8 years ago, famed science fiction author Octavia Butler died suddenly of a stroke, leaving her latest trilogy unfinished and her fans bereft. But now, scholars are sifting through the archives she bequeathed to the Huntington Library — and one has discovered plans for the books she never finished.
Gerry Canavan, a literary scholar at Marquette University, was the first person to open the boxes of Butler's notes, journals and drafts at the Huntington. He discovered a treasure trove that revealed a lot about where Butler's work was going, and what her writing process was like.
He found that Butler often wrote many versions of her novels, with many false starts. Interestingly, the work she discarded tended to be a lot darker and more pessimistic than what made its way into final drafts.
In the Los Angeles Review of Books, Canavan writes about Butler's multi-year struggle to write further books in the Parable series, which are about a woman who founds a new, space-focused religion after a government collapse in the near-future United States:
Nearly all of the texts focus on a character named Imara — who has been named the Guardian of Lauren Olamina's ashes, who is often said to be her distant relative, and who is plainly imagined as the St. Paul to Olamina's Christ (her story sometimes begins as a journalist who has gone undercover with the Earthseed "cult" to expose Olamina as a fraud, and winds up getting roped in). Imara awakens from cryonic suspension on an alien world where she and most of her fellow Earthseed colonists are saddened to discover they wish they'd never left Earth in the first place. The world — called "Bow" — is gray and dank, and utterly miserable; it takes its name from the only splash of color the planet has to offer, its rare, naturally occurring rainbows. They have no way to return to Earth, or to even to contact it; all they have is what little they've brought with them, which for most (but not all) of them is a strong belief in the wisdom of the teachings of Earthseed. Some are terrified; many are bored; nearly all are deeply unhappy. Her personal notes frame this in biological terms. From her notes to herself: "Think of our homesickness as a phantom-limb pain — a somehow neurologically incomplete amputation. Think of problems with the new world as graft-versus-host disease — a mutual attempt at rejection."
From here the possible plots begin to multiply beyond all reason. In some of the texts, the colonists are in total denial about the fact that they are all slowly going blind; in others the blindness is sudden, striking randomly and irreversibly; in others they all begin to go insane, or suffer seizures, or mad rages, or fall into long comas; in still others they begin to hurt and kill each other for no other reason than the basic inevitable frailty of human nature (the same, alas, on any world). In one of the versions of the novel the colonists develop a telepathic capacity that soon turns nightmarish when they are unable to resist it or shut it off; in one twist on this idea it's only the women who are so empowered, with the men organizing a secret conspiracy to figure out how they might regain control.
There's a version where the blindness and the telepathy are linked; Imara becomes able to see out of others' eyes as she loses the ability to see out of her own. In some Imara finds she needs to solve a murder, the first murder on the new world; in still others Imara herself is murdered, but discovers that on this strange alien world she is somehow able to haunt another colonists' body as a ghost, replicating Doro's power from the Patternist books and thereby linking even the Parables to the speculative universe she first developed as a teenager. Sometimes Imara is an Earthseed skeptic; other times she is a true believer; sometimes she is, like Olamina, a hyperempath; still other times the cure for "sharing" has been discovered in the form of an easy, noninvasive pill. Sometimes Bow is inhabited by small animals, other times by dinosaur-like giant sauropods, and still other times by just moss and lichens; sometimes the colonists seem to encounter intelligent aliens who might be real, but might just be tokens of their escalating collective madness; and on and on and on.
One version of the blindness narrative is abandoned with no small grumbling after José Saramago wins the Nobel Prize for Blindness in 1998; another is put aside after she determines it's just too similar to Kim Stanley Robinson's famous Red Mars; still another is abandoned shortly after Butler frustratedly, self-loathingly declares Imara to have "a personality more like mine" against Olamina's "super me — the me I wish I was." Sometimes Earthseed seems more like a self-help philosophy; sometimes it becomes a genuinely mystical, transcendent religion; sometimes we see it begin to shift from the first toward the second; sometimes it suffers schisms, heresies, and purges. Sometimes Imara is a former cop; sometimes she is a trained psychologist; sometimes she's a doctor; sometimes she's that undercover journalist; still other times she was the victim of a horrific series of rapes as a child, saved by one of Olamina's orphanages when no other entity or institution would bother. When Butler begins writing the book, Newt Gingrich is named as the model for the central antagonist; in the versions from the 2000s, it's George W. Bush; sometimes in between it's other science fiction writers with whom Butler didn't especially get along.
I corresponded with Canavan, and asked if he'd found any hints about where she would have gone with the trilogy she began shortly before her death. The trilogy began with her last published novel, Fledgling, a fascinating take on the vampire mythos. Canavan said that she had some notes about the books that would have followed. He explained via email:
She didn't write all that much of the Fledgling sequel but there's the start of something. As was pretty typical of her she was juggling a couple different possibilities for the book simultaneously.
One of them would have had ASYLUM/FLIGHT be the second part of a trilogy: it would have had Shorri wandering around the country with her harem looking for a place she felt safe, living with vampires for a bit, living in Seattle and finding out she couldn't take all the many sensations there, and then finally building a house with Wright and the rest in the woods to start her own colony. Over the course of this she would have also adopted a sister and done some investigation into her own past. Then the third book would have seen Shorri coming into her own as a vampire as she got ready to mate.
Another version of the book (which may or may not have overlapped with the first version) has some of the Silk sons escape the punishment of renaming/exile and kidnap/imprison Shorri in an effort to force her to pair-bond with them (and thereby somehow force a situation where their family-line can continue). This seemed as though it would potentially have been an extremely disturbing thriller and Shorri's efforts to escape imprisonment during the day while being drugged and mistreated at night, as well as her internal debate about whether she should murder the Silk boys rather than risk getting stuck with them as mates. It seems like in the end of this version of the book she would have murdered them, and gotten exiled from vampire society for a year as punishment (thereby setting up the third book to be about her wanderings with her harem, I guess).
A third version of the book has the Silk boys replaced with a Dracula-like figure who is some kind of Super-Ina (but who also seems like his primary agenda would be to imprison and torture Shorri in pursuit of creating his own race of super-vampires).
So it seems as though they would have been pretty disturbing, bordering on torture-porn.
There was a plot running through with a Russian woman who had been sold into human trafficking by a father or a boyfriend as a girl, who would have joined Shorri's harem (and who Shorri would have tried to help get over her nightmares with her power of thrall). This would have been an interesting way to explore some of the more disturbing aspects of the Ina/human symbiotic relationship, I think. There was also some more attention to what it would be like for symbionts to get together and be in a relationship, both with and without the participation of the Ina.
And then there were a few tantalizing hints of a novel set a generation or two later, when many more of the vampires can go out in the sun like Shorri, and what they might do when they had no weaknesses and there was nothing stopping them from taking over the world. This is the one that I'm most interested in because it suggest Shorri as a somewhat darker figure than we might have thought — she really is disturbing a delicate ecological balance with her power to walk in the sun, which could cause a lot of problems down the road when played out to its logical conclusion...
For those of us who sorely miss Butler's writing, it's incredible to get this glimpse of where her thoughts were going with these unfinished works.
Read more about Canavan's research in the Los Angeles Review of Books