she bore a child with Diut because that would be a bridge too far for any of them, including her adoptive parents.

This is a promising, flawed novel that’s not as bad as Butler believed. Perhaps if she had lived longer, had written more books, this book could be forgotten without it feeling like such a loss for the culture—that one-twelfth of the output of one of the most formidable minds in science fiction (or fiction, for that matter) is mostly unavailable until long after we’re dead. I do not endorse spending $200 for a chance to read it, but I do urge you to take advantage of one of the pinnacles of society, Interlibrary Loan, and order a copy to read.