Thursday, July 4, 2013

Books I Love: Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler was one of the first woman science fiction writers I discovered. I started reading her work when I was in high school and really enjoyed the fact that this was honest-to-goodness science fiction . . . not just romance or family drama that happened to involve living in the future or on another planet like most of the speculative fiction that was aimed at girls during my young life. Octavia Butler was one of those rare authors who could not only examine the human condition, but do it from inside and from outside, and from perspectives the reader wouldn't necessarily expect.

I read one of her short story collections, and while the stories themselves were disturbing and awesome and fabulous, I think her personal commentary, included with each story, was the most memorable and interesting part of the book. I knew, as a girl science fiction/fantasy writer who would one day be a woman science fiction/fantasy writer, that there weren't many of us and that we were meddling in what was perceived to be a boys' club. Hearing Ms. Butler's commentary on being not only a woman writer but being a black woman writer was very eye-opening for me. I knew about the crap I received for being female and writing these kinds of stories, but I'd never thought about the double whammy black women would have to deal with in the same situation. Ms. Butler wrote about how her fellow black female authors would literally ask her to write about something else, and they would imply that she was wasting her talents writing about other worlds and distant futures where the characters' race was not their defining characteristic even though it was still part of them. (Many of her leads were also black.) They wanted her writing on social issues, using her words to battle racism and sexism and inequality directly. She chose to fight them more indirectly. Part of that fight was liberating herself and writing what she wanted to write. Which was science fiction that was almost always absolutely excellent.

One of the first Octavia Butler books I read was Parable of the Sower. It now has a sequel entitled Parable of the Talents. These books are set in the near future at a time when society is rapidly collapsing--and in this depressing dystopia, we meet our protagonist, Lauren Olamina. She is a headstrong teenage girl who suffers from a congenital condition caused by her mother's use of an experimental drug, and it causes a psychological echo effect called hyperempathy; she experiences what she imagines to be other people's pleasure and pain. This makes it very difficult to hurt anyone (or see anyone hurt) in a rather violent world, so poor Lauren feels pretty vulnerable.

The story starts when Hell breaks loose in her own "safe" neighborhood, and Lauren and her family have to become strong and venture off to safety in search of a place for herself and her kin to replant themselves. She keeps a journal of little revelations which include her life philosophy, including what she has planned for humanity's future among the stars. The sequel, Parable of the Talents, is about Lauren's daughter, and what happens during a religious backlash after society has seriously started going down the toilet. Lauren Olamina and her Earthseed community are pretty much considered heretics and aren't allowed to practice their lifestyle of fostering change toward mankind's growth, and we get to follow the story of her people.

The rather disturbing Patternist series (beginning with Wild Seed) is the story of Doro, an immortal person who "breeds" people with special talents until a large percentage of humans begin making telepathic connections and forming their own society. The series covers the early "seeds" of the people Doro bred (Wild Seed), the early days of the society's first formation (Mind of My Mind), a novel set far in the future where the Patternists are the main society (Patternmaster), and even a novel in which an alternate non-Patternist society emerges (Clay's Ark). The writing is very character-oriented and compelling. You can get a collection of three of the novels in the book Seed to Harvest.

The Xenogenesis series (beginning with Dawn) is about a race of aliens who survive and grow by breeding with other races, and humans are next. It takes us from the beginning of their "invasion" through the peaceful integration and the resistance of some humans. We see the beginning of their appropriation of humans (Dawn), the story of life from the point of view of a part-human/part-alien boy (Adulthood Rites), and another perspective from a mixed-breed member of the aliens' strange third sex (Imago). The whole thing creeps me out a little to tell you the truth, but I think that's what's so good about this author--she makes it gritty and not all nice-nice, because after all it makes sense that integrating an alien species into humanity would get a bit, erm, messy. You can get the whole series in one volume by picking up Lilith's Brood.

I love that so many of her stories include the voices of women of color, and that her books can make your stomach hurt with the heavy issues and dilemmas her characters face. She didn't forget the fear and the sacrifice that people who defy authority have to deal with, and none of her characters' extraordinary situations have their advantages presented without making their disadvantages really felt. It's heartbreaking that Octavia Butler died so young (at age 58); it's hard to believe that those works of hers currently existing in the world are all we'll ever hear from her.

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