Octavia Butler’s Survivor: Romance & Speculation

Keguro Macharia

“I mean to survive”
–Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower


At the heart of Octavia Butler’s Survivor (1979) lies a forgettable rape scene:

He covered me with the thick, very soft blanket of his fur and hurt me as he forced his way into my body, an intruder too large and much unwelcome. Alien as we were to each other, he must have been able to read my pain in my expression.

“I always give pain before I give pleasure,” he said. “Your body will accustom itself to me.”

And if it didn’t, that was my problem. I put my teeth together and closed my eyes and waited for it to be over. He startled me once, bit me just at the throat. Not hard, not painfully, but he let me feel his teeth more than I would have preferred. I was surprised enough to grab a handful of his head fur to pull his head away. But in doing that, I looked at him and saw that his body had gone luminescent white. He continued to bite me, but more gently.

I let go of his fur, smoothed it unnecessarily. Left alone, it would smooth itself but I found it pleasant to touch. His one good feature.

“You like my fur,” he said later as we lay together, side by side.

“To touch,” I said. “It’s good to touch.”

How rapidly this scene shifts from “unwelcome” sex to seeking pleasure, as though the rapist’s promise, “I always give pain before I give pleasure,” must come true if one is to survive. Pleasure might be the ability to forget violation, to transform violation, through forgetting, into something one can survive and, maybe, term pleasure.

I first learned about scenes like this from reading Harold Robbins. His men would promise women pleasure—“you will grow to like it”—as they violated women who, in Robbins’s fantasies, hated the pleasures they were forced to endure. As Catharine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin write, “Sometimes men rape or maim women sexually while telling them that they know they like it because they saw women like them in pornography who liked it” (Pornography and Civil Rights 50). Before the mass adoption of the VCR in the early 1980s, pornography was screened in public movie theaters and consumed by adults who attended the theater. Butler uses an available script popularized through authors like Robbins and the pornography industry.

“Anything becomes a pleasure if one does it too often,” writes Oscar Wilde. In Robbins, patriarchy took this as an invitation: women would come to like it.

I read Robbins for the sex scenes before I read Johanna Lindsey and Kathleen Woodwiss and Rosemary Rogers. In the mid-to-late 1980s, when I was reading them, these authors provided relief from Barbara Cartland’s saccharine novels filled with 16-year-old ingénues and 35-year-old romantic princes, Cinderella fairytales that concluded with one chaste kiss.[i] Where Cartland’s romances created unreal fantasy worlds, the sexual immediacy—let’s be honest, the sexual violence—especially in Rogers and Woodwiss, seemed more real. Sex was violence.

The conquering hero in these historical novels would, inevitably, rape the heroine. Love would flower as the heroine endured rape after rape. Love would make the rape stop. Or, love would transform the nature of rape. It would no longer be called rape. It would be called love making. Perhaps love in these novels was the moment when women accepted they had to live with being raped.[ii] Perhaps I’m being too harsh. After all, it’s been many years since I read these authors.

The ubiquity of such scenes in romance novels from the 70s and early 80s made them “forgettable.” Readers of the romance were supposed to read such scenes, feel horrified, and, later, forget them, as heroines, inevitably, forgave the men who raped them. Romance could only thrive if past violations were forgotten. If love healed all pain. Or made violation unimportant. Romance novels have short memories. Romance readers are expected to have shorter memories.

Once I had discovered romance where the hero did not rape the heroine, my tastes shifted.

A speculative thesis: Butler cleaves science fiction and romance by placing a minoritized woman at its heart. To cleave is to join and separate, to pull and push, to stretch and risk tearing. To cleave is to ask about what genres make possible and impossible, about the lifeworlds they permit and foreclose. To cleave is to occupy the impossibility that grants one legibility. Through Alanna Verrick, Octavia Butler explores how a minoritized woman might occupy worlds that seem impossible.

I’m telling an incomplete story.

