By Briana Whiteside
In her newly released short story “A Necessary Being” and her novel Survivor (1978), Octavia Butler challenges and re-imagines how hierarchies are created. The short story is a sister story to the novel Survivor, but focuses on the Kohn aliens, a group of creatures that construct their social hierarchies based on fur color.
The Hao’s are the bluest of the creatures, and their coloring places them in positions of highest power, they are the leaders of the tribes and make all governing decisions. If a Hao is captured or killed, the tribe will be weakened and ultimately crippled by the loss of their leader. In “A Necessary Being,” Tahneh—the only female Hao who cannot conceive children—continuously remarks “a Hao did not control the succession,” and if there was no iridescent blue creature to succeed the former Hao, the tribe may become extinct.
In both works, Butler critiques structures that are put in place to keep order among people—in this case aliens. The incandescent blue shade is reserved for Hao, a lighter blue would be a judge, various shades of yellow indicated a hunter. There were also artisans—those who cared for outsiders and tilled the land and built homes—and non-fighters who were creatures or humans that must be cared for by others.
Butler constructs and deconstructs a caste system in these two works to display that hierarchical class distinctions are flawed and can become increasingly problematic. In fact, her critique causes us to revisit the ways we view government offices, and the chain of command presented in these works mirror that of the federal government.
Butler writes that you can “rise as high as your ability and your coloring will take you. Or you will remain as low as your judgment can keep you.” Her phrasing seems to reflect how societal class constructions can benefit or hinder its citizens.
Briana Whiteside is a graduate student at the University of Alabama and a contributing writer for the Cultural Front.