Reading an Author

Mentions of Octavia Butler's works

Spoilers for Never Let Me Go, The Buried Giant,
Klara and the Sun
by Kazuo Ishiguro

For those of you who have been reading these articles regularly, you might have noticed I’ve spoken about Octavia Butler before. I discovered Butler about a year ago, with the Xenogenesis series. It had been a long time since I’d read an author and felt the urge, the need, to read everything they’d ever written. Reading an author extensively, from their juvenilia up to their most recent works, gives the reader an understanding of how their writing changed through time, what themes they were always interested in, and helps the reader become closer to the author as you get to know them and establish a deeper connection.

Today I’d like to talk about two authors whom I feel deeply connected to: Kazuo Ishiguro and Octavia Butler.

When I opened Dawn by Butler, I nearly closed it again. The first line is about a woman waking up, and I don’t like books which start with that trope. But it had been recommended to me, so I ploughed on. A couple of hours later, I was halfway through, and eager for more. Once I’d finished Dawn, still hungry, I hunted down the next two books in the series, which was out-of-print in the UK, unless I was happy buying the Lilith’s Brood version, with the vaguely erotica-themed cover (I was not). It was a revelation. I loved the series. I loved the way the trilogy was structured (the three books follow the POVs of one adult, one child, one teenager; one woman, one man, one neutral-gendered alien); I loved the concepts; I loved the originality of it, the ending, the themes explored.

So I read the two Parable books. A book of short stories. The Patternist novels. I am not done yet, and still have a few books I’m eager to read, but you get the picture.

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What struck me was how obvious it was, for example, that the novella Bloodchild was planting the seeds for the alien-human relationships in Dawn. Or how Clay’s Ark, although it’s never stated outright, is set in a near-future world eerily reminiscent of the Parables. Even stranger: the question of incest comes up in a novel and a short story, specifically a sympathetic portrayal of incest, showing that Butler was questioning what makes a relationship taboo or not. She explores mixed-race couples, couples with a big gender gap, alien-human couples, and she hunts for why we are so afraid of difference. Many of the themes she is interested in are close to my heart, and I find myself nodding along, eager to hear what she has to say.

Explicit violence is also present in Butler’s work, not always in a way I’m comfortable with. I had to stop halfway through Parable of the Talents and read another book (The Count of Monte-Christo, if you’re interested) before I could bring myself to finish it. Clay’s Ark also made me wince, although I didn’t put the book down. Had I read Clay’s Ark first, for example, the sudden violence would have felt unjustified, and I might never have read more of Butler’s work. But because I know her so well by now – or so it feels – because I understand why violence was necessary to the story of survival that are the Parables, I was able to accept it in Clay’s Ark.

Unlike Octavia Butler, I have now read everything ever published (to my knowledge) written by Kazuo Ishiguro. They are two very different writers, yet I also felt the need to explore everything he ever penned to paper.

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A lot of Ishiguro’s books stand out to me as being about a narrator, often unable or unwilling to face some truths of their life, realising too late that they missed out on what was important for them. But books such as The Buried Giant and Never Let Me Go stand out somewhat. What those two novels have in common is that they have a central couple, and that this couple is threatened. As always with Ishiguro, it’s elegantly understated. They are never threatened directly, nor explicitly.

In Never Let Me Go, we slowly learn that the main characters are clones, and that the reason their arts’ classes were so important at school was because it was an attempt to prove they had a soul. Now they are slowly donating organ after organ, until they die.

There was a myth at school that if two clones loved each other enough, they wouldn’t have to give away their organs and die. As a last resort, they go to try to prove their love. Of course, the rumour was only that – a story the kids told themselves. It wasn’t true. Like a lot of Ishiguro’s work, the ending is poignant, full of grief for the life they were denied.

The Buried Giant has a similar final scene, in which the couple is separated by a ferryman, who is going to bring one person across the river, then come back for the other. In this peculiar atmosphere, infused with old legends, I had no doubt which river they were crossing, nor who this ferryman was. And, like the narrator, I doubted the boat would come back for him – he who isn’t sick, like his wife, whose time, he knows, and we know as readers, hasn’t yet come.

(I wept my eyes out at the end of The Buried Giant. The idea that love isn’t enough to beat death might seem a simple one. But delivered by Ishiguro’s beautiful, pared-back writing, it had me in pieces.)

And then we arrive at Klara and the Sun. Never Let Me Go is about clones. The Buried Giant is about Arthurian legends. Klara and the Sun is about AI. And yet, reading Klara’s story, seeing her go down on her knees and pray the sun (she’s a sun-powered AI, so she believes in a Sun-God who can grant life), watching this AI struggling to fight for a young child’s life, promising the Sun that she’s worth saving, because she loves and is loved… Well. Let’s just say I was taking out my box of tissues. My poor Klara, I thought, don’t you know that love isn’t enough to save you from death?

The book took me to an unexpected place. Not only does the child live, she leaves her sweetheart, as is normal when children and young teens grow up. But, Ishiguro seems to tell us, it’s not because her love was temporary that it wasn’t real. It’s not because our feelings are not eternal that they are not beautiful – quite the contrary, these incredible, precious, fragile pieces that make us human should be celebrated.

For me, Klara and the Sun is not only a book with the themes and exquisite language with Ishiguro is renowned for. Without being a series, it’s the next step, the next thought, the next unpacking of a complicated idea.

But the only reason I read it that way was because I have been reading him extensively, for years.

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What I am trying to say is that reading a book or a series can be interesting and, in some cases, enough. But with authors who really pluck your heartstrings, with authors with whom you feel a strong connection, reading the entirety of their work is enriching, because even in the books you dislike, you discover a facet of the author’s mindscape. You better understand what they are trying to achieve, not on the scale of a book, but on the scale of a lifetime.

 

I can only recommend finding an author you enjoy, and seeing how you feel about them once you've read everything they've ever published - you might be surprised!

7 Dec. 21