One truncated history of the romance novel might argue that it has shifted from a genre focused on managing men’s rage and violence to one that imagines hetero-patriarchal institutions provide limited gender parity. As Janice Radway argues, “even the most progressive of recent romances continue to bind female desire to a heterosexuality constructed as the only natural sexual alliance, and thus continue to prescribe patriarchal marriage as the ultimate route to the realization of a mature female subjectivity” (Reading the Romance 16). If in the classic bildungsroman maturity is achieved when the protagonist subordinates personal desire to social expectation, within the contemporary romance, “mature female subjectivity” is achieved when the female protagonist accepts that her desire for independence should be subordinated to the patriarchal order she inhabits, as long as one of its representatives treats her well. Thus, working class, poor, and struggling women fall in love with bosses described as “cruel,” “arrogant,” and “demanding,” mega-wealthy men who provide social mobility for these women. Women are assigned the work of getting powerful men to demonstrate a little tenderness—to laugh a little, to play a little—within a domestic sphere while leaving patriarchal structures unchallenged. If interpersonal violence no longer haunts the contemporary romance novel, structural violence remains intact.

Survivor is not an official part of Octavia Butler’s corpus. As history has it, she regretted writing the book and asked that it not be reprinted. Now, it circulates surreptitiously, from fan to fan. Even this rejection is unsentimental. Though I wonder if she rejected the book because it skated too close to the romance novel, too close to a genre that, in the 1970s, had no way to see or value characters like Alanna Verrick.

Survivor is a romance novel that dares to expose the truth of romance. It is, as with all of Butler’s works, unsentimental.

The novel’s protagonist, Alanna Verrick, is a biracial orphan—black and Asian—who, along with a religious community, “the Missionaries,” has fled earth to escape an ongoing war between psychic humans—the patternists—and alien-mutated humans—the clayarks. The history of this war is told in the official four books in the series: Wild Seed (1980), Mind of My Mind (1977), Clay’s Ark (1984), and Patternmaster (1976).

Butler is unsentimental because her work never suggests that hard times bridge differences: her dystopian futures continue to be fractured by difference. Hierarchies continue to be made and enforced. The quest for freedom is ongoing, even amid the desire to survive. Often, quests for survival and desires for freedom conflict.

Even though the Missionaries have landed on an alien world, populated by two warring factions—the Tehkohn and the Garkohn, both of the Kohn race-species—and even though they are fighting to survive in this new place, Alanna’s status as orphan and biracial troubles the Missionaries.

When she is first captured by the Missionaries at the age of fifteen, the doctor who treats her injuries speaks with her foster father, Jules:

“You could be making a mistake, Jules. She’s not the harmless young girl she appears to be. And she’ll never replace your children.”

“My children are dead,” said my foster father quietly. “I’ve accepted that. I wouldn’t expect her or anyone else to replace them.”

The doctor was silent for a moment. Then he sighed. “Well, at least she can talk.”

“Of course she can talk! She is human, Bart, wild or not.”

“Yes… physically anyway. Some of them can’t do much more than grunt, you know. They’ve either forgotten speech, or they never learned it. As wild humans, they spend their lives either hunting or being hunted. By the time they’re this girl’s age, they’re more wild than human.”

“This one’s a future Missionary,” said my foster father. “She’ll learn. She’ll become one of us.”

“Maybe.” The doctor sounded doubtful. “If the people let her, and if she really wants to. But I think all she’ll learn for quite a while is how to pretend to be one of us. Don’t expect more than that.”

Alanna enters this community of humans as less-than-human, as a question mark, and this status keeps being confirmed. Soon after Jules and Neila Verrick, a white couple, foster her, a black couple in the community offers to take her, to maintain the racial harmony—via segregation—of the community. While the Verricks refuse this offer, Alanna retains the sense that she is always about to commit a mistake that will finally get her exiled.

