The Anti-Canon Series: Octavia E. Butler by Ashlee Christoffersen

The Anti-Canon series is a collection of short essays focusing on writers less well known, positioned outside of the literary mainstream or simply deserving of more attention. An alternative (but by no means definitive) list of works that have influenced the writers at Influx Press, offering a different perspective to what is, and what is not, considered ‘important’, and hopefully giving you some new books to read into the bargain…

Octavia E. Butler is almost always referred to as a great ‘African American/Black woman’ science fiction writer. What this really says is that she was pretty good at writing sci fi, for a Black woman. It is rarely simply stated that she was an amazing science fiction writer, full stop.

octavia-butler-1
octavia-butler-1

True, the fact that she was a Black woman, and a self-described feminist, can be important to the interpretation of her writing, as race and gender are central ways of understanding her choice of themes and the social positions of the characters she created. But this description can also serve to pigeonhole and minimise the impact of a large, diverse body of work, spanning historical fantasy fiction (1), (inter-species) erotica (2), a vampire story (3) and what she’s termed her ‘Star Trek’ novel, Survivor (4) . These novels are driven by central characters that are variously women, men, aliens, white, Black, and neither. I personally like to think that I am a writer; not a woman-writer. If someone referred to me as a woman writer, I would tell them to fuck off.

This pigeonholing is in spite of Butler having won numerous mainstream awards and accolades in Science Fiction, a genre still heavily dominated by white men. This complexity is part of the reason I have chosen to write this essay on Butler; also because she has been my favourite writer for a long time, and I often mention this to self-described huge fans of sci fi, who have never heard of her. This may be partly owing to Butler being American, yet at the same time, everyone’s heard of Robert Heinlein. Butler has been studied and explored, but almost only by feminists and race studies scholars.

Kindred book cover
Kindred book cover

I enthusiastically embraced Octavia Butler at the onset of my culturally specific (to Vancouver, Canada, and to youth) identity as a queer feminist anticapitalist environmentalist. (Living in London for a long time has changed all that. E.g., I barely remember the environment, and hate enthusiasm, now). Her diverse novels have recurring themes: power, immortality, class struggle, interdependency, community, diversity, the destruction of earth. She wrote ‘the ideas that most interest me tend to be big.’ (5) The power relations between her characters, some biologically, and some socially determined, are central to her stories. Humans and other species are driven: by the need to expand life on other planets; by their own needs to feed; by the ecological imperative for diversity. Her writing is about negotiating power relationships, negotiating determination. Some of her books were written a long time ago and set in a future where, to paraphrase, capitalism and the American government have destroyed the world; her influence is apparent in mainstream successes like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (6).

It’s not only Butler’s choice of topics, but her writing style, that is special. Her novels are mainly dystopian, and her style is correspondingly cynical and disengaged. She was a bit of a recluse, suspicious of other people, and that alienation is reflected in her tone. Her writing is uniquely sparse; emotion is muted, but sensuality is weaved throughout. The scenes she creates are vivid though description is limited.

My enduring fascination with Butler is shared by some important thinkers. Feminist scientist Donna Haraway seminally demonstrated how culture obscures ‘objectivity’ when she showed that male primatologists’ long accepted interpretations of primates as strictly patriarchal were very different to women scientists’ findings, and to what is now considered the ‘truth’. She said Butler was a ‘story-teller exploring what it means to be embodied in high-tech worlds’, embodiment always-already having a gender, race, and sexuality (etc). Butler deals with traditional sci fi topics – telepathy, alien worlds, technologically driven futures – with refreshingly adequately agential and complex female and racialised characters. So much of sci fi is ruined by its stereotypical treatment of gender and race, the whitemaleness of the author screaming off the page from the first paragraph. ‘Does it matter?’ you might be thinking. ‘A novel is a novel, who cares who writes it?’ But it’s easy to completely take for granted seeing, reading, hearing your own identity reflected everywhere; unless you don’t. As Butler wrote of a young her: ‘in all my thirteen years, I had never read a printed word that I knew to have been written by a Black person (7).’ It’s also easy to think your identity is somehow neutral or invisible, when the truth is those who don’t share it can spot it from ages away.

Dawn
Dawn

Butler grew up in a working class, racist neighbourhood. Though she was dyslexic, she started reading sci fi very young, and writing it when she was 12. She took advantage of learning  opportunities in programmes designed to nurture non-white American writers, but had to work very hard to achieve any success: ‘I thought I was on my way as a writer...’ Butler wrote in her short fiction collection Bloodchild and Other Stories. ‘In fact, I had five more years of rejection slips and horrible little jobs ahead of me before I sold another word.’

The experience of always assuming that what you are reading has been written by someone in a very different social position to your own, inevitably impacts your own concept of what you can achieve as a writer, of thinking that you can even be a writer. Her aunt told her ‘Negros can’t be writers.’ And yet Butler became hugely successful.  Though in 1989 she reflected ‘I write science fiction and fantasy for a living. As far as I know I’m still the only Black woman who does this.’

Ultimately Butler sought through science fiction to explore ways out of hierarchy, for instance through characters’ having no choice but to experience one another’s physical pain (if you felt the pain in the world would you continue to inflict it?, etc.) Unfortunately, however, she concluded that the pursuit of non-hierarchy, in fictional and non fictional worlds, was fruitless: ‘there is, unfortunately, satisfaction to be enjoyed in feeling superior to other people.' (8) This is because too little changed for the better in her lifetime, and lots of things got worse. This should be a lesson to us, and not another excuse to give up and revel in circlejerking ‘subculture’.

She died at just 58 in 2006, in somewhat tragic-comic circumstances, after a period of writer’s block, her most popular trilogy left unfinished. (Accounts conflict but she was walking to the end of her drive in Washington State to collect her post, and she fell and was found dead). Her ideas remain incredibly relevant: she imagines possible relationships across deep differences, relationships that today remain stunted and constrained. Butler sees what could be, if difference was no longer experienced as a cause of fear and discomfort, but a source of creativity and innovation. She portrays a common humanity and our underlying ability to deal with inhabiting gendered and racialised subjectivities different from our own -  if we are forced to.

Even as a white woman I don’t think I ever would have attempted to write sci fi if it hadn’t been for Butler, so I am grateful she made me interested.

Finally, her novels desperately need film adaptations. Big money ones. Please.

They’d be a lot better than The Road.

Ashlee Christoffersen is an academic and writer living in London. Her short story, 2061 was published in the Influx anthology, Acquired for Development By...

[1] Kindred, 1979

[2] Xenogenesis trilogy, 1987-9

[3] Fledgling, 2005

[4] Butler ‘disowned’ this book and now it’s nearly impossible to get a copy of.

[5] Bloodchild and Other Stories (2nd Ed), Seven Stories Press

[6] You might even go so far as to say: that cunt totally fucking stole his ideas from her.

[7] ibid

[8] http://www.npr.org/programs/specials/racism/010830.octaviabutleressay.html