Octavia Estelle Butler

4,775  words
posted:  july  29,  1998

  "Still I'm asked, what good is science fiction to Black people? What good is any form of literature to Black people? What good is science fiction's thinking about the present, the future, and the past? What good is its tendency to warn or to consider alternative ways of thinking and doing? What good is its examination of the possible effects of science and technology, or social organization and political direction? At its best, science fiction stimulates imagination and creativity. It gets reader and writer off the beaten track, off the narrow, narrow footpath of what 'everyone' is saying, going, thinking - whoever 'everyone' happens to be this year. And what good is all this to Black people?" - Octavia Estelle Butler, "Positive Obsession," 1989

In Octavia Butler's Hugo-Award Winning short story, "Speech Sounds," the future citizens of Los Angeles have lost the ability to process language. They can't speak. They can't read maps. They can't write. They can't communicate with each other except through crude grunts and gestures. Fights are breaking out because there is no way to resolve misunderstandings. Rye, her protagonist, still remembers the realm of words and speech: "She had told herself that the children growing up now were to be pitied. They would run through the downtown canyons with no real memory of what the buildings had been or even how they had come to be. Today's children gathered books as well as wood to be burned as fuel. They ran through the streets chasing one another and hooting like chimpanzees. They have no future. They were now all they would ever be." Butler's story tells of a brief interlude in such a world, when a man and a woman come together, give each other comfort, only to be separated again.

Lilith lyapo, the protagonist of Butler's Dawn, awakens from a deep sleep to find herself a captive aboard an alien space craft, one of the few survivors of a nuclear war between Earth nations. Oankali have saved a small number of terrains, studied them, transformed their genetic material, prepared them for rebirth, so that human culture may survive, albeit in a substantially transformed fashion. However, when Lilith demands writing tools and books, they initially refuse to give them to her, even though she insists "we humans need to do such things to help us remember." For the aliens, however, the books contain memories which humans would be better off forgetting, if they are going to seize their chance to a fresh start. The aliens will alter her mind so she can remember without reading and writing, but in doing so, Lilith fears she will become something other than human: "I don't have a disease! Forgetting things is normal for most humans! I don't need anything done to my brain!....What's frightening is the idea of being tampered with!' She drew a deep breath. "Listen, no part of me is more definitive of who I am than my brain."

Dana, Kindred's time-traveling protagonist, risks her life to help her slave ancestors learn to read and write. The novel never lets us forget that the denial of literacy to southern blacks was a means of disciplining them, denying their core humanity: "It was dangerous to educate slaves, they warned. Education made blacks dissatisfied with slavery. It spoiled them for their work. The Methodist minister said it made them disobedient, made them want more than the Lord intended them to have." Butler contrasts the slave's hunger for literacy with their master's disinterest and intellectual laziness. For the slaves, literacy is the path to freedom; for the masters, it is something to be taken for granted. The slaves learn in secret and Dana must burn each page upon which they write lest they leave behind evidence of her transgressions. One of the book's most chilling scenes occurs when Tom Weylin, the master, comes into the cookhouse unexpectedly and finds her with her finger still in the pages of the book she has stolen from his library. "He snatched the book from me and threw it on the floor. Then he grabbed me by the arm and dragged me toward the door....Weylin dragged me a few feet, then pushed me hard. I fell, knocked myself breathless. I never saw where the whip came from, never even saw the first blow coming. But it came - like a hot iron across my back, burning into me through my light shirt, searing my skin....I screamed, convulsed.. Weylin struck again and again, until I couldn't have gotten up at gun point. "Though the pain is unendurable, Dana will not stop her efforts to teach the slave children to read, an obligation she owes to the past.

  The will to communicate, to read, write, and speak, seem basic to humanity- at least to the way Octavia Butler defines humanity through her fiction. And Butler's science fiction is all about what makes us human - often understood only at that moment when our humanity starts to mutate into something fundamentally different.

