Envisioning a Better Future: Octavia Estelle Butler, 1947–2006
Octavia Butler’s work offers us a future that is different from the other visions we usually see in popular culture. Her future takes into account identity and culture, power and empowerment.
For a few years, whenever Octavia Butler’s name was mentioned by my academic/feminist friends, I would pretend I knew who/what they were talking about. Finally, I decided I would read one of her books. A few words into Dawn, and I was hooked. Butler published her first novel the year I was born, and yet it took me 30 years to find her books; but at least I could finally answer that infamous question every English major is asked: what’s your favorite author? Octavia E. Butler, hands down.
I bought all of her books, combing Amazon to piece together the collection. I read Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago, also known as the Xenogenesis series and published in whole as Lilith’s Brood. I read the four books published as Seed to Harvest and the Patternist series: Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, and Patternmaster. I read all of her books (except Survivor) in less than six months. (Survivor is the only book by Butler that has not been reprinted. She didn’t like this book for some reason and didn’t want it republished. I’ve search for it on occasion but have yet been able to find a copy for less than $150.00. I’m hoping someday to be able to justify spending that kind of money for a novel.)
Partially because I didn’t know which books went together and partially because I was not patient enough to wait for the missing piece of a series, I read out of order, but that didn’t matter. (Besides, she published out of order too!) Butler’s books are intriguing as single books and absorbing as part of their series, and she has a talent for catching the reader up without spoiling the stories of other books. That is, she had a talent.
Somewhere in the middle of this reading orgy -- maybe as I devoured her critically-acclaimed book about time travel and slavery, Kindred, or maybe as I read and reread her most brilliant works, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents -- I discovered the worst news ever: Octavia E. Butler was dead. Her books had given me no clue. This brilliant woman seemed frozen in time to me, yet I had only just discovered her. And to be honest, I wanted more from her. Consequently, I slowed down my reading. I reread all her books. I read her short stories. Finally, I saved her last book, Fledgling, for my last read.
Because it was an obvious beginning, Fledgling was the most painful reading experience. As the book closes, it becomes apparent that Butler was already setting the stage for many more books to come. With so many of her books existing as parts of a series, Butler was often asked if she intended to write another Patternist book or another Parables book. To follow the prophetic Parables, to extend these stories of a not-so-distant future, would be nearly impossible. These books created a future that too closely resembled our present and Butler even created the Earthseed belief system as a way of dealing with this violent, fragmented future.
She had already summed up the end of Parable of the Talents in 100 pages, an ending that really needed another book. The people of Earthseed had to go to the stars; they had to build human civilization in another place, though her characters in Lilith’s Brood had already done that to some extent. She tried to write more Parables but health problems and “damping” medication impeded this process; however, she always intended to come back to Parables. She mostly struggled with her version of writer’s block until she was inspired to write something “lighter” than those novels that grew from the problems she observed around her, namely a “science fantasy”, Fledgling. It was a new beginning. It was also the end.
Butler once described herself as: “comfortably asocial -- a hermit in the middle of Seattle -- a pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, and oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.” Truth be told, I had never read such a simple, honest bio before. This little biographical blurb was printed in all of her books, and it’s this blurb that extends the disbelief of her death. In fact, the books (re)printed after her death shift this bio into the third person, and as a result, a piece of her seems missing somehow. I always make sure that my students read the bio she wrote for herself, and I try to avoid reading the acetic bio that lists her awards while erasing her personality.
Part of the reason this bio is so important to me is not only because of what it says about Butler, but also how she was so able to capture my own contradictions in her self-description. No wonder I am so at home in Butler’s books; we have so much in common. I am also an “oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.” I could not describe myself more perfectly. And so I feel a kind of kinship with Butler on this level when I’m immersed in her books.
In an interview with Robert McTyre, Butler once said, “Every story I write adds to me a little, changes me a little, forces me to reexamine an attitude or belief, causes me to research and learn, helps me to understand people and grow ... Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself.” Not only does this quote reveal her nature as a writer and as a person and help to explain why her stories are so compelling, it also reminds us why we read, or write, or draw, or sing, or dance. Artists like Octavia Butler remind us who we are and where we are going as well as what we can be.
Butler began writing when she was just a girl to combat loneliness and boredom, writing science fiction when she saw what she describes as a “bad movie” (Devil Girl From Mars); but despite this early start she did not start to make a decent living as a writer until much later in life. She was not a late bloomer; we were just late in recognizing her value and her talent. She survived for years on odd jobs, bags of potatoes (she was vegan), and her dedication to her craft.
