Short Story Saturday: “The Book Of Martha”

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Hello again, everyone! This week, we’ll be taking a look at Octavia E. Butler’s 2005 story, “The Book Of Martha,” which was originally published on SciFi.com, and eventually added to the 2005 reprint of the collection Bloodchild and Other Stories.

So, let’s get started.

The tale starts with author Martha Bes finding herself in a gray void talking to God. As a side note, God at first looks like a 12-foot tall bearded white dude. This is important because this actually changes throughout the story.

Anyway, Martha asks God if she’s dead, which he doesn’t really give an answer to besides telling her that’s she’s here. That’s less important, though, because God has a task for her: to basically fix humanity so that we suck less. So, you know, no biggie.

Martha asks how she’s supposed to do that, and God tells her that he’s going to let her borrow some of her power to do basically, whatever she wants. Martha, of course, has no idea where to start, so God suggests finding something important that she can change.

The first idea is to basically make people’s reproductive systems break after they have two kids, basically to fix overpopulation. God, however, points out a few flaws with this plan, namely that people could find ways around that via cloning, as well as issues such as people fathering children without their knowledge, or their children dying.

Oh, and due to things like disease and accidents, this would eventually cause the human race to die out because they wouldn’t be reproducing at the same rate as people dying.

God then points out that taking free will away from people is also on the table. This, again, is all too much for Martha, and she asks God what would happen to her if she refuses. God tells her that nothing would happen to her, he’d just go find someone else to do this. And that someone might have fewer scruples about all this than Martha.

With no real choice in the matter, Martha then comes up with another idea: giving people extremely vivid, realistic dreams that would fulfill their desires while they sleep. The logic here is that if people are perfectly contented while they sleep, they’d be less likely to go around fucking things up for everyone else. God says that this may work, but people might become addicted to this, and may cause them to neglect other things, like their families. So Martha decides to teak this a little bit more, and make it so that people still need connections with others, regardless of how happy their dreams make them.

She still, however, needs some time to think this through, so God leaves her to her own devices for a bit. Martha than finds herself in what appears to be her own home, and sets to trying to find herself some more food.

It’s here that God’s evasive answer to her question about being dead hits her, and she calls him back. This time, he’s a normal sized black man in a sweater and pants. She asks him again if she’s dead, and he assures her that she’s not. Then, on an impulse, she decides to offer him a sandwich, which he accepts.

She goes to make the food, and then returns to find that God is now a woman, who looks enough like Martha to be her sister. She wonders a bit why she saw God as the typical white dude with a beard, and God tells her that it was basically a habit that it took a bit for her to shed.

Martha puts this aside for a bit, and asks God if she thinks her plan will work. God muses for a moment, then tells her that it would at least buy some time for humanity to outgrow our destructive tendencies. Martha wonders what that kind of maturity would look like, and God tells her that it would be learning that pleasure isn’t everything. Martha says that people already learn that, and God responds:

“Individuals usually know that by the time they reach adulthood. But all to often, they don’t care. It’s too easy to follow bad but attractive leaders, embrace pleasurable but destructive habits, ignore looming disaster because maybe it won’t happen at all-or maybe it will only happen to other people. That kind of thinking is part of what it means to be adolescent.”

Martha suggests changing this plan further, by making people a bit more thoughtful about consequences and harm that may come from actions in their waking lives. God points out that this won’t make people perfect, but Martha decides to go about this plan anyway. Then she asks God to send her back home.

God asks her if she wants to remember this conversation. She tells her that she doesn’t, largely because she still doesn’t know if this will cause harm, and couldn’t live with herself if it does and she knows it’s her fault. God agrees, and Martha then finds herself back in her actual house, with no knowledge of the story’s events.

So, there’s a bit to unpack here. One thing I found interesting about the story is how long it takes her to see God in her image, and how God remarks that it’s a habit. The first time she seems him, he looks like the typical, bearded and robed white guy that’s common in a lot of Western Christian art. This seems to be to be commentary about how our perceptions and beliefs can be shaped by the society that we live in.

The story is also an expression of Butler’s opinion on utopia’s. Namely, that opinion is that a true utopia is impossible, because everyone has different ideas of what that would look like. In essence, the only way people can achieve this would be in their own dreams.

Lastly, the passage I quoted above about people ignoring coming catastrophes or following bad leaders because it’s easier basically punched me in the gut. Butler’s writing was often fairly prescient, and this also seems to be the case here, at least in my corner in the world.

Because it’s not like we’re staring down certain disaster right now and our leaders won’t do anything about it or anything.

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