Octavia Butler describes herself as painfully shy, a recluse, "a hermit in the middle of Los Angeles," who finds her own voice and defines her own identity through the process of writing: "Shyness is shit. It isn't cute or feminine or appealing. It's torment and it's shit.... I memorized required reports and poems for school, then cried my way out of having to recite. Some teachers condemned me for not studying. Some forgave me for not being very bright. Only a few saw my shyness....I believed I was ugly and stupid, clumsy and socially hopeless. I also thought that everyone would notice these faults if I drew attention to myself. I wanted to disappear....I hid out in a big pink notebook - one that would hold a whole ream of paper. I made myself a universe in it. There I could be a magic horse, a Martian, a telepath ....There I could be anywhere but here, any time but now, with any people but these."

Butler's early childhood reading consisted of books she could borrow from the public library and those her mother brought home from her day work as a maid, when her employers were throwing them out. Butler writes, "She believed passionately in books and education. She wanted me to have what she had been denied. She wasn't sure which books I might be able to use, so she brought whatever she found in the trash. I had books yellow with age, books without covers, books written in, crayoned in, spilled on, cut, torn, even partly burned.... Some were years too advanced for me when I got them, but I grew into them." Such childhood experiences surface again and again in her stories as her protagonists struggle to preserve the tools of communication which can allow them a path to escape their enslavement, a means to preserve their culture, or a chance to hold at bay the forces of chaos.

Butler told interviewer Veronica Mixon that she turned to reading and writing to escape the problems which had left the black women she knew prematurely old: "Their lives seemed so terrible to me at times - so devoid of joy or reward. I needed my fantasies to shield me from their world." Butler explains in another interview, "When I feel self-conscious about something, I don't write about it; I write it out - that is, I write about it and think about it until it is so familiar that it becomes second nature." Butler writes about things she fears and makes them sources of comfort, and in doing so, she introduces a more complex understanding of the moral and social dilemmas confronting contemporary American society. She seeks not simply to escape from the world of her mother and the other black women, who she felt had been battered into submission by a racist society, but to understand the nature of that submission, to make her peace with their relationship to the world, by constructing stories which deal with various forms of unequal power relations.

As literary critics are increasingly recognizing, Octavia Butler ranks, alongside Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, among the most important contemporary black women writers. The only thing that has slowed the recognition she deserves has been that she writes in an unlikely place. Literary critics are searching for realism and melodrama, perhaps magical realism; Butler offers them horror, science fiction, and fantasy. In fact, she is one of only four African- Americans who regularly published science fiction in the United States. Butler finds some of the core themes of the science fiction/horror tradition (alien invasions, body mutations, time travel, extra-sensory perception, vampirism) vehicles for expressing the experience of powerlessness and domination within a racist society. Her writings are deeply political, and yet we would do an injustice to the complexity of her images if we reduced them to simple metaphors, and we would distort the profound ambivalence of her stories if we were to read them in any direct and uncomplicated fashion as allegories. The relationships she describes are compelling, contradictory, not easy to fit within prescribed categories.

  Her protagonists are often half in one camp and half in another, humans who are learning to embrace the alien and slaves who have come to develop a certain fondness for their masters. Her protagonists are often distrusted by their own kind, as Dana is labeled one of the "master's women" by the other slaves in Kindred, as Lilith confronts charges that she is no longer human in Dawn, yet they are paternalistically excluded from full incorporation into the master's culture. They are people who don't belong.

As Kindred makes clear, there is no such thing as a good slave-owner; even with the best of intentions, even with the kindest of motives, the slave-holder is profoundly corrupted by the authority he holds over other human lives, and the slaveholder never escapes the culture around him. At the same time, Butler recognizes the complex feelings which emerge within all human relations, even those founded upon fundamental inequalities, and so she often depicts the love, desire, respect, and fear that charges relations between slaves and their masters. Kidnap victims sometimes come to feel love for their captors; abused wives often stay with their husbands, and not only because they are afraid to leave. Her slaves long for their freedom, mourn the loss of children and husbands who are sold away from them, talk about escaping to the North or the west, but they also live, day to day, in relation to the people in the big house and in relation to their own community, and along the way, they take some pleasure and pride in those relationships.

