Written by Annie Caulfield

Voices

Octavia Butler: An Act of Hope

Despite being the recipient of a Genius Grant, Octavia Butler has long been missing from the sci-fi hall of fame. But, finds Annie Caulfield, almost a decade after her death she’s staging a comeback.

octavia_butler

“I was poor, black, the daughter of a shoeshine man and a maid. At best, I was treated with condescension when I said I wanted to be a writer. Now I write for a living.”

In fact, Octavia Butler’s shoe-shiner father died when she was still a baby. While her mother worked long hours, Butler was left in the care of her grandmother, who was also busy with home piece-work. To keep herself company, Octavia Butler started writing stories. One afternoon she watched a daft B movie on television called Devil Girl From Mars and thought she could write a better story. That’s how she launched into writing science fiction, at the age of 12.

In those days, science fiction writing was a predominantly white male world and, as Butler became successful, she was always asked how it felt to be an African American woman working in the genre. It became quite a tiresome question.

A shy woman, Butler tried to avoid interviews but when she had to answer questions she didn’t like, she had a warm wit for the questioner. Asked what she wanted to say in the constant analysis of race in her work, she laughed, lifted a hand and waved it: “What I want to say? Hey, we’re here!”

She quietly and determinedly let the world of science fiction feel her presence. She knew what her repetitive interviewers often forgot – science fiction was invented by a woman. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein in 1818 and is, astonishingly, often missed off lists of genre changing science fiction writers.

Science itself is the same; there’s a rumour that girls don’t do science but one of the first scientists’ names we learn in primary school is Marie Curie. Women do science, often against the odds. They write science fiction, have been writing it for a long time, but are overlooked. Or reclassified.

A shy woman, Butler tried to avoid interviews but when she had to answer questions she didn’t like, she had a warm wit for the questioner. Asked what she wanted to say in the constant analysis of race in her work, she laughed, lifted a hand and waved it: “What I want to say? Hey, we’re here!”

Butler’s most popular book, Kindred is the story of a middle class African American woman from 1976 transported back to a plantation in the days of slavery. It was heavily criticised because she hadn’t put enough science into the time travel. She was told it was a historical novel, not science fiction. Presumably, the science in Devil Girl From Mars was flawlessly detailed and plausible.

Butler went on to win science fiction’s most prestigious awards, the Hugo and Nebula prizes – twice. In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to receive a Macarthur Fellowship. Nicknamed the ‘genius grant’, the fellowship’s $500, 000 prize meant there was a qualitative shift in Butler’s frugal and diligent life. She wrote when she had no encouragement, could barely put food on her table, but in the end the rewards justifiably softened her days, as she kept on producing spell-binding new material.

kindred

Her books were constructed as series, although they stand alone as good reads. The five books in her debut Patternmaster sequence build a dense, intriguing world where god-like beings create new communities. The novels examine the psychodynamics of human groups and power relationships. The characters and rich world detail of the Patternmaster novels are drawn from West African history and mythology, giving Butler’s work a unique tone of detail.

The next sequence of books Lilith’s Brood, a trilogy, deals with a depopulated earth invaded by extraterrestrials who can manipulate gender, sexuality and consciousness. Butler leaves it up to us to consider if our fixed ideas of what it means to be human are always worth holding on to.

The third series, the Parable, was supposed to be a trilogy but there are only two books and notes for a third about the origins of religion and social mind control. Butler struggled with the last book and diverted to write a vampire novel, Fledgling, just for fun, hoping to return to her trilogy and find her way through. It wasn’t to be. Sadly, Octavia Butler died from a stroke, aged only 58, in 2006.

Butler is increasingly championed by other women writing science fiction, including Margaret Atwood, and by younger writers such as Junot Diaz. Her work is at the heart of the Afro-futurism movement – drawing together Astral jazz, African-American sci-fi and psychedelic hip-hop. Butler’s books are as much part of this movement as Sun Ra and Funkadelic’s music, Basquait’s painting, the iconic film Brother From Another Planet or tux-wearing psychedelic soul singer, Janelle Monae.

fledgling

While Butler books are increasingly seen as the stylish thing to be reading, she’s being added to more and more university courses, both as a social commentator and a writer who breathed a different life into science fiction.

In 2007, her estate set up the Octavia E Butler Memorial Scholarship to enable writers of colour to attend the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop, where Butler got her own start.

As much as anything, her story itself is a creative writing class. It is very unlikely anyone deciding they have to be a writer will be given an easy ride. But is your starting place as unlikely as that of 12-year-old Octavia Butler watching Devil Girl From Mars and deciding she could do better?

Her books, like all great science fiction, shed an unusual and revealing light on how our world is, has been and may well continue to be. The reader turns the pages rapidly through the heroines’ adventures, barely registering how deeply and broadly the writing is making them think.

When an interviewer misquoted one of her answers to make her sound pessimistic, Butler gave a stern response in an essay (Essence Magazine, 2000): “The one thing that I and my characters never do when contemplating the future is give up hope. In fact, the very act of trying to look ahead and discern possibilities and offer warnings is in itself an act of hope.”

 

Octavia Butler 1947-2006

To find out more and to discover Octavia Butler’s mind-blowing books: www.octaviabutler.org.

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Written by Annie Caulfield

Annie Caulfield is a dramatist, travel writer and broadcaster. Originally from Northern Ireland, she lives in London or a Spanish cave. www.anniecaulfield.com