Why Should We Read Pioneering Sci-Fi Writer Octavia Butler? An Animated Video Makes the Case

Two of the most star­tling­ly orig­i­nal sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers of the past cen­tu­ry, Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. But­ler, emerged in the 60s and 70s and cre­at­ed dystopi­an visions that res­onate with us today with more depth and imme­di­a­cy than the major­i­ty of their con­tem­po­raries. Both writ­ers also hap­pened to be African Amer­i­can. But why should this detail mat­ter? Why indeed, asked But­ler, in an equal­ly rel­e­vant ques­tion, “is sci­ence fic­tion so white?” She went on to explore the ques­tion in a 1980 essay pub­lished in Trans­mis­sion, not with a his­to­ry of the genre, but with rebut­tals to the rea­sons for exclud­ing peo­ple like her.

“A more insid­i­ous prob­lem than out­right racism is sim­ply habit, cus­tom,” But­ler writes. Peo­ple get com­fort­able with things as they are—an atti­tude anti­thet­i­cal to the spir­it of sci-fi. “Sci­ence fic­tion, more than any oth­er genre deals with change—change in sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, and social change. But sci­ence fic­tion itself changes slow­ly, often under protest.”

But­ler died too young, in 2006 at age 58; but she lived to see resis­tance to change in sci­ence fic­tion per­sist into the 21st cen­tu­ry. Yet in her most com­pelling, and slight­ly ter­ri­fy­ing, pro­jec­tion into the future—her mid-90s Para­ble series of nov­els—change is the only thing that any­one can rely on.

All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change Changes you.

N.K. Jemi­son quotes these lines from Para­ble of the Sow­er in her intro­duc­tion to the book’s reis­sue this year. Pub­lished in 1993, Para­ble’s futur­ism didn’t have the same fris­son as that of, say, William Gib­son at the time. “Rov­ing, uncon­test­ed gangs of pedophiles and drug-addict­ed pyro­ma­ni­acs? Slav­ery 2.0? A pow­er­ful coali­tion of white-suprema­cist, homo­pho­bic, Chris­t­ian zealots tak­ing over the coun­try?” writes Jemi­son. “Nah, I thought, and hoped But­ler would get back to aliens soon.” Set in the con­text of a U.S. post-mas­sive cli­mate col­lapse (pos­si­bly), hyper-finan­cial­iza­tion, and cor­po­rate rule.… the nov­el now seems all too pre­scient to its cur­rent-day read­ers.

But even Butler’s alien sto­ries are sto­ries about humans in rad­i­cal tran­si­tion, and col­lec­tive social actions with both dev­as­tat­ing and trans­for­ma­tive out­comes. In Dawn, the first nov­el in her Xeno­gen­e­sis tril­o­gy (now called “Lilith’s Brood”), human woman Lilith Iyapo “awak­ens after 250 years of sta­sis,” fol­low­ing an apoc­a­lyp­tic nuclear war on Earth, “to find her­self sur­round­ed by aliens called the Oankali,” as the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son above by Ayana Jamieson and Moya Bai­ley tells it. These beings want to trade DNA with the remain­ing humans, there­by cre­at­ing a hybrid species. The alter­na­tive is ster­il­iza­tion.

The chill­ing sce­nario in Dawn and its suc­ces­sors has its moments of Love­craft­ian dread, but it goes in an even stranger direc­tion, bring­ing an added dimen­sion to the mean­ing of the word “dehu­man­iza­tion.” What would it mean to slow­ly trans­form into anoth­er species? Such pro­found­ly uni­ver­sal ques­tions about the mean­ing of human iden­ti­ty reached “read­ers who had been exclud­ed from the genre,” notes Emanuel­la Grin­berg at CNN. But­ler peo­ples her books with humans of every col­or and eth­nic­i­ty, and aliens only she might have imag­ined. But most of her pro­tag­o­nists are black and brown women. Many of the read­ers But­ler influ­enced, like Jemi­son, are women of col­or who became genre-chang­ing sci-fi writ­ers them­selves.

Butler’s work “helped define the lit­er­ary cor­ner­stone of Afro­fu­tur­ism,” notes Grin­berg. Her writ­ing was strate­gic, a way to con­front dehu­man­iz­ing polit­i­cal and social polit­i­cal real­i­ties. Para­ble of the Sow­er, the TED les­son explains, was part­ly a response to Butler’s home state of California’s Propo­si­tion 187, which denied undoc­u­ment­ed immi­grants basic health­care, edu­ca­tion, and basic ser­vices. In the fol­low-up, Para­ble of the Tal­ents (1998), an author­i­tar­i­an pres­i­den­tial can­di­date cam­paigns on the slo­gan “Make Amer­i­can Great Again.” Her best-sell­ing nov­el, Kin­dred, pub­lished in 1979, tells the sto­ry of a con­tem­po­rary woman repeat­ed­ly pulled back in time to the Mary­land plan­ta­tion of her enslaved ances­tor.

Why should we read Octavia But­ler? You’ll have to read her to answer that ques­tion your­self. But I’d ven­ture to say—along with the intro to her life and work above—because she had a bet­ter read on how the time she lived in would turn into the time we live in now than near­ly any­one writ­ing at the time; because she told strange, won­der­ful, out­landish, com­pelling sto­ries that stretched the imag­i­na­tion with­out los­ing sight of the human core; because, like Ursu­la K. Le Guin, she chal­lenged the world as it is with pro­found visions of what it might be; and because she not only excelled as a sto­ry­teller but specif­i­cal­ly as a com­mit­ted sci­ence fic­tion sto­ry­teller, one who deeply touched, and thus deeply changed, the form.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Octavia Butler’s 1998 Dystopi­an Nov­el Fea­tures a Fascis­tic Pres­i­den­tial Can­di­date Who Promis­es to “Make Amer­i­ca Great Again”

The Dai­ly Rit­u­als of 143 Famous Female Cre­ators: Octavia But­ler, Edith Whar­ton, Coco Chanel & More

Cel­e­brate the Life & Writ­ing of Ursu­la K. Le Guin (R.I.P.) with Clas­sic Radio Drama­ti­za­tions of Her Sto­ries

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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