  Butler has suggested that she wrote Kindred to explain to contemporary blacks why their ancestors didn't all revolt, why they didn't all escape to freedom, by placing a contemporary black woman in a position of servitude. Dana, her protagonist, begins the book with tremendous self-respect and confidence, with knowledge of science, medicine, and history which places her in a position of superiority to the white men who she must confront. All of this places her at risk when she finds herself displaced into slavery times, because she has no fixed place in that world and she does not know how to adopt the proper postures, to embrace appropriate speech, to divert her eyes from her master. In the end, she is forced to submit more and more to the white family's authority and she becomes more and more isolated from the community of other blacks. Butler describes Dana's initial contempt for Sarah the cook, whose children have been sold one by one by her master, "She was the kind of woman who would be held in contempt during the militant nineteen sixties. The house-nigger, the handkerchief-head, the female Uncle Tom - the frightened powerless woman who had already lost all she could stand to lose, and who knew as little about the freedom of the North as she knew about the hereafter." But, by the end of the book, she faces the contempt of the other slaves, who fear that she has grown too close to the masters and can not be trusted to remain loyal to her own people.

One of the book's more powerful statements comes through the contrast Butler creates between the contemporary marriage between Dana and Kevin, her white husband, and the ante-bellum lust which Rufus possesses for Alice, one of his slaves. The first relationship is far from idyllic, full of hints of unequal relations and family oppositions, signs of the persistence of racism in contemporary America which intensify when Kevin is drawn back to the past and must spend five years in a culture which leaves him profoundly transformed and alienated from the woman he loved. Kevin is horrified by much he sees, devotes his time to helping slaves escape, but in the end, he can never fully understand the perspective of the slave and he is "hardened" by his experiences. Dana initially confuses Kevin for the white slave master when she returns from another of her trips back, having been taught to fear all whites by her experiences of servitude. The second relationship is far more complicated, since it is clear that Rufus earnestly loves Alice, having played alongside her as a child, and having been taught by Dana to see blacks on more equal terms. However, when Alice refuses his affections, he rapes her again and again, selling her husband down river when he opposes their couplings. He is capable of tremendous tenderness towards Alice but only when she doesn't resist his will. He embraces their children as his own but somehow, he can't bring himself to sign the papers that will grant them freedom. In the end, Alice comes to feel something for Rufus, but commits suicide at the moment when she starts to lose her desire to escape. By this point, Rufus has come to see Alice and Dana as two aspects of the same woman, one his friend and protector, the other his lover. Yet, there can be no real romance without equality and nothing in his culture prepares him to accept either woman as a full equal no matter how much he feels himself bending to accommodate them, and in the end, both women fear and hate him, despite the softer feelings he also evokes within them.

The protagonists of many other time traveling stories explore the past as tourists, perhaps falling in love, perhaps shaping events, but in the end, able to extract themselves from the implications of these other times and places and return relatively unchanged by what they have observed. James Buzard has characterized tourists as people who can touch without being touched by the cultures they visit. But, no black person can travel back in time to the age of slavery and return unchanged. Butler's protagonists are "touched" and "wounded" by their experiences in the past; they return to their own time permanently changed, their bodies scarred, and their minds unable to fully adjust to the world around them. What the novel requires Dana to do - insure that Rufus and Alice produce the daughter which is her ancestor - can not be experienced as free from moral ambiguities and in fact, implicates Dana deeper and deeper into the culture of slavery. If the goal of many time travel stories is to insure that what has already occurred occurs again, Butler suggests the profound conservatism of such a vision, implying that to go to past without altering it is to accept the status quo at face value and therefore, to place your own survival over the freedom and dignity of those who come before.

Like other contemporary time travel stories, such as Bruce Sterling's "Mozart in Mirrorshades" or Orson Scott Card's Timewatch, Kindred is concerned with historiographic questions. The novel is particularly conscious of how little of black history has been recorded. Dana can not prepare for her journey in the past, because she finds that certain key documents - the passes which allow black slaves to travel without white accompaniment - were not preserved or reproduced in history books. When she returns to her own time at the end of the novel, she is unable to find out what happened to many of the black slaves whose lives had touched hers in the past, since they had left no written documents and their experiences had not been judged worthy of recording in white newspapers and diaries. All she knows about her ancestors, in the end, are the handwritten records in the front cover of her family Bible: "so many relatives that I have never known, would never know."

