Octavia Butler: Winnovating Science Fiction
I’ve always been a nerd. Growing up I consumed all kinds of books, but I always had a shy interest in fantasy, sci fi and dystopia novels and stories, even though most of my other interests were in arts and social justice. While it may be easy for me to admit to my nerdhood now, when I was growing up, it was hard for me to claim. I often found that so many of the spaces that were considered ‘nerdy’ were usually mostly or exclusively white, and I couldn’t help but notice that the field was dominated by Eurocentric and male narratives. As much as I enjoyed the stories I read, I found I couldn’t really connect to them in alot of ways and found myself wishing for science fiction rooted in a more familiar voice.
When I graduated college, I join a bookclub known as Wildseeds: The New Orleans Octavia Butler Emergent Strategy Collective who focused on reading and discussing text by the late science fiction and Afrofuturist author Octavia Butler (according to adrienne maree brown, “Emergence is the way complex systems and patterns arise out of a multiplicity of relatively simple interactions. Rather than laying out big strategic plans for our work, many of us have been coming together in community, in authentic relationships, and seeing what emerges from our conversations, visions, and needs.”). Just before officially joining the bookclub, I read my first Octavia Butler book, Kindred, which blew my mind. Kindred is a bestselling novel of Butlers’ that was first published in 1979 (though Butler has been quoted as saying she began writing around the age of 12). The novel follow a Black woman writer named Dana
who finds herself time traveling between her 1976 California life with her white husband Kevin back to a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation. Throughout the story, a complex narrative emerges where Dana struggles to survival in the era of slavery while ensuring the existence of her lineage and her own life in the future. After reading this phenomenal text, I dove into more of Butler’s work through the bookclub and found myself wanting to know more about this groundbreaking author whose work continues to challenge the dominant narratives in science fiction.
Octavia Butler, sometimes referred to as the ‘grand dame of science fiction’, was born on June 22, 1947 in Pasadena California. She sold her first science fiction stories after taking a class with science fiction legend Harland Ellison (who later mentored her) during her time at the Clarion Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop from 1969-1970. Her first novel Patternmaster was published in 1976, but it was the publication of Kindred (1979) that allowed Butler to support herself as a full time writer (Wildseeds, the novel for which the bookclub I’m in takes its name, was published in 1980 and won the James Tiptree Award). By 1995, Butler had published numerous books and short stories and was awarded the McArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. In addition to her McArthur Fellowship, she also received two Hugo Awards from the World Science Fiction Society and two Nebula awards from the Science Fiction Writers of America for her undeniable impact of the field of science fiction and on Black nerds like myself.
Butler tragically died early at the age of 58 after a fall near her home in Lake Forest Washington in 2006. Her obituary in the New York Times noted that, “
“Throughout Ms. Butler’s career, the news media made much of the fact that she was an African-American woman writing science fiction, traditionally a white male bastion. But in interviews and in her work itself she left no doubt that her background equipped her spectacularly well to portray life in hostile dystopias where the odds of survival can be almost insurmountable.
“I’m black, I’m solitary, I’ve always been an outsider,” The Los Angeles Times quoted Ms. Butler as saying in 1998.”
Butler left us with a dozen novels and other writings that have been translated into 10 languages and sold more than a million copies combined. With themes of African and African American spiritualism and mysticism, a gender, race and class and power analysis, usually told a complex exploration of the relationship between the past, present and future Octavia Butler’s work is sure to remain to be an important and divergent part of American science fiction history.
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