Given that Alanna is never at home while on earth, the move to an alien world is not a radical displacement. Her meeting and falling in love with an alien, who abducts and rapes her, is fantasy, but no less fantastic than the idea that she will ever feel at home among the race-segregated humans who adopted her.

Here’s an early review of the book:

It is interesting to see female fantasies emerging in science fiction; it is also important to perceive them for what they are, because a fantasy – one of the persistent, satisfying day-dreams of mankind – is not a good story.

The reviewer, Cherry Wilder, is especially incensed by how Butler characterizes the Missionaries:

The author is persistently unfair to the Missionaries; on the strength of their wrong, intolerant opinions, they dwindle into a bunch of dumb Aunt Sallies, un-characterized and without a scrap of revivalist vigor. Jules and Neila, the heroine’s adopted parents, are too good to be true . . . the realism of every character is sacrificed to the elaborate set up. Octavia Butler understands the science fiction idiom but she has not found the right balance of theme, plot and background.

Unsurprisingly, Wilder does not mention Alanna’s race and background: that she is biracial and orphaned, understood as an interloper in the Missionary community. Instead, Wilder wants a more flattering depiction of the race-segregated, fundamentalist Missionaries. Butler, to repeat again, is unsentimental. She rarely, if ever, offers flattering depictions of unhumanizing situations.

Yet, I find myself agreeing with how Wilder characterizes Survivor—a female fantasy that tries to inhabit science fiction. One notes that Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, regularly acclaimed as a science fiction classic, is a male fantasy. I defer, for the moment, the question of whose fantasies make a “good story.”

Another name for “female fantasy” is romance. Wilder objects, after all, to the love plot between a human woman and an alien man. Such a romance plot—as unrealistic as anything by Barbara Cartland or Kathleen Woodwiss—has no place in serious science fiction.

Here’s Lauren Berlant on romance:

[R]omance is a vehicle for marketing heterosexuality as the very form of fantasy and also the normal context in which fantasy can be lived, but not in a generic way: the heteronormative love plot is at its most ideological when it produces subjects who believe that their love story expresses their true, nuanced, and unique feelings, their own personal destiny. (Desire/Love 109)

Here’s Janice Radway:

Later I would come to see the romance as a symptom of the ongoing instability of the heterosexual solution to the oedipal dilemma, that is, as a ritual effort to convince its readers that heterosexuality is both inevitable and natural and that it is necessarily satisfying as well. (Reading the Romance 14).

Neither heterosexuality nor romance is premised on the equal standing between two humans. Gender hierarchies prove this. In fact, our available languages for sex and sexuality fail when confronted with the relationship between slave owners and slaves—if, for instance, rape against women can only be recognized as rape if those women are considered as human, then what do we call the sexual violation of enslaved women considered property?

What does one call the sexual violation of an object that resists? As Butler’s readers know, she returns to this question repeatedly in her work—in Kindred, for instance, and in “Bloodchild.”

More to the point, if much of science fiction is devoted to the problem of survival—and, certainly, all dystopic science fiction focuses on survival—how does that survival function for the minoritized woman: orphaned, biracial, “wild”?

How do women survive?

The mainstream romance novel remains race-segregated. While a few new imprints focus on minority women and, increasingly, African companies such as Storymoja and Cassava Republic are publishing non-Western romances, mainstream romances, those cheaply available in supermarket aisles, remain white and heteronormative. Alanna Verrick remains an impossible figure within contemporary, mainstream romance.

Contemporary, mainstream romance continues to animate many women’s fantasies not only of a good life, but of the only possible life worth having. Increasingly anxiety-ridden, contemporary romance features “epilogues” set years into the future after the inevitable marriage, reassuring its readers that romance overcomes divorce statistics. The range of desirable partnerships has expanded—more romances feature “ordinary” women, not simply conventionally attractive women, even though those continue to dominate. The message: romance is available to you and you and you and you. And, perhaps in what might be the most democratizing gesture yet, contemporary romance allows for middle class fantasies, extending beyond plots focused on millionaires and billionaires. Romance no longer requires extraordinary wealth. Romance has become ordinary, within one’s grasp. It can happen in ordinary worlds. Even as it remains bound by fantasy. Here, I must leave incomplete the story told by sales numbers of romance and borrowing patterns at libraries—though I gesture to it.