  If Kindred is a novel explicitly about slavery and the impact it still has on contemporary American race relations, her other stories often evoke themes of powerlessness and possession, though she rejects the idea that such themes are reducible to the politics of race. In "Blood Child," for example, Butler describes the complex and unequal relations between the Tilc and the humans: "T'Gatoi was hounded on the outside. Her people wanted more of us made available. Only she and her political faction stood between us and the hordes who did not understand why there was a Preserve - why any Terran could not be courted, paid, drafted, in some way made available to them. Or they did understand, but in their desperation, they did not care. She parceled us out to the desperate and sold us to the rich and powerful for their political support. Thus, we were necessities, status symbols, and an independent people. She oversaw the joining of families, putting an end to the final remnants of the earlier system of breaking up Terran families to suit impatient Tilc." Butler describes the complex desires and paternalism that link the two peoples together as humans become, in effect, the house pets of the Tilc, necessary for the process of their reproduction, carriers and caretakers of their young.

"Blood Child" is a coming of age story as a young boy confronts the realities of his world, witnesses the bloody birth of a Tilc, and in the end, submits to his own impregnation: "I undressed and lay down beside her. I knew what to do, what to expect. I had been told all my life. I felt the familiar sting, narcotic, mildly pleasant. Then the blind probing of her ovipositor. The puncture was painless, easy. So easy going in. She undulated slowly against me, her muscles forcing the egg from her body into mine." Butler writes about this process with gut-wrenching vividness and yet the tone she adopts is that of a love story, "a love story between two very different beings."

  "Blood Child" posits a human race which has come to accept, and even to find happiness within, their subservience to a more powerful race, a theme which runs throughout many of Butler's short stories and novels. In Dawn, the first of the Xeogensis series, Lily must accept the paternalistic influence of the Oankali, who will allow her and her fellow humans to live, but only at the cost of sharing their genetic material with them. Humans, the Oankali explain, suffer from fundamentally contradictory traits - a powerful intelligence and a need for hierarchical domination - which insure that they will destroy themselves again and again if those problems are not resolved. The Oankali, in turn, are driven to absorb new genetic material, to rework it within their bodies, and to change in response to the others they come into contact with. As one of them explains, "Your people will change. Your young will be more like us and ours more like you....We're as committed to the trade as your body is to breathing. We were overdue for it when we found you. Now it will be done - to the rebirth of your people and mine."

Unlike most science fiction which often romanticizes the potential for friendship between human and aliens, Butler's novel expresses a deep-rooted human dread, disgust, repulsion over its initial encounters with the alien race. Here's her description of Lilith's first encounter with the Oankali: "She did not want to be any closer to him. She had not known what held her back before. Now she was certain it was his alieness, his difference, his literal unearthliness. She found herself still unable to take even one more step toward him....She made a fist of one hand and deliberately dug her nails into her palm until they all but broke the skin. With the pain of that to distract her, she faced him." As the book progresses, Lilith comes to feel more at home with the Oankali, even though she continues to resist their paternalistic insistence that they know what's better for humans, their desire to transform her against her will. Still, they maintain the ability to disgust her when she unexpectedly brushes against some aspect of their bodies or culture that is fundamentally other to humans: "For a moment, she saw Nikanj as she had once seen Jdahya - as a totally alien being, grotesque, repellent beyond mere ugliness with its night crawler body tentacles, its snake head tentacles, and its tendency to keep both moving, signaling attention and emotion."

Butler's writing powerfully captures the attraction and fear, affection and rage she feels towards the aliens. At one point, Lilith tries to share consciousness with one of the Onakali but she can not understand the sensations she experiences: "A totally alien, unique, nameless thing, half seen, half felt or...tasted. A blaze of something frightening, yet overwhelmingly, compelling. Extinguished. A half known mystery beautiful and complex. A deep, impossibly sensuous promise. " In focusing on the distance between human and alien, however, Butler does not seek to preserve that separation, as might have been the case in the construction of the alien in Cold War Era science fiction stories like "Arena." Rather, she wants to intensify the process by which the boundaries between human and alien are crossed, as humans and aliens learn not only to interact with each other, but become part of the same, no longer "human" yet no longer "alien" race. Here, Dawn exists alongside Kindred, with its representation of inter-racial romance and the consequences of "mixed race" ancestry.

