"The Book of Martha" by Octavia Butler: An Appreciation by Mary Madewell
God kept silent but was so palpably, disturbingly present that even in the silence Martha felt rebuked.
In these seventeen words Octavia E. Butler brings the reader as close to the divine as a prayer. With a few simple words she can take us anywhere she likes. We are her willing captives. In this case where Butler likes is Heaven, and who she likes is the one with all the answers, and incidentally, all the questions. Her prose is subtle, deft, and as perfect as a new child. Not standing in the shadow of the Lord yet? How about this:
"Don't you know everything?"
God smiled. "No, I outgrew that trick long ago. You can't imagine how boring it was."
Beautiful, ideal, and more than a little chilling. As an agnostic, I found Butler's portrayal of a flawed God curious and wonderful. Here is the literal representation of the Lord, our ultimate leader, and He's admitting boredom like any child seeking distraction. Butler's God, as frightening as he is to contemplate, feels more true to me than the God gleaned from the pulpit, perhaps for the very reasons that Martha is eventually able to question and reprimand her kidnapper. His flaws make him a target for judgment rather than the ultimate Judge, drawing Him down to the level of any erring fellow man. A simultaneously alarming and comforting view.
On the surface, "The Book of Martha" is a story about choices; the choice we make between a struggle for improvement or an easier path of continuing as we are, the choice between the known and the unknown, the choice between trusting in faith or merely believing in what's before our eyes. The story is about Martha Bes, a middle-aged writer given a choice by God. The process of her choosing creates the bulk of the story, but by the time Martha reaches her decision, by the time we reach the end, Butler has opened wide her simple premise to include more vital and encompassing ideas.
The reader is invited to consider a writer's place in the pattern of the world, a notion every writer seems to explore at some point. She also touches on the nature of addiction, cultural evolution, the balance of need and fulfillment, the repercussions of achieving our goals, equality between the sexes and the races of the world, and the future of humanity in general. Here Butler's touch is so light, even these weighty themes are offered as nearly subliminal glimpses of something deeper than mere story, and the choice of whether or not to take a longer look is left where it should be, with the reader.
"The Book of Martha" is as timeless as it is relevant, and Martha's final decision leaves the question of whether we glimpse the future or the past. Is this a vision of our tomorrow or our yesterday? Either answer brings hope for the future and a touch of fear of a God of limitation and weakness.
God offers Martha a choice with a stipulation that if Martha accepts she will return to life as whatever she decides is "one of their lowliest". After God's final incarnation, Butler's vision of the lowliest being in humankind leaves us to examine our own motives and egos, and there is no superior accomplishment for any writer than to inspire a greater sense of self-awareness in her readers. And in that aspect as well, Butler brings us that much closer to the humility of the devout before God.
A sincere thanks to Ellen Datlow and Octavia E. Butler for allowing me the chance to read this amazing and beautiful tale.
Link to story.