Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Martha, Job, and Joby

Keywords: Reality, Body, Self, Utopia, Expectation

Before I started to write this sentence I planned to say that 3 stories really stuck out for me from Olivia Butler: Bloodchild, Speech Sounds, and The Book of Martha. However, when I glanced at the table of contents so I could mention the other stories they all came flooding back to me as well.

Generally, what I enjoyed about all of her stories were the expectations that were not played out. You don't expect men to volunteer to let aliens lay parasites in us; but then again in a perverse way that is exactly what a fetus is for a woman. Similar, you don't expect to find sympathy for an incestuous relationship, but that comes out as well in Near of Kin.

I have a desire to ramble aimlessly about all of the stories but I think I'm going to instead focus on The Book of Martha. Self-described as her "utopia" story it has an interesting conceptual conclusion; that the only real utopia possible would be one in which everyone had their own version of utopia. Because inevitably; whatever is perfect for one person would be just the opposite for everyone else.

The Book of Martha is more fantasy than science fiction, but as I've said before I don't really think the distinction is important. My favorite part of this work is the ongoing dialogue between God and Martha in which the Almighty basically pokes holes in each of her possible ideas to save humanity and avoid the necessity of another flood (or worse).

The idea of a character interacting directly with God obviously can be traced back to the Bible but it is a popular theme in fantasy literature as well. Heinlein wrote Job: A Comedy of Errors and recently in 2007, Mark Ferrari wrote The Book of Joby. Of those, I actually prefer the latter, because Ferrari writes God with the same type of voice that Butler does. In both cases God is, for lack of a better word, sassy. He's a bit of a know-it-all but he doesn't come across as omniscient or omnipotent but rather just like a parent talking to a child. Although I am not personally religious, I find that that idea of a creator figure is much more comforting that one wielding lightning bolts.

In fact, although the Devil plays no direct roll in Butler's story, I see the connection to Job, Heinlein, and Ferrari in that sense as well. In each of those cases, the story hinges on a wager made between God and the Devil about corrupting one individual and the redeeming nature of God's decision to grant humanity free will. The idea of free will is central to Butler's story; it is Martha who will decide how to save the world, not God. I can almost imagine a prologue to the story in which God and the Devil grab a cup of coffee and Satan bets that if given the power to change the world for the better any human will inadvertently change it for the worse.


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