In Dawn, The Oankali's sharing of genetic material with their human captives/guests is often depicted in deeply eroticized terms - sometimes as a process of love-making and other times as a process of rape: "Nikanj penetrated her body with every head and body tentacle that could reach her, and for once it felt the way she had always imagined it should. It hurt! It was like abruptly being used as a pincushion. She gasped, but managed not to pull a way." To the end, Lilith insists that her goals are to learn all she can from her captors and then to run, yet, in the process, she has been cut off from the other humans who have seen her loyalty towards the Oankali and she has become the mother for the next generation of genetic hybrids. She protests, "It won't be human. It will be a thing. A monster." However, as the Oankali tell her, her body signals something different from her words and thoughts. Her body has already come to accept that the child she carries is part of herself and that she will play her part in preparing for the changes which will come.

  The Oankali do not simply possess new senses which allow them to taste, absorb, and work upon genetic material; they also communicate through a direct sharing of neural sensations, a potential which two humans can achieve if one of the Oankali functions as a mediator or "translator." At one point, Butler describes the records which such a race might produce: "The pictures were not photographs. They were paintings, impressions of the inner person as well as the outer physical reality. Each contained print memories of their subjects. Oankali interrogators had painted these pictures with sensory tentacles or sensory arms, using deliberately produced bodily fluids. Lilith knew this, but the pictures looked like, even felt like photos. They had been done on some kind of plastic, not on paper. The pictures looked alive enough to speak....These pictures had a lot to say even to non-Oankali observers about who their subjects were - or who the Oankali thought they were."

This fascination with alien forms of communication and sensual perception runs through Butler's fiction, surfacing in novels such as Clay's Ark where an alien virus fundamentally transforms the human bodies which come into contact with it, intensifying both their sensory perception and their sexual desires, and forcing them to transmit it to others, or the Patternmaster series, in which an immoral has used the underclasses as breading stock, producing a race of powerful telepaths who can shape how others perceive them and who now declare war on their masters. In these works, as in the Xeogensis series, this expansion of human potential is experienced with tremendous ambivalence, with a mixture of desire and dread.

  She uses such stories to explore what qualities make us fundamentally human and to imagine possible adaptations which humanity might experience in the future. In her afterward to "The Evening and the Morning and the Night," a story about a genetic disease which leaves its victims at war with their own bodies, Butler writes, "We carry as many as 50,000 different genes in each of the nuclei of our billions of cells. If one gene among the 50,000, the Huntington's gene, for instance, can so greatly change our lives - what we can do, what we can become - then what are we?" Her fascination with the instability of our genetic material accounts for her fixation on characters who are not quite human - who have undergone a transformation which cuts them off from their own kind. Such images also speak to her own experience of being a minority, of living in a society which never treated blacks as fully equal to whites, and thus as never fully human.

Butler's stories explore not only the stock science fiction theme of hum an encounters with alien difference but also the process of confronting and accepting that difference and of ourselves being transformed by our encounter with the alien. She pulls this question down to a biological level, to the changes which occur in our bodies as we absorb alien DNA and as such, she has become a leading voice in the new focus of science fiction on the biological sciences. Of course, this preoccupation with sociogenetics - with the basic building blocks of human reproduction - can never be separated from the politics of race, given the degree to which genetic categories have historically been used to define the differences between the races and the degree to which the interbreeding of black and white peoples has become the subject of such intense ideological controversy.

Butler's stories are never simply about race, but she also can never simply forget race when she writes, nor can we forget race when we read her works. Butler explained in an interview with Larry McCaffrey, "Let's face it, people who write about whole universes filled with American whites probably can't deal with the real world, let alone alien worlds." She produces stories where her protagonists happen to be black, where race is not the whole focus of their stories, but she also uses biological sciences to question what makes us alike and what makes us different as members of the human species. This desire to both acknowledge and work beyond racial difference is best summarized by a passage from Dawn, which describes how Lilith chose the man who would become her mate. One of the Oankali explains, "Ahajas and Dichaan are mystified. They thought you would choose one of the big dark ones because they're like you. I said you would choose this one - because he's like you....During the testing, his responses were closer to yours than anyone else I'm aware of. He doesn't look like you, but he's like you." This passage seems to ask us to reconsider what differences matter, what similarities are important, and how the encounter with the truly alien might shift the importance which humans place upon racial categories. In short, Butler returns to the question of "what are we."


Selected Works

Wild Seed
Mind of My Mind
The Patternmaster
Clay's Ark
Bloodchild and Other Stories
Parable of the Sower
Adulthood Rites


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