"Amnesty" by Octavia Butler: An Appreciation by Claire Light
Octavia Butler's project in over a dozen books of fiction has been to look hard at these relationships in all their brutality and cold comfort. Entering a Butler story is a process of falling in love and then steeling yourself for pain; the payoff is fascination, a view of life you never wanted to see, but can't look away from. However you proceed from the experience her stories offer, you're left with a gratitude towards Butler herself, that she was brave enough to put herself through such a shocking reckoning, and to record the event so the rest of us can follow from a safer distance. I imagine that Butler herself might feel some gratitude towards her protagonists, who are always balanced between two hostile cultures, and who choose to absorb that hostility to create a bridge. They allow her to put them through hell, so that she can report on what hell is like, and maybe report a way out of it.
Butler pursues this project through an essential plot construct, repeated in different ways throughout her oeuvre: a character, almost always a woman, emerges from violent, invasive captivity--captured first by foreign invaders, then by her own people, now suspicious of her relation to aliens. Ironically, it is this experience of being a captive of both cultures that gives her power over both. She is the only one who can bridge the two. Fearful of both, and not forgiving either, she still inserts herself--her body and her heart and mind--into the gap, knowing that either or both may hurt or kill her for her generosity. It is not all heroism; she has nowhere else to go, and if she fails, humanity may not survive.
"Amnesty" distills the essential Butler moment. Noah was kidnapped and experimented upon as a child by recently arrived and technologically superior aliens. When she was released, the US government held her captive for several years, torturing her for information. Now she works for the aliens, recruiting humans to serve in their now-harmless experiments.
Almost the entire story is a dialogue between her and the six human recruits. The protagonist, heroic as she is, is also calculating, revealing her story to her hearers slowly, tactically reassuring them, shocking them, arousing their anger and their pity and their fear. Her personal goal, beyond the aliens' instructions to "calm" the humans, is to convince her afraid and hostile or self-deluding hearers of her essential message: you don't have to like it, you don't have to forgive, but if you want to survive you have to deal with it. The end of the story is not a win or a loss, but simply the end of the dialogue.
Reading "Amnesty" recalls for me every traumatic and wonderful Butler book I've read, and reminds me, again, of how much reading Butler has changed my view of my world and my place in it. What changed me was Butler forcing me to root for characters who didn't stand up for their rights (because it would have gotten them killed) but rather compromised out of necessity. She forced me to look at myself, at my often silly insistence upon abstract rights in the face of daily, unbearable, soul-destroying compromise. Would I be able to be a slave? Could I do what was necessary to save not only myself but my entire community? What would I do in a situation in which I had no good choices?
What Butler does is to take a "minority" experience--an experience of being unbearably helpless and compromised, a frightening experience, an experience of taking power when you have none, and making choices when no one gives you any, of ignoring the drive toward triumph because there's no victory to be had, and living without joy because grief has crushed it--and make us want to know about it. It's not feel-good multi-culti boosterism. It's the complex and painful truth, told imaginatively and with respect for your intelligence and choice. I'm grateful for these stories.
Link to story.