I have a confession to make. In spite of working in one of America’s largest cities, full of amazing cultural and entertainment opportunities, I rarely end up taking advantage of Chicago’s slate of evening activities. This should provide some context for the fact that, when I heard Octavia Butler would be speaking at the Harold Washington Library, I rushed out of work early and stayed downtown late. It was a good choice. Butler was as brilliant in person as on the page. It also turned out to be one of her last public appearances before her death in early 2006.
Octavia Butler, along with Samuel R. Delany, is one of the earliest and best known African-American science fiction writers. She’s also one of the best science fiction writers the genre has ever boasted, and one of my favorites. Her stories use scientific ideas to explore issues that few writers can handle successfully: inequality, social justice, and the morality of power.
Dawn, the first novel in her Lilith’s Brood series, is a perfect example. Following a nuclear war, a small group of survivors are rescued by the alien Oankali. The Oankali, with their advanced genetic manipulation abilities, are willing to save the human race—in exchange for mixing with them biologically to form a new hybrid species. Butler uses this unusual premise to focus on issues that inspire deep passion in the real world. The bigotry and fear that can plague mixed-race children is only the most obvious. The Oankali also have a great deal of power over the humans, who depend on them for continued survival, and the moral obligations of both sides in such a relationship are a major theme.
Power in Butler’s work is never simple. A modern African-American woman uses time travel to save the life of a slave-holding ancestor, so that she can eventually be born. People who’ve been genetically engineered try to negotiate their rights with those who’ve engineered them. An entire society tries to maintain civilization, with no recourse to negotiation, after a plague robs them of the ability to use language. Throughout, the stories are sympathetic to the holders of power as well as the powerless, and to the costs that unequal relationships have on both.
Butler’s books depend both on the scientific speculation that supports their ideas, and on her perspective as an African-American woman. If you’re looking for a place to start, I highly recommend Blood Child—her short story collection, recently re-released.
This post was originally planned as an overview of several African-American science fiction authors, but my appreciation of Butler got away from me. If you’re looking for further suggestions, the Carl Brandon Society posts yearly recommendation lists, generally full of excellent reads. I can personally recommend Samuel R. Delany and Steven Barnes, who would have easily taken up an enthusiastic post apiece. And my secret cadre of consultants (i.e., the friends I asked while putting this together) put in votes for Andrea Hairston, Nnedi Okorafor, and Nalo Hopkinson.