How Octavia Butler Changed My Life
***Warning: This post is pretty long.
I’ve already written like a billion times now about how I got into science fiction, so I’ll make this short. I read Harry Potter. I became obsessed. I’ve always like magic, superpowers, time travel, outer space, etc. etc. I didn’t really read any black science fiction writers until a few years ago.
There. You’re fully caught up.
Whenever I told people that I loved science fiction, they would always ask me if I’d read Octavia Butler. At first, I didn’t even know who she was, so I would say no and then listen to them talk about how she’s a black sci-fi writer and how she’s amazing and I would like her.
Unfortunately, I’m the kind of person who gets a bunch of recommendations for things and then I either brush it off or legitimately just forget (my mind is a black hole where things often get lost unless I write them down immediately, and even then it’s not guaranteed I’ll remember. Paradoxically, I also tend to remember the most random things ever with great clarity).
At the time that people were telling me to read her, I wasn’t starving for black women’s representation in the books I was reading—at least not consciously. I didn’t really mind that there were very few black people around; I was reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the umpteenth time and was excited because I was still getting new things out of it. So I filed Octavia Butler into my brain computer/black hole and went on with my business.
For this reason (and probably others if I really looked back), I tend to dislike my younger self.
For my 19th birthday, my father gave me Dawn, the first book in Butler’s Xenogenesis series—and which is being turned into a television show! It took me a while to get a chance to read it, first because finals for my last semester of sophomore year of college was coming up, and then because I had just recently gotten into the A Song of Ice and Fire books, and Westeros had thoroughly pulled me in. I didn’t even pick up Dawn until the end of the summer, and when I did, I was highly skeptical. It was taking me a while to get into it, mainly because of all the uncomfortable decisions the main character had to make.
Dawn chronicles the story of Lilith, a black woman who wakes up on an alien space ship hundreds of years after humans destroy themselves through nuclear war. She wakes up at the beginning disoriented and afraid, especially when the Oankali, the aliens who took her and a bunch of other humans, show up. The premise is awesome, but Lilith ends up having to make a lot of decisions—though sometimes she has no choice—that are uncomfortable and that would make any human feel icky. I don’t want to spoil it, but let’s just say I was frustrated (and a little disgusted) the entire time I was reading the book.
I might have just stopped there, but luckily for me my professor in the African American Lit. class I was taking that next semester had Kindred on the syllabus. It was at the very end of the class because we were going chronologically through black history and literature and Kindred came out in 1979.
While my junior year of college was extremely difficult and frustrating and stressful at times, that year completely shaped the path I am on now and Octavia Butler is a huge part of this.
I was actually glad that I had to read it in class because of the way my brain works. If I can convince myself that something I have to do is homework, or that I will be graded on it somehow, I’m much more likely to do it in a timely manner. And though I’d wanted to read Kindred for a while, I knew I would need a push to do so. It also didn’t hurt that I already owned the book, meaning that I had one less book to buy for the semester (honestly, buying books for school is one of the worst things. So glad I’m done with that for a while).
When we finally got to Kindred, I was mainly excited because we were going to get to read science fiction in a literature class. I knew the basic premise of the story, so I was interested to see how it would go.
I was not prepared for how amazing, awful, troubling, exciting, vivid, amazing this book was. I was sucked in so thoroughly and felt as if Dana (the main character) could have easily been me, something that was troubling but fascinating at the same time. Though the book was extremely uncomfortable because of the awful things that happen and the way it makes you as the reader complicit, it is done in the most intentional way.
After reading that book, I discovered that I had Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents on my bookshelf. I wanted to kick myself. I had had her stuff in my room since high school and I had been busy reading Twilight (I can’t believe I’ve admitted this on the internet, and am going to do my best to stand the judgment sure to come). Immediately after I finished my finals—actually not even. I started reading it just before finals because I can sometimes be impatient, which is dumb. I read the two Parable books and loved them. For my Kwanzaa list pretty much all I wanted were more Butler books. I got Wild Seed, Fledgling, and the complete Xenogenesis series.
Now, this post is already getting long, and I have something else to talk about, but I’ll just say here that Wild Seed (the first in the Patternist series) is my favorite Butler book after Kindred. Go get that now. Actually, go buy them all.
One of the great things about Octavia Butler’s books are the common themes that are woven throughout. It is clear from reading just one of the books, and especially after reading a couple, or all, that she is concerned with things like interracial (be they black/white, human/alien, or something else) relationships, complicity, Black feminism, human nature, and cultural complexity. Finding the common threads in these books makes it feel as if you are getting more insight into how Butler’s mind works and why she is writing the books she writes.
My winter break that year was great because I felt like I was discovering something I had been missing throughout my formative nerd years. The representation and the humanity and the nuance shown in the main characters, most of whom were black and women, made me feel so relevant. It also gave me more direction with the books that I was trying to write. Until then I’d really only been looking to J.K. Rowling, and more recently George R.R. Martin, for examples, and while I still do, I’m so grateful that I’ve found Octavia Butler, because she has influenced me so much more than the other two have. Not just in writing, but in affirming my identity as a black woman and as someone whose story really, legitimately matters.
Reading almost all of her books (I still need to finish the Patternist and Xenogenesis series’) over winter break formed my thinking in my last semester of junior year. The main thing I cared about/still care about now is the representation of black women in science fiction as characters and authors. While I didn’t even think about it really before reading Butler—other than writing all of my main characters in my unfinished books as being black women/girls—now it feels like a very conscious and intentional decision. I don’t feel as if my writing is for myself anymore, but for all black girls everywhere.
If you haven’t read any of Octavia Butler’s books, first of all WHY WOULD YOU NOT?? DON’T BE LIKE ME PUT THE TWILIGHT BOOK DOWN! Then, I would say either read Kindred or Wild Seed. Partly because they’re my favorite two, but also because I think those are honestly the two best starting points. The reason I’m recommending two is because not everyone likes Kindred. Some people apparently really hate it, mostly because of the way Dana and the other characters are complicit in the institution of slavery, but personally that’s why I like it so much. Even though it’s science fiction (because time travel), it is also very true in it’s depiction of slavery, which was in no way comfortable and required some form of complicity from everyone involved, whether voluntarily or involuntarily. I’ll leave it at that, because I’m sure I can write a whole dissertation on Kindred and I want to save it for grad school. Also spoilers.
I recommend Wild Seed if you’re someone who, like me, loves to read series’ more than individual books. Wild Seed is the first book in the Patternist series* and is about people with superpowers. It’s awesome, because superpowers, but is also frustrating at times—which, to be honest, is one of my criteria for amazing books. So read those two, then delve into the wonderful universe that are Octavia Butler books.
*Fascinatingly, the Patternist series was published out of order. So even though Wild Seed is the first book chronologically, it was the fourth to be published. She also only published Survivor, the technical fourth book of the series (third to be published) once, claiming it was her “Star Trek novel” and expressing dislike for it. The last book chronologically of the series, Patternmaster, was the first novel she’d ever published.
This post was originally published on Black Girls Nerd Out 1.0 aka The Life and Times of a Black Girl Nerd. It has been revised and posted here because Octavia Butler is awesome.