- If you are a fan of science fiction, a name you should be familiar with is Octavia E. Butler, especially if you watched our (coughs) Telly Award-winning Afrofuturism video starring me!
One of the most prolific and important black authors in the genre, Butler's storytelling pushed the boundaries of what black people were allowed to be in science fiction.
Today, we will be highlighting the grand dame herself and how her novels were important and sometimes oddly predictive, like super-frigging predictive.
(upbeat music) (air whooshing) Octavia Estelle Butler was born in Pasadena, California, in 1947.
Her father died when she was a toddler, and she was raised by her grandmother and mother in what she would recall as a very strict Baptist environment.
That religious experience would come up often in her work, especially in the Parables series.
Butler would describe herself as awkward, introverted, and painfully shy, which led to her being picked on by her fellow classmates growing up, which, you know, every nerdy black girl's story.
You're preaching to the choir there, Octavia.
Later, she would describe herself in the following self-deprecating way: "Who am I?
A pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist, a black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive."
(page rustling) Honestly, that could be my Tinder profile, thumbs up if you agree.
Despite being pushed by her mother to find a more secure job, Butler pursued her writing goals.
She participated in the Open Door Workshop of the Writers Guild of America West, a program designed to specifically mentor minority writers, and Butler ended up impressing science fiction author Harlan Ellison.
He encouraged her to attend the six-week Science Fiction Writers' Workshop in Pennsylvania, where she met fellow black sci-fi author Samuel R. Delany.
(air whooshing) After selling some short stories in 1971, she would spend the following five years writing what would become the Patternist series.
It was with the release of that series that she finally became a full-time author, the dream, and subsequently in 1979, she published what is probably her most famous novel, "Kindred."
"Kindred" tells the story of an African American woman named Dana Franklin who, for reasons we never really find out, is pulled back in time to a pre-Civil War Maryland plantation.
On her first journey there, she meets her ancestors, Alice Greenwood, a black freed woman, and Rufus Weylin, a white planter who will eventually force Alice into slavery and sexual servitude.
Dana's trips into the past range from one moment to years, and each trip does substantial harm to her mind and spirit, especially having to deal with the harsh reality that her existence is part of this dark legacy of sexual violence.
It would be one of the many times Butler would address the legacy of slavery in the science fiction element.
(page rustling) Madhu Dubey, Professor of English and Afro American Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago said of Butler, "In common with other contemporary African American writers, Butler persistently revisits slavery in order to challenge the redemptive accounts of US racial history that began to gain sway in the decades following the Civil Rights Movement, yet in a distinct departure from the neo-slave narrative genre, the signifier of slavery in Butler's novels mutates to refer to a range of abusive practices, such as sexual trafficking, reproductive oppression, and debt bondage, which are not reducible to race, even when race does operate as a central axis of inequality in Butler's novels of enslavement.
It far it far exceeds the binary, black and white logic, bequeathed by the institution of chattel slavery."
(page rustling) These themes are most obvious in "Kindred" but pop up throughout her work, such as in the Patternist series, where an ancient human with the ability to body-snatch people basically breeds his own descendants like cattle in the pursuit of creating a new post-human species, which, okay, or the Xenogenesis Trilogy, wherein after the Earth blows itself up in a nuclear Armageddon, (inhales) possible, some aliens show up and force what's left of humanity to breed with each other and also the aliens.
Don't know why, but okay.
Tragically, Butler's life was cut short when she died at the age of 58 in 2006.
The novel "Fledgling," a story about a vampire that was changed very young, was published posthumously.
Octavia E. Butler is what we would call a certified genius, and her work has resonated so powerfully because of themes and imagery she was able to bring together, yet when people talk about sci-fi and blackness together, it is treated as some anomaly, something that Butler herself would talk about in her essay, "Birth of a Writer," first published in Essence.
"There seems to be an unwritten rule, hurtful and at odds with the realities of American culture.
It says you aren't supposed to wonder whether as a black person, a black woman, you really might be inferior, not quite bright enough, not quite quick enough, not quite good enough to do the things you want to do.
Act tough and confident, and don't talk about your doubts.
If you never deal with them, you may never get rid of them, but no matter.
Fake everyone out, even yourself."
While all her novels and short stories have a lot we could discuss, we decided to focus on the parable novels because (inhales) there's nothing like living in your own dystopia to really make things come into focus, if you get what I mean.