For Butler, there was no choice but to write, and she was a disciplined writer. She’s a quintessential example of the American dream for writers. After years of struggling and perseverance, she gained recognition with a 1984 Hugo award for her short story “Speech Sounds” and a 1985 Hugo for her novella Bloodchild, both included in her short story collection Bloodchild and Other Stories. She also won a 1984 Nebula Award for Bloodchild and a 1999 Nebula for Parable of the Talents. Among other honors, Butler was also awarded the lifetime achievement award in writing from the PEN American Center.
Most importantly, Butler was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1995. This $295,000 grant (over five years) allowed her to purchase a house in Seattle in 1999, where she later fell and hit her head in 2006 and tragically died. It’s like a part of one of her stories. Like her protagonist in Kindred who is pulled into the past by one of her ancestors, I like to think that Octavia Butler has been pulled into the future to help solve the problems she elucidates so well in her books. It’s a hope that springs from science fiction, a hope that she herself made possible.
Secretly, I dream of writing the screenplays that would bring Butler and her stories to the international recognition she and her work deserve. I can see and feel her stories as if they were films. I feel at home in them despite of (or perhaps because of) their complete erasure of home, comfort, safety, luxury. I can read her books while on backpacking trips and imagine humans remaking their world without the technologies we have come to take for granted. I can read Parables on trips to Southern California and think about how accurate her past observations have been in creating a believable future. I can pop in Deltron 3030 and escape into a parallel universe complemented by Butler’s worlds.
Butler’s work offers characters driven by their desire for survival and the growth that such a life offers. Her characters survive violence and hostility and build communities. She reads people as well as she reads historical trends. Her stories range: invading aliens who want to save humans from themselves, the revision of history, a future where people are connected telepathically, a world where violence and scarcity drive life, and a world full of vampire communities. And despite these other-worldly settings, people still struggle with difference, internal and external enemies, relationships, expectations and other very real problems.
In her introduction to her Triangle Classics edition of The Gilda Stories/Bones and Ash, Jewelle Gomez writes, “One of Octavia Butler’s skills is crafting a future grounded squarely in the past” (xi). Her stories bring the past, present, and future together and make them speak to each other and to her readers. I wish more people were part of that conversation.
But if Hollywood were part of this conversation, would they take her away? Of course, they would take her out of her hermit-like existence that extends beyond her mortal life. They would take her away from me, and in doing so, they would take away the power of imagination she inspires. They would take her strong, female protagonists who are often described as “big and plain”, and they would make these women all look like Halle Berry or Beyoncé. They would take Butler’s multidimensional, dynamic, complicated leaders and shrink them down into Sara Conner or Laura Croft. I imagine:
Here are some brilliant stories by a brilliant woman. Please don’t fuck them up. Please do justice to her vision and to her social and cultural critique. Please use your excessive budgets put toward state-of-the art special effects for the Ooloi, Clayarks, and shapeshifters. Please don’t cast skinny bitches to play her strong, black female protagonists. Please don’t minimize the diversity of her characters or stories. Please don’t choose only to produce those stories with male protagonists. But please do get people interested in Octavia E. Butler’s stories. Please bring her stories to life.
A Concerned Fan
Octavia Bulter’s work offers us a future that is different from the other visions we usually see in popular culture. Her future takes into account identity and culture, power and empowerment. She writes about race, class, gender, and sexuality without becoming dogmatic. She tries out future solutions to current problems. She inspires others to create their own visions like those of SolSeed, an on-line community trying to create something new in which to believe. Butler’s work does what a critic from Vibe magazine once claimed, “She gives us [people of color] a future.” She does this, but she also recognizes that this future is not separate from the future for all of us. And she does this without deferring to the white man -- the hero of too many sci-fi scenarios -- to solve everyone’s problems.
While at one time I shied away from conversations about Octavia E. Butler out of ignorance, I now try to sell her to every feminist or science fiction fan that’s willing to open the door. I buy her books for friends’ birthdays. I assign Parable of the Talents in several of my classes, and students love this book -- even the students who claim that they don’t like science fiction, and even students who claim they don’t like to read. Nothing could make me happier. And honestly, as much as I want to share her with the world, I also want to keep her for myself. I want to be able to escape into one of her books without it being crowded with pop culture’s baggage. Upon further thought, back off Hollywood. She’s mine! But I am, in the spirit of Butler, happy to share her with everyone else.