The Author Who Broke Science Fiction’s Race and Gender Barriers
This month I’m excited to write about an author who may be unfamiliar to some of you. Octavia Butler was a black woman who brought new dimensions to the world of speculative fiction, and I hope you’ll be encouraged to explore her work.
I first read Octavia Butler’s Kindred when it was published in 1979. The story was very different from any science fiction or fantasy I’d read before. First, a black woman wrote it at a time when women and black authors were under-acknowledged for their contributions to science fiction and fantasy. In reading, I soon realized how powerfully Butler had broken the mold by addressing issues of slavery and racism.
Kindred tells the story of a young black woman who is transported from contemporary California to the pre-Civil War South, where she saves the live of a slave owner’s son. This begins a series of time-travelling episodes, which increase in violence and danger to her.
Although Kindred is probably the best known of Butler’s novels, her other novels are equally forthright in their subject matter. In speaking of her fictional themes, she said:
“I learned to hate the metaphorical cages that people try to use to avoid getting to know one another – cages of race, gender or class. … (It) is better – much more interesting – to get to know others and to discover who and what they are. It is better to look into their eyes with open curiosity and learn once more about someone else.” 2002 interview in O, the Oprah magazine.
The author was very familiar with these cages. Her mother was a cleaning woman, and Butler accompanied her to her work and got first-hand lessons in the tyranny of race and class.
Butler was a shy and slightly dyslexic child who became an easy target for bullies. She found refuge from them in the local library, where she soon became interested in reading and writing science fiction. Her mother gave her a typewriter when she was ten.
She said, “I began writing about power because I had so little.” Although her faith in her ability to succeed as a writer flagged when her aunt told her, “Honey … Negroes can’t be writers,” she persisted, and as the world knows, she succeeded as an author.
The many discriminations that shaped her life became the themes of her work. She wrote in the essay, “A World without Racism,” that “simple peck-order bullying is only the beginning of the kind of hierarchical behavior that can lead to racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, and all the other ‘isms’ that cause so much suffering in the world.”
Part of her genius as a fiction writer was to express her perspective without being pedantic. She didn’t lecture about what she believed; she told compelling stories.
Sometimes her stories show the dominators as aliens, vampires, or other “superhuman beings.” They are defied by hero/heroines who are already disenfranchised and suffering exploitation and violation. Their determination to survive and, if possible, to bring about crucial change makes them heroic.
Her Influence Continues
Octavia Butler’s body of work has been highly appreciated. She won the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant, two Hugo and two Nebula Awards, was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and received the PEN American Center lifetime achievement award.
More recently, Ben H. Winters, author of Underground Airlines, which combines the themes of slavery and alternative fiction, has frequently cited the influence of Kindred on his best-selling novel. An article comparing the two books is here. Warning: there are plot spoilers for both books.
Butler was a social visionary who wrote of the huge changes courageous heroines could create, including how we view race, class, and gender.
Her writing will continue to influence how science fiction, fantasy, and dystopian fiction develop. A particularly fine example is a book published in 2015.
Adrienne Brown and Walidah Imarisha published Octavia’s Brood in 2015, an anthology of radical science fiction inspired by Butler’s work. Octavia’s Brood)
In an interview in June 2015 in The Nation, Imarisha says, “In science fiction, we don’t have to stay contained within what is possible. We can start with the question ‘What do we want?’ rather than the question ‘What is realistic?'”
This, I believe, is the essence of the questions Octavia Butler asked.