How many other appreciators have lumped together the ineffable Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin, and Octavia Butler? Combined they may be up there with poems to spring or love in terms of clichéd subjects. But I’m going to do it anyway because these three transcend easy comparison about “women writing speculative fiction.” They are prophets of the world and cartographers of the human soul. These weird sisters tell each of us, consumed as we are by our own ambition and paranoia and little earthquakes, “Listen. I have cooked up a story to tell you.”
I avoided reading The Handmaid’s Tale for years and years. I carried some snotty assumption that I knew what it contained, summed up as, “Yes, good, I’m sure but something something, second wave feminism, blah, blah, blah.” In no uncertain terms, I could be (can be?) a smug little shit.
So when I read Handmaid’s, tossing in the wake of the 2016 election, it contained a renewed vitality. But more than its political relevance, The Handmaid’s Tale is very, very good—one woman’s claustrophobic dystopian nightmare rendered in shades of black, blue, and, of course, red. The brilliance of Handmaid’s spotlights the mere fineness of The Testaments.
Last week I re-read Oryx and Crake for, oh, the third or fourth time, but the first in several years. Friends, it’s so good. Fun and funny and dark and desperate. It unspools Snowman’s journey back to Paradice alongside his memories of how the boy-man Jimmy (Snowman-that-was) watched from the sidelines as his best friend destroyed humanity in his attempt to re-make the world.
On this reading I realized that readerly sympathies generally lie with Jimmy’s—fasci-horrified by sexual abuse and the exploitation of children and the weirdness of the genetic-technical “solutions” being created and marketed by the Compounds. But by making Jimmy such a feckless jerk-boy, Atwood also draws our sympathies to the brilliant, perceptive Crake and the nonchalant, why-dwell-in-the-past? Oryx. Atwood engenders a narratorial switcheroo that makes it hard for the reader to sit in easy judgement on the world she’s created (a world inspired by ours), or on the choices Crake made or Oryx’s refusal to live in the past. “Listen,” Atwood whispers, stirring a bubbling stew. “This could be you.”
Ursula Le Guin
Ursula Le Guin’s mind contained vast troves of perception and generosity. From her essays to her poetry to her science fiction, much could be unpacked about Le Guin’s body of work (of which I have only scratched the surface). But I wish now to talk about the “Earthsea” books. This series of fantasy books reshaped my heart. Ostensibly YA, they deal with grief and trauma as essential components of human experience and show they can only be met with honesty and bravery. They combine their beautiful, philosophical stories with dragons and wizards to keep things interesting. “Listen,” Le Guin says, throwing in a dash of this and that to the cauldron, “This is you.”
The Queen. The Sage Mage. The one who may have been a literal Genius. Octavia Butler seemed consumed by the possible, driven by the question, “What if?” Darkness threads through her work. She did not aspire to mete out hope or answers or fairy tales. Instead, she trafficked in hard truths and complex possibilities.
Fortunately, what Butler created transcends fiction alone, and provides a philosophy for how to explore, envision, and enact alternative realities. I’m thinking of Dawn, the first of the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, which pushes against what it means to be male/female, human/alien, and questions the value of those constructs anyway. But mostly I’m thinking of Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. One of these books broke me. The other seemed poised to do the same before it transformed and filled up my heart and soul and vision to the point of overflowing. Like her creation Lauren Oya Olamina, Butler is hard but not heartless.
I now take as my mantra Butler’s Earthseed verse, “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you.” The same truth applies to Butler or her books or however-you-want-to-think-about-it. They touch people and change them and are changed in their turn. Which is about as beautiful a metaphor for reading as one can find, really. Akin to Michael Chabon’s tin cans or Toni Morrison’s assertion that the mind of the writer and the mind of the reader are bound together in a dance that requires both of them. (It takes two to tango, after all.) We—reader and writer, literature and reality—touch and change each other. I have Octavia Butler to thank for showing me that. “Listen,” she says, pouring out a putrid smelling cup full of a mesmerizing green liquid and handing it forward, “This is us.”