The Books of Octavia Butler

Revolution #040, March 26, 2006, posted at

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The books of Octavia Butler

"I'm black. I'm solitary. I've always been an outsider." - Octavia Butler

“It's impossible to begin to talk about myself ... without going back to how I wound up writing science fiction and that is by watching a terrible movie. ( Laughter) The movie was called, "Devil Girl from Mars," and I saw it when I was about l2 years old, and it changed my life. ( Laughter) It was one of those old 1950s movies in which the beautiful Martian woman arrives on earth to announce that all the Martian men have died off and there are a bunch of man-hungry women up there. And the earth-men don't want to go. As I was watching this film, I had a series of revelations. The first was that "Geez, I can write a better story than that." And then I thought, "Gee, anybody can write a better story than that." (From a speech in 1998)

Sadly, shortly before International Women's Day, a 58-year-old pioneering human female breathed her last. She had grown up in Los Angeles where her mother was a maid who collected cast-off books for her bookworm child. Poor, bright, and large, hitting a height of 6 feet at age 15 and growing up in 1950s USA: it makes sense in hindsight that Octavia Butler became a science fiction writer. She knew how it felt to be alien-ated.

Butler wrote novels and short stories involving possible pasts and futures, mostly dystopic worlds. She wrote about proletarians and teachers, about Latinos and Blacks and Asians, and often her characters were a complex mix of race and more. In her books you suddenly see the familiar from a tilted angle and it all looks so strange. Societies where creatures treat their own kind as property? Where violence is commonplace? What a forbidden planet and brave new world. Where youth boil their minds on toxic drugs and men dominate and violate women and children? Oh, no, you realize. This is our world, how ridiculous, how unnecessary and wrong. I would rather write an elegy to Octavia, not a book review: largely because I don't want to spoil the joy of finding such a special author. Where to begin? If you want to read her last book, read Fledgling, a vampire story with a truly riveting beginning where a vampire in the shape of a 10-year-old girl awakes to hunger and pain, blind and amnesiac after a brutal assault on her family.

If you want to start nearer the beginning read Kindred, where a woman in the 1970s is literally pulled into the past, the days of slavery. An introduction to Kindred reads, "Octavia Butler has designed her own underground railroad between past and present whose terminus is the reawakened imagination of the reader."

But my current favorite of Ms. Butler's books is Parable of the Talents,which won a Nebula award in 2000. It depicts an incredible and horrible possible future where people are forced to react and act when a Christian fundamentalist and fascist politician from Texas is elected president of the U.S.

I found Butler's books contradictory, she has her limitations and prejudices. Her scenarios were disturbing and pessimistic, and they were hauntingly familiar. And at the same time her characters were inspiring. Emerging defiantly, steely and determined in the face of seemingly hopeless situations, some of Butler's stories featured strong women protagonists, many of them tall and Black like their creator. These people are not perfect, but a glimpse through their eyes sparks hope in the reader, for these women are leaders who gather around them people who want to fight for a way out.

And she challenged the reader: think! Each book demands the reader re-examine conventional wisdom. Butler wrote stories that drew you in, she dared to inspect each long-held belief or cultural conditioning with a fresh, unrelenting eye and challenged you to do so with her. Gender, race, class, oppression, disease, religion, sex, and change: Butler's bold explorations opened my mind, and stimulated the possibilities. I am so sad that she will never write another book, that her exploration has been cut short—at so tumultuous a time.

Excerpt from Parable of the Talents

I couldn't help wondering, though, whether these people, with their crosses, had some connection with my current least favorite presidential candidate, Texas Senator Andrew Steele Jarret. It sounds like the sort of thing his people might do—a revival of something nasty out of the past. Did the Ku Klux Klan wear crosses—as well as burn them? The Nazis wore the swastika, which is a kind of cross, but I don't think they wore it on their chests. There were crosses all over the place during the Inquisition and before that, during the Crusades. So now we have another group that uses crosses and slaughters people. Jarret's people could be behind it. Jarret insists on being a throwback to some earlier, "simpler" time. Now does not suit him. Religious tolerance does not suit him. The current state of the country does not suit him. He wants to take us all back to some magical time when everyone believed in the same God, worshipped him in the same way, and understood that their safety in the universe depended on completing the same religious rituals and stomping anyone who was different. There was never such a time in this country. But these days when more than half the people in the country can't read at all, history is just one more vast unknown to them. Jarret supporters have been known, now and then, to form mobs and burn people at the stake for being witches. Witches! In 2032! A witch, in their view, tends to be a Moslem, a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, or, in some parts of the country, a Mormon, a Jehovah's Witness, or even a Catholic. A witch may also be an atheist, a "cultist," or a well-to-do eccentric. Well-to-do eccentrics often have no protectors or much that's worth stealing. And "cultist" is a great catchall term for anyone who fits into no other large category, and yet doesn't quite match Jarret's version of Christianity. Jarret's people have been known to beat or drive out Unitarians, for goodness' sake. Jarret condemns the burnings, but does so in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear. As for the beatings, the tarring and feathering, and the destruction of "heathen houses of devil-worship," he has a simple answer: "Join us! Our doors are open to every nationality, every race! Leave your sinful past behind, and become one of us. Help us to make America great again."

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