The outsider who changed science fiction.
Octavia Butler (1947-2006) wrote about the psychology of how unusual creatures find their way in hostile worlds. Patternmaster concerns telepaths and mutant humans. Parable of the Sower is about an empath in a collapsing America. Fledgling tells the story of a black female vampire.
Early on in her Pasadena childhood, Butler herself stood out as different. Although she went on to win Hugo, Nebula, and MacArthur genius awards, she had been diagnosed with dyslexia and had a reputation for extreme introversion. She was black, lesbian, and conspicuously tall. Her father died young and her mother had completed only a few years of schooling. Butler did not drive and lived a fairly anonymous and solitary life in Seattle. She wrote slowly. She once described herself as "a pessimist, a feminist always, a Black, a quiet egoist, a former Baptist, and an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive."
Entering into science fiction writing, a genre where black women are few, made Butler an outsider in yet another way. It is no surprise she understood alien perspectives. "People really need to think what it's like to have all of society arrayed against you," she once said. But her work went far beyond simply mourning the victim. She showed us why repulsion cannot be avoided, why we often resemble what we hate, and why it is sometimes our best qualities that prevent us from accepting the differences of others. Her ability to both understand the outsider perspective better than others and then to invert it, places Butler above her science-fiction-writing peers. She is a disturbing and important writer who transcends the usual genre categories.
The Xenogenesis trilogy ("Dawn," "Adulthood Rites," and "Imago") is Butler's masterpiece. The Oankali, a nomadic alien species, have engineered themselves into genetic dead ends. They have refreshed themselves many times in the past through cross-planetary interbreeding. Now they are looking to take the best traits from humans by combining our genetic material with theirs, using an advanced race of tentacled breeder-beings called "ooloi." (They have a special love for our cancer genes, which they find creative.) From the Oankali point of view, humans, taken alone, are disastrously hierarchical and domineering; the new blend will be less fierce and less individualistic. When they arrive on Earth, humans have barely survived mutual destruction.
The reader, learning that human beings are to become more like plants, nonetheless feels an impending nausea. It does not matter that the Oankali are portrayed as no less ethical, noble, or happy than the human race, and arguably as more so. It is also no comfort to recall that the human race is the product of many accumulated genetic changes from the past. We react with a pro-species, pro-status-quo bigotry. We root desperately for the humans who prefer to die out rather than merge. We suddenly revel in the destructive side of our nature. Having been led down this path, we then wonder whether we are different than bigots of times past. Time and again, Butler shows us how the different really can be disgusting, whether we like it or not. Butler was deeply invested in the disadvantaged, but her work shows suspicions of tidy pieties and political correctness.
In her work, Butler asks just how far globalization and cultural integration should go. She labels the Oankali "traders," and in Imago we learn that the human-Oankali hybrids will consume and thereby incorporate the genetic material of all of the Earth's species, much as we might eat all the food at a sumptuous banquet. But it is of cosmopolitanism—in the sense of believing that all perspectives and interests can be intermingled without great tension—that Butler's works show the greatest suspicion. Most culture is a synthetic product of multiple influences, but Butler's fiction asks whether there is any point at which we should rebel against intermingling and embrace identity for its own sake.
Kindred, perhaps Butler's best-known novel, tackles her central issues without invoking much science fiction machinery. It concerns a modern African-American woman (Dana) who is, through time travel, repeatedly thrown back into the days of Southern slavery. Dana has to rescue a repugnant slave-owner who turns out to be one of her ancestors and thus holds the key to her future. Again, Butler nimbly presents the viewpoint of the victim but also goes beyond it, wreaking havoc on our intuitions. Dana survives only by causing the enslavement and later rape of another black woman. The heroine comes to understand how blacks of the time learned to accept or even embrace their humiliation; she makes a "worse slave" than they do and quickly falls into their bad habits. She begins to admire her owner and identify with him. In her mind her modern (white) husband blurs with her slave-master and ancestor. By the end we wonder whether we are not all complicit in the past that gave rise to us. Butler's mission in her writing was to make us feel sufficiently estranged to recognize that we don't really "know" ourselves and that who we are is very much a product of our situation, in both good and bad ways.
Butler's vision of the future was never that of TheJetsons. It was about alienated human lives, but she distanced her fiction from polemic. Like so many other notable American writers, her radical insights, like her characters, have not yet been fully assimilated.
Tyler Cowen is professor of economics at George Mason University and author of An Economist Gets Lunch: New Rules for Everyday Foodies
Photograph of Octavia Butler by Milbert Orlando Brown/KRT.