Released in 1993, one year after I was born, so it was a present for me, (inhales) "Parable of the Sower" takes place in the distant future of 2024.
When society in the United States and our favorite unholy trinity of climate change, wealth inequality, and corporate greed has ravaged the nation, leaving it in a state of pure dystopia.
How fantasyful and unrealistic, I know.
We start this journey with the main character of Lauren, an African American teenager who details everything in a journal.
She has a condition called hyper-empathy, where she feels the emotions of others due to the side effects of a drug her late mother took while pregnant.
Lauren lives with her father, stepmother, and three half-brothers in the remains of a gated community in California.
Throughout the first part of the novel, she and her community struggle to maintain any sense of civilization against the Mad Max world outside, where rape, torture, violence, and pure anarchy are allowed to take place.
Police officers and firefighters exploit their positions, taking bribes for profit, and do very little to actually serve and protect the community.
Lauren's father, a Baptist preacher, has been trying to keep their community civilized and collaborative through democratic socialism.
(coughs) Excuse me, excuse me, sorry.
That was my propaganda showing.
I mean sharing of resources and investing in mutual aids for each other, totally not democratic socialism.
Still, Lauren can tell this is only a temporary thing.
In response to the darkness surrounding her, she starts the religion Earthseed based on the concept, "God is Change."
"God is Change.
This is the literal truth.
God cannot be resisted or stopped but can be shaped and focused.
This means God is not to be prayed to.
Prayers only help the person doing the praying, and then only if they strengthen and focus that person's resolve.
If they're used that way, they can help us in our only real relationship with God.
They help us to shape God and to accept and work with the shapes that God imposes on us.
God is power, and in the end, God prevails."
After her family and most of her community are destroyed and burnt down, Lauren begins to travel north and along the way builds a congregation through mutual aid and assistance.
The second novel, "Parable of the Talents," takes place five years after the previous novel.
America has become controlled by a Christian fundamentalist denomination called Christian America, led by President Andrew Steele Jarret, a totally normal name.
Despite the optimistic ending of the first book, we see Lauren and her followers deal with an even darker America.
John Blair Gamber, Professor of English at Utah State University, says of this theme, "While 'Sower' appears to have a utopian conclusion, 'Talents' irrefutably shows it to be dystopian, a failure of misguided idealism.
Specifically the implicit critique of anti-urbanism and flight that comprise the pastoral impulse and aesthetic we see in 'Sower' becomes explicit in 'Talents.'
The primary failure of this impulse comes in the protagonists' inability to recognize her role within a wide-reaching community or her fundamental connection to local and distant structures of power, oppression, and marginalization."
President Jarret's presidency is filled with death and torture as he, (sighs) if you can believe this, as he wants to restore America's power on the global stage, and he actually literally uses the slogan, "Make America Great Again."
(screams) Jarret brings back slavery, with shock collars being used to control people, and restarts witch hunts in order to wipe out non-Christian religions.
Virtual reality headsets called dream masks also become very popular since they enable wearers to escape their harsh reality, and okay, now, who's messing with me?
Who copied this timeline into the nexus, and can you Control + Z it?
Earthseed as faith continues to spread and develop, and despite the violence that is depicted, eventually after one term, President Jarret is not re-elected, yay!
Okay, that also tracks.
Humanity then begins its expansion into the stars, carrying with it the ideas that Lauren started.
At the end of the novel, she watches the first of Earth's starships leave, and the ship is called the Christopher Columbus, sigh.
(giggles) Lauren says in the book's conclusion, "I object to the name.
This ship is not about a shortcut to riches and empire.
It is not about snatching up slaves and gold and presenting them to some European monarch, but one cannot win every battle.
One must know which battles to fight."
Even the utopian society she is constructing starts off with a little crumb of colonization, addressing that nothing can truly detach humanity from that sin, especially when tied to the United States.
Scholar Jim Miller, in "Post-Apocalyptic Hoping: Octavia Butler's Dystopian/Utopian Vision," said, "As an Africa American woman writing within a largely white woman's tradition, her work often questions the assumptions shared by many white women utopian writers.
Butler is far more class-conscious than many other utopian feminist science fiction writers.
Thus, her largely utopian fictions challenge not only patriarchal myths, but also capitalist myths, racist myths, and feminist utopian myths."
Butler herself doesn't seem to care much for utopias and said as much during an interview in 1988, with Larry McCaffery and Jim McMenamin.
(air whooshing) "I find utopias ridiculous.