Friday, February 17, 2012

The Unique Voice of Octavia Butler (Reflections on Black History)


My first encounter with Octavia Butler was in a college science fiction course. Along with Dune, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, Return of the King, and The Handmaid’s Tale, our syllabus included Wild Seed. I can’t say I was excited to read a strange book by an author I’d never heard of, but that changed once I began. Wild Seed is the first work of fantasy I encountered that diverged from the traditions of Tolkein and English fairytale, drawing inspiration instead from native African mythology.

For many fans of science fiction and fantasy, Butler (who died in 2006) represents a revelation, a first venture into something truly new and different. Speculative fiction as a genre is overwhelmingly white and European, chock full of noble savages and magical negros. Butler, who fought through dyslexia and rejection to journey from science fiction fan to award-winning author, brought the voice of the African American and the traditions of her African heritage.

Like all truly great speculative fiction, Butler’s work uses imaginary worlds to make us think and reflect on our own. Through her work, she confronts great moral questions including slavery, gender, religion, addiction, class inequality, tyranny, race, and the relationship of humans to their environment and to other species.  Depending on the work, these confrontations may be metaphorical or very direct. A central theme of Wild Seed, for instance, is the way two god-like immortals go about relating to mortal humans – one nurturing, the other tyrannical – and the consequences of their actions. Butler rarely seeks easy answers or absolutes – like many who really understand human nature, she is more interested to explore gray areas. Kindred, probably her best-known work, employs time travel as a device to confront U.S. slavery head-on, as an African American woman is transported from the 1970s to meet her ancestors in early nineteenth century Maryland.

Octavia Butler is often forgotten, which is tragic. Perhaps she is a victim of her genre, which—wild wildly popular, if TV and movies are any indication—is ignored by many critics and historians. Even more tragic, however, is that when she is mentioned, it is rarely acknowledged that she was a lesbian. Even some of her biggest fans are surprised to learn To be fair, she was never outspoken about her orientation, though she never hid it, either. Themes of gender ambiguity are rampant in her work.

Octavia Butler once described herself as “a pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist always, a Black, a quiet egoist, a former Baptist, and an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.” Though I profile her here as a great figure in Black history, I prefer The Washington Post’s description: “One of the finest voices in fiction, period.”

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