What if the secret to romance is that it’s always a fantasy about how women survive? To see romance in this way requires placing Alanna Verrick at its heart. Such an impossibility in 1979 that science fiction might have been the only way to imagine an Alanna Verrick. Not finding love or satisfaction within the hetero-norm of a race-segregated U.S., but finding possibility within an alien culture untainted by the U.S.’s race-segregation.

It is unsurprising that Alanna Verrick, a “wild human,” identifies with the aliens, the Kohn. The Missionaries consider the Kohn “strangely colored, furred caricatures of human beings”:

The Missionaries had made a religion of maintaining and spreading their own version of humanity—a religion that had helped them to preserve that humanity back on Earth. Now, though, their religion had gotten in their way. It had helped them to justify their belief that the Kohn were lower creatures—higher than apes, but lower than true humans who had been made in the image of God.

“[H]igher than apes, but lower than true humans.” One might accuse Butler of being unsubtle. But, reading contemporary reviews of the novel, one is struck by the willful inattention to racialization. Here’s the opening to Geraldine Morse’s review:

If you enjoyed Mandingo, that titillating tear-jerker about the lust of a white plantation mistress for her black slave, you’ll probably enjoy Survivor, which raises the tension at least theoretically by introducing a pleasant bestiality in the male partner, who would closely resemble a six foot blue gorilla if such a thing existed.

Morse’s review consistently sees and unsees racialization—histories of scientific racism and histories (and presents) of comparing black men and women to animals hover at the edge of the review, unseen, unacknowledged, uninteresting. To Morse’s credit, she sees that the novel inclines toward “the historical romance”: “The main fault of this well-paced work, aside from its semi-science, is a lack of depth of characterization such as is often found in historical romance.” In fact, Morse goes further and sees the hybrid work of the novel: “sf/Gothic/Romance.” But because Morse cannot see the impossibility of Alanna Verrick, she cannot envision why such a hybrid, such a monster—we must invoke Frankenstein here—might matter.

By the end of Survivor, Alanna’s alien husband has been killed. The child she bore with him is dead. And her Missionary father, Jules, has rejected her because she had a relationship with an alien. The exile she expected has arrived. Simultaneously, she has chosen to stay with the Kohn, chosen, that is, to live apart from the contempt, race-segregation, and religious zealotry of the Missionaries. She takes her chances elsewhere. With the Kohn.

Butler is unsentimental.

Her characters choose to survive.

A new(er) generation of science fiction authors are making Octavia Butler newly possible. Author and editor Daniel José Older started a petition asking that the World Fantasy award use Butler’s image, replacing H.P. Lovecraft. Butler is regularly cited as an inspiration by an expanding roster of science fiction authors.

While Survivor still hovers at the edge of these conversations, it might be time to re-assess its place in Butler’s oeuvre. Time to see the kinds of lifeworlds imaginable when science fiction and romance take a minoritized woman as their focus.

[i] Rogers and Woodwiss were publishing in the 1970s—I read them much later. They are another context for Butler’s work.

[ii] “A young man spoke of growing up gay, learning from heterosexual pornography that to be loved by a man meant to accept his violence, and as a result accepting the destructive brutality of his first male lover” (MacKinnon & Dworkin 34).

Keguro Macharia dislikes cute bios. He cannot write one, even to save orphaned parrots in children’s books. He thinks cabbage is evil. Kale also. Also goats. And hopes a good scientist will develop a way to exile all three to an island that can never be found. He reads a lot of romance. And hangs out on twitter.