Stylistically, “Childfinder” is everything Butler rigorously demanded of her own writing: It is lean, compelling and encapsulated, with the strong characterizations that are her hallmark, and a deft interweaving of African-American historical material, in this case the story of Harriet Tubman. In her name, “Childfinder” asks us to remember the sacrifices required to break from established systems of power, yet also contributes a bleak perspective on how even a successfully disruptive political movement might regardless be doomed to inhabit only its own particular historical moment. As in many of Butler’s other stories, the long run of human time washes over all, leaving less in its wake than ever imagined.
With “A Necessary Being”—the other, and longer, piece included in Unexpected Stories—readers get a backstory for the Kohn tribes with whom exiles from Earth contend in the third volume of the Patternist series, Survivor—a novel Butler eventually disavowed.
Much as she resisted writing “the ghetto,” Butler’s criticism of Survivor is that her treatment of aliens is too stereotypical. However, by shifting us more fully away from the human and giving us an immersive story about the capture and imprisonment of a Kohn leader, Diut, “A Necessary Being” produces a more nuanced sense of Survivor’s alien world, perhaps filling in a bit of what Butler perceived as lacking in the novel while still tacking very human problems of oppression, political consciousness and leadership. The story’s title is taken from a quote from a 17th-century sermon, which Butler records on the story’s drafts.
In November 2013, I had the privilege of being the first researcher to work with Butler’s papers at the Huntington. In that first encounter, I couldn’t help but wonder how such immensity could be reined in with such precision. The organizational strength of the archive assures us that the arrival of Unexpected Stories is only a beginning, even if it is difficult to imagine how some of Butler’s unpublished work can be wrangled into publication.
Butler approached storytelling as a fundamentally intellectual exercise, cultivating and transforming each story over many years, sometimes over decades. Her writing was her thinking, and much of her archive is work in progress. When she died, the world lost a genuinely innovative intellectual presence, but with this archive we are at least gifted with the luminous traces of a mind always and beautifully at work. Unexpected Stories carries some of those traces to old fans and new readers alike, with hopefully more to come.
Marisa Parham is director of Five College Digital Humanities and an associate professor of English at Amherst College, teaching and writing on questions of memory, technology and African-American literature and culture. She is currently writing about Octavia E. Butler, and you can follow her investigation of the Huntington Library’s Butler archive at FindingEstella.com.