Octavia Butler, perhaps the most politically relevant science fiction writer i have ever had the pleasure of reading, died last Friday, after falling and hitting her head on the cobbled walkway outside her home. She was 58.
I only first heard of Butler a few years ago, when i was in the process of publishing my comrade Butch Lee’s book The Military Strategy of Women and Children, a call for women to organize an autonomous movement to wage war on patriarchy and imperialism. In the introduction, Butch mentioned Butler as “an outrider of Women’s intellectual advance,” one who “lit up the terrain in flashes ahead of us.”
I assumed she was a political theorist…
Later that year i was visiting Seth Hayes, a political prisoner who has been in prison since 1973 for activities he is accused of having carried out as a member of the Black Liberation Army. We got to talking about books, and Seth told me he liked reading science fiction – seeing as i also love the genre i asked him if he had any recommendations for me.
He had one: Octavia Butler.
Born to a Black working class family in 1947, Butler’s father (who died when she was a child) was a shoeshine man, and her mother was a maid who brought her along on jobs. She began writing at age 10, turning to SF after watching the movie Devil Girl from Mars and realizing that she could do a much better job. Despite the fact that there were so few models for Black woman authors – her aunt told her that “Negroes can't be writers” – she would eventually win the Hugo, Nebula and James Tiptree awards, and in 1995 became the first and only science fiction novelist to ever be granted the MacArthur “Genius” award.
Butler’s first novel was published in 1979. Defying the expectations of the genre, Kindred took place in the antebellum south, the only SF “gimmick” being that the protagonist was a Black woman from the 1970s who found herself transported through time for reasons initially unclear. The book – which was repeatedly rejected by publishers who balked at a science fiction novel set on a 19th century plantation – would eventually have over a quarter million copies in print.
It was followed by almost a dozen other books, as well as numerous short stories and essays.
Science fiction, at its best, is an intensely political genre. By creating characters we can identify with, and telling stories which seduce us both emotionally and intellectually, good authors actually convey the implications and qualities of different social systems and realities in a way which can seem more real than non-fiction speculation or analysis. Of course this is not a fact limited to either SF or politics – the whole notion of conveying a more vivid and authentic picture of reality by actually departing from a strictly “objective” and “realistic” portrayal is common to many forms of storytelling and art (think impressionism!) – but for me it is the SF genre that succeeds at doing this most beautifully.
Butler herself alluded to the importance of this kind of storytelling, explaining in regards to Kindred that her goal was “to make real the emotional reality of slavery. I was trying make people feel more about the data they had learned. I wanted to make the past real and [show] how it scars the present.” [Interviewing The Oracle: Octavia Butler, by Kazembe Balagun]
While Kindred was a way of countering the way in which slavery is trivialized and “normalized”, Butler’s subsequent works continued to draw on the past, but in much more subtle ways, as she cast her view to the future, using it to illuminate current trends and also to examine deeper philosophical and psychological questions.
Dystopia vs. Utopia: The Earthseed “Trilogy”
I had somebody review that book, Parable [of the Sower], and say “Well interesting book but she should have been more clear about how we could possibly get from where we are to where they are in Parable because I just don't see it.” I thought, “You poor baby.”- Octavia Butler (interviewed by Jelani Cobb)
Butler’s Earthseed “trilogy” (she only completed the first two books, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents – Parable of the Trickster was started but she put it aside to work on other projects) was set in the very near future. Again, there is a dearth of high-tech gadgetry, apart from some new recreational drugs and “slave collars” (both of which are currently within the realm of the easily manufactured, i’m sure) the only truly “new” thing is a form of psychic empathy some individuals develop.
By avoiding a focus on technology, the Earthseed books avoid a pitfall of much science fiction, where the “futuristic advances” become dated, and in fact eventually seem anachronistic as real-life comes to surpass fiction. Instead of technology, the Earthseed books focus on political turmoil, at what might happen if the State collapsed and there was no humane alternative to fill the vacuum. Large numbers of people are debilitated by drug use. Many men take the opportunity to seize power in their “personal lives” and “local communities”… which translates into power to control and own women especially. Racism veers into tribalism.
In this context of overwhelming distrust and violence – at times barely a page goes by without a rape or murder – Butler follows the struggle of the teenage empath Lauren Olamina, who has a clear vision that society needs to be rebuilt on humane and egalitarian foundations – short-term solutions, escapism and tinkering are not going to be good enough. Indeed, it becomes clear that if a humane alternative is not found, then a fascistic one may rise in its stead.
