[REVIEW] Survivor, by Octavia Butler

A tablet displaying the cover of Survivor(a woman trapped in a green tree with a furry blue man growing from the top of it, on a red background) held in front of metal stakes chained together standing in the grass

(UPDATE, May 11 2021: I just found out that the Afro-Speculative bookshop Sistah SciFi has this title available as an ebook! Find it HERE and enjoy!)

(This novel is out of print. Find other works by Octavia E Butler HERE.)

This novel was originally published in 1978. It’s been out of print since 1979–unlike all of Butler’s other novels, it’s never been reprinted, at her request. Don’t ask me how I got a copy or I’ll send you the bill.

It’s really hard to know what to say about this book, to be honest. Butler herself hated it. I’m a huge fan who had heard about the book for years and was positively giddy at the thought of reading the legendary “lost” Patternist novel.But now that I’ve finally gotten my hands on it– I can see why she didn’t like it. It doesn’t add anything of significance to the overarching Patternist story, so if you’re a fan of the epic sci-fi series and were worried about missing something, don’t be. In Survivor, a group of Missionaries leave Earth to escape the ravaging Clayark virus and settle on another planet, only to find that there is already a society of intelligent alien beings there. However, fanaticism keeps the Earthlings from seeing humanity in the furry humanoid residents of their new planet, even after the very human adopted Missionary Alanna (who is Blasian, a rarity for sci-fi heroines) finds out how accepting the alien community can be. Naturally, space colonization shenanigans ensue.

Usually I only give a bare bones summary of the books I review, because I want you to go read them for yourselves and I don’t personally enjoy spoilers or spoiling. I thought of giving a more detailed analysis of Survivor’s plot and themes because it’s out of print and you can’t read it, but to be honest there’s nothing here that wasn’t done better, later. Both the Parables and Lilith’s Brood have similar characters, themes and conflicts, only much more fully realized and–it pains me to say it–better written. Butler called Survivor a “Star Trek novel” and said the book revolves around offensive clichés. Frankly, it does. Whatever narratives we’ve been trained to accept about addiction, colonization, foster children and adoptees, fundamentalism and first contact with ‘others’ are all in this book with no subversion. I knew exactly what would happen from the first chapter, which is very disappointing for a Butler novel. Her genius was in showing us the grim reality that the standard sci-fi clichés and tropes were built to idealistically hide, but this book is rather ham-handed and obvious. While Alanna is a great protagonist–a clear prototype for Olamina and Lilith in later works — the central relationships in the book are presented in a straightforward way even though they would be considered horrifying and abusive on any planet. Also, the conclusion and its implied commentary on indigeneity and colonization could be interpreted in pretty gross ways.

I’m excited that I got to read this but I see why it’s not in print. 2 stars and a trip back to the vault for Survivor.

(Now go read the Parables and Lilith’s Brood, if you haven’t already. You can find all of Butler’s works listed here but please be aware that this site has affiliate relationships with entities like Bookshop and if you click and purchase, a commission may be earned. Peace!)

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