Butterfly Rites

imageedit_9_2019042082BUTTERFLY EYES | G.V. Anderson.

⇒Freeze Frame Fiction.

I am certainly not the first person to observe that literature, art in general, is an inherently solipsistic venture. Even if we’re trying to look beyond the self, we’re rarely able to see beyond the horizon of human experience, of human sense and consciousness. That’s probably why most of the fiction being written is about human characters, rather than toasters and pine cones and nebulas dealing with whatever those things deal with. We have a hard time exploring the worlds of toasters and pine cones and such things, except in an anthropomorphic sense, which only supports my premise of literature’s inherent human-centeredness.

Sure, there is an abundance of speculative fiction out there–SF&F and magic realism and fabulism–that takes things like robots and talking animals and sentient trees, and makes them the heros of the story. But again, that’s a case of transplanted humanism, projecting our identities on the inhuman.

Today we’re talking about “Butterfly Eyes” by G.V. Anderson, a gorgeous SF flash piece that addresses the issue I’ve broached above in a very unique way. You’ve probably already read it, but I’ll do a quick summary anyway before I get into some of the techniques that make this piece such a worthwhile read.

Here’s the rundown: X9 is a robot trapped in a seemingly endless complex of caves. He’s been there for years, having ventured down there as a companion to a group of cave explorers who’ve since met with tragedy and died out. Now, he wanders the caves, his headlamp fading (after years? good battery…) and basically just waiting things out. He doesn’t do much other than collect butterflies, the only living things in this story, which flutter in through cracks in the ceiling.

I dig the second sentence:

X9 likes to pull the wings off butterflies.

First of all, it’s a visceral, ugly/beautiful, thought-provoking opening. It makes us want to read on. It also brings up the whole question of sentience, a common theme when dealing with robots. Though the third-person narrator of this piece describes X9 as little more than a person-shaped appliance, we suspect from the beginning that there’s more to X9.

X9 likes to pull the wings off butterflies.

First of all, we have the act of violence, the act of destroying something beautiful and delicate. Machines do that. It’s a cold, indifferent thing to do, reinforcing the notion that X9 is just that. On the other hand, we have the verb “likes”–X9 LIKES to pull the wings… According to one of my workshop instructors years ago, there are three types of behaviors we can identify our characters with: habitual action, deliberate action, and gratuitous action. This act of pulling off butterflies’ wings sounds like a a habitual action.

So this tiny opening line in the story possesses an effective tension between human traits and inhuman/mechanical ones.

A couple paragraphs later, we get this line:

…he keeps the best, brightest wings in his chest compartment.

Okay, now we have traits like collecting (again, habitual action), aesthetic values, and possessiveness.

Since you’ve already read this story, I’m not spoiling anything by saying X9 does, somehow, possess human qualities like empathy, compassion, loyalty, etc., particularly with regard to the woman (now a skeleton in the cave) whom he once served and to whom he is still loyal. What’s cool, though, is that his progression from machine to quasi-human (and this is a story of such a progression, assuredly) is far from over, even though his “contract” with this woman is obviously severed, she being dead.

The part where he performs a ritual, a sort of sacred act in which he places the most appropriate (blue) butterfly wings in the empty sockets of the woman’s skull, is beautiful–albeit completely unnecessary. And that, I think, is the most human thing he could do. Returning to that breakdown of character behaviors: habitual, deliberate, gratuitous–X9 does something completely needless and at the same time “necessary” on some emotional level. No, there is no functional purpose to the butterfly rites he performs for his former keeper, yet on an entirely abstract level this act seems to redeem him. Yes, he’s all copper and wires and circuits, but by the end of the story, he’s become human.

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2 Responses to Butterfly Rites

  1. Pingback: Bill's Life as a Series of Baudrillardian Encounters with the Hyperreal | FictionFeed

  2. Fantastic short story by G.V. Anderson, and a great review.

    Like

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