There are those among us who worship Toni Morrison, then sheepishly admit to taking three years to actually make it through ‘Beloved’.
Not so with dearly departed sister Octavia E. Butler, who passed away at 58 in front of her Seattle home on February 24. Her 12 science fiction novels, which can be divided into three major series, encourage a compulsion to tear through one after the other, to never want to be away from her sprawling universes and her staggering humanity.
Like most science fiction, hers was primarily concerned with the master-slave relationship. She hated the idea that her Xenogenesis trilogy, the story of generations of Earth’s refugees who “pay the rent” with their reproductive systems, could be read as an allegory of the psychosexual torment of plantation life. The Patternist series, which culminates in the 1980 magnum opus Wild Seed, features one of literature’s most terrifying villains, the body-snatching Doro. He tracks Anyanwu, a shape-shifter and healer hundreds of years old, to 18th-century Africa. There he forces her to spawn his progeny. She becomes his great love and the only protection her generations of children have from his merciless appetite for fresh flesh. Anyanwu, most at home in her early-twenties body, is beyond fierce: Imagine a Pam Grier who makes the middle passage both as a slave and a dolphin.
The terror in the Western imagination of being conquered by an enslaving military force with superior technology is a conceit revisited countless times by sci-fi writers like Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, and Robert
A. Heinlein. Butler flipped this by pushing the limits of humanity. She embraced the idea of aliens transforming humans into new, enhanced beings. She looked at those takeovers and the genetic flaws they produced as opportunities for exploration, even improvement. In any case, she seemed to argue, the necessary compromises were no worse than what already exists. But if I were to call this a parallel to what slavery has produced in North America, she’d probably spin in her grave. She claimed to be “amazed” that some people would read her narratives as commentary on slavery, but what she really seemed to be resisting throughout her career was a reductive and dismissive analysis of the role her race and gender played in her fiction.
Parable of the Sower, her 1993 soft-science journey, is in the tradition of near-future dystopias. Pyromaniacs chew their way through gated communities and burn post-apocalyptic Los Angeles to the ground. Packs of dogs revert to their wild ways and like the abandoned dogs in post-Katrina New Orleans feast on human flesh. Sower‘s shero, Lauren Olamina, is a delusional empath, barely out of her teens, who leads her cadre by foot to safe ground in Northern California. Along the way she invents a non- religious religion, Gaia, in which “The only lasting truth/ Is Change.” Butler continued the saga in 2000’s lesser Parable of the Talent; she began but never finished a third book in the series.
As a six-foot pre-teen with a severe stammer, Octavia E. Butler learned early on what it meant to be an outsider. Raised the Baptist daughter of a shoeshine man, she grew to find religion oppressive, only later taking a more forgiving look at Christianity’s promises of salvation. “Religion kept some of my relatives alive, because it was all they had,” she once told an interviewer. “If they hadn’t had some hope of heaven, some companionship in Jesus, they probably would have committed suicide, their lives were so hellish.” She wrote her 1976 debut, Patternmaster, while working at a factory. She stuck to her premise that her time-travel paradox, the non-series Kindred (1979), transport a Black L.A. woman in an interracial relationship from 1976 to the antebellum South, even when editors demurred. Though it was her most widely read book, she was only paid $5,000 for it. She spoke in interviews about how friendly a writer could become with a 10-pound sack of potatoes. She lived in Los Angeles but never learned to drive, preferring the bus. She lived her adult life alone, saying her solitude allowed her to better deal with other humans when she emerged from her self-seclusion. In the late ’90s she migrated, along with her 300 boxes of books, to Seattle, where after battling a four-year case of writer’s block she joyously banged out Fledgling and took classes in public speaking to tour in support of that novel.
Her trip to New York last fall drew her legions of Black female fans out to see their mysterious goddess. Lesbians in the audiences would try and press her to concede that her vampire’s (like all vampires’) appetite was an allegory for ambisexuality. She seemed agitated that her beloved Shori Matthews could be co-opted, however noble the cause. But what of writer’s intention and readers’ reception? She may have responded to the criticism from the hardcore sci-fi community (dominated almost exclusively by white men) that her early work was more fantasy than science with the Xenogenesis trilogy, but she bristled at being contained in any way. Her protagonists were always deeply flawed, deeply human, and—whether in love with aliens or white men—deeply principled. And while she chose a life alone with her words, her work and worldview were always concerned first and foremost with community—almost always under the leadership of complex women, who (besides Lilith in Dawn) were almost always Black. She was an optimist in spite of herself, and those of us whose minds she blew again and again will mourn her complicated vision. Of her Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning tale “Speech Sounds,” she wrote, “I began the story feeling little hope or liking for the human species, but by the time I reached the end of it, my hope had come back. It always seems to do that.”