Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Butler's Utopia Story

“The Book of Martha” is technically not science fiction at all. It reads as a romantic dream fantasy - Butler calls it her “utopia story” (214), and it ends the second edition of the Bloodchild stories beautifully. It also serves as an excellent way of thinking through some of the concepts Butler discusses in the “Radio Imagination” interview with Marilyn Mehaffy and AnaLouise Keating.

When God offers Martha, an author, a chance to alter one facet of humans in order to prevent them from destroying themselves, she claims that she doesn’t believe in utopias - “[I]t’s [not] possible to arrange a society so that everyone is content, everyone has what he or she wants” (202). God agrees - humanity is dominated by covetousness, the aggression inspired by wanting what one’s neighbor has (and more). This, to me, seems strikingly similar to the “human contradiction” that Butler writes about in the Xenogenesis Trilogy - “human beings have two characteristics that don’t work well together… Hierarchical behavior and intelligence” (“RI” p. 53). Martha hopes that by allowing everyone to have vivid dreams about their own “private, perfect [or imperfect] utopia every night… it might take the edge off their willingness to spend their waking hours trying to dominate or destroy one another” (204). The idea of private dream utopias traces back to Butler’s idea that one utopia cannot be ideal for everyone - a utopia is usually “perfect” only to the person who envisions it.

In “The Book of Martha,” utopia is relative, just as Martha’s image of God is relative - as God first appears as an old white man, then a black man, then a black woman who looks related to Martha, Martha learns that “you see what your life has prepared you to see” (209). That is, I think, the basis of “radio imagination”- Butler mentions in her interview that “I realize that I have been writing about people for years and I’ve never seen any of them. I have the kind of imagination that hears. I think of it as radio imagination” (48). Her interviewers believe that “in radio narration, the socially-built body… in Butler’s fiction…. Is initially displaced and delayed…. The ‘punch’ of such an aesthetics… allows readers to ‘see’ and to ‘hear’ characters’ situational relations and ‘problems’ before classifying those relations within familiar idioms of race, gender, or sexuality” (48). So, in “The Book of Martha,” we can see Butler’s fascinating concept of radio imagination extended to “relative utopias,” which offers a way to subvert the hierarchical/dominant thinking inherent in the “human contradiction.” Beautiful.

And then I became slightly confused about “The Book of Martha” - as God prophesied, Martha will become the lowest rung on the new social hierarchy she creates, simply because she has created “the end of the only career [she’s] ever cared about” (213). She and God (and Butler) seem to take it for granted that “pleasure reading” would suffer in a world where people live inside their own fantasies every night (212). This, to me, seems like a fairly pessimistic view of what human intelligence means - socially constructed worlds that people are born into naturally prevent them from seeing beyond normative ideas of race, gender, sexuality, etc. As Butler claims in “Radio Imagination,” she aims to “stretch minds” (53). Without pleasure reading, the ability to read about alternate possibilities of life, how will people stretch their dreams beyond their daily experiences? I'd like to hope that in Martha’s ideal dream utopia world, the market for pleasure reading (especially novels that present entirely new or speculatively realistic worlds) would actually spike. I hope that the “intelligence” aspect of the “human contradiction” would motivate people to think beyond their own imaginations and strive to understand other people’s. Would individual utopias - more specifically, the inherent “hierarchical” inclination to privilege one’s own utopia above anyone else’s - prevent people from cooperating to enact changes? What would a humanity that doesn't perceive a need for speculative fiction look like? Does the end of fantasy writing in "The Book of Martha" contradict Butler's fictional aims to stretch the human mind?


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