Butler describes these books (which were published in 1993 and 1998) as “cautionary tales”, meant to show where America was heading if right-wing government policies continued unchecked. While they certainly work as such, for me they also warn of the horrors that will come if society merely “breaks down” and no left-wing movement exists to build anew…
Some anarchists dream of such a breakdown, as they see the State and capitalists as the only problem, and thus a collapse – any collapse will do! – will provide the opportunity for people to just “do their own thing” and set up their happy autonomous lives. We saw this during the flooding of New Orleans, where some “revolutionaries” (white people living in other cities!) hailed the devastation as if it was the proletariat and not government neglect that had brought about the destruction. I can also remember an essay from the early 90s entitled Somalia Shows The Way, in which the breakdown of the Somali State and was hailed as a revolutionary advance, and warlords were described as freedom fights all the more radical as they did not purport to have any “grand schemes”.
One doesn’t have to deny the role of creative imagination to see how Butler’s own experiences growing up as a Black working class woman contributed to her ability to grasp and communicate the way in which “breakdown” and “collapse” can actually be bad and threatening things. The problem – as the best anarchists and feminists have pointed out – is not only institutional power, but all forms of subjugation and exploitation. Non-institutional forms of exploitation and oppression are overwhelmingly directed against women, queers and people of colour, and as such the anarchist/ultraleft faith in “collapse” reveals a privileged perspective of little use to the majority of people who may be struggling against this society, but fear that things could still get worst - and know enough to know that they will likely be the ones to bear the brunt of this!
If the oppressed are kept disarmed and disoriented, with no vision to fight for a better society (a vision provided in the Parable books by the Earthseed religion), when collapse comes they may be all the more vulnerable to the most brutal and naked forms of exploitation and abuse. Although Butler never used the S-word in the Earthseed books, they serve as a reminder that the choice is between Socialism and Barbarism, not of reaching Socialism by way of Barbarism!
In an interview with National Public Radio, Butler explained that she felt the best antidote for hierarchical and racist systems was tolerance, but she recognized that in and of itself this was not enough: “because you can’t depend on other people to be equally tolerant. My example was way back in the schoolyard, school bullies. I mean, no matter how tolerant you may be, they aren’t, and your being tolerant won’t stop them from tackling you if that’s what they want to do.”
Indeed, the perils of hoping that you will just be “left alone” – a common fantasy amongst many countercultural types – are vividly and brutally brought home in the Parable of the Talents, when Christian fundamentalists invade and enslave members of a free community.
In her excellent interview with Kazembe Balagun, Butler explained that “I wrote the Parable books because of the direction of the country. You can call it save the world fiction, but it clearly doesn’t save anything. It just calls people’s attention to the fact that so much needs to be done and obviously they are people who are running this country who don’t care.”
More Than Human
Although Kindred and the Earthseed "trilogy" may be her most obviously political books, all of Butler’s stories resonate with the deeper philosophical questions of what it means to be good person, how societies change, how the dilemmas of “tolerance” can be resolved, and most importantly what it means to do the best you can, when that may not seem like enough. Her characters live in imperfect, difficult, unsatisfactory worlds, and grapple with the necessity and pain of doing their best, while trying to hold onto a vision of a better future with greater possibilities.
For instance, Butler’s Xenogenesis series (Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago – all of which were also pubished in one volume as Lilith’s Brood), which are very different from the Earthseed books, take place after the Earth has been decimated by nuclear war. The last surviving humans are clearly doomed to perish, if not for the lucky intercession of some spacefaring aliens (the “Oankali”), who see in human biology something that they themselves desire. The Oankali save humanity, essentially by breeding with people, but even so “humanity as we know it” seems destined for extinction. Without giving it all away, these books (following the lives of the human woman Lilith and her more than human progeny) explore issues of consent, colonialism, progress and identity in a provocative – and beautiful – way.
Similarly, the book Wildseed – with its rich descriptions of love and loneliness that remind me of Anne Rice’s Taltos – tells the story of a superhuman woman immortal, a deeply moral and good person, whose humble life in an African village is disturbed when an amoral immortal spirit notices her, and yearns for her company. Again – not wanting to spoil the tale – this is the kind of book that makes me want to cry when i finish it, both because it’s the end, and because the story itself is so moving.
Rest In Peace
Butler described herself as “a pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil and water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty and drive.”
She also described herself as “a writer who can remember being a ten year-old writer and who expects someday to be an 80 year-old writer.”
Sadly, that is not to be.
All i can say is, i hope that more people continue to find her books, and that the seeds she has planted help us in our struggle for a better world.
I have only mentioned Octavia Butler’s books which i myself have read – i still look forward to discovering the rest of her works. You can view and order many of Octavia Butler’s books from Powell’s Books online.
Categories: authors, book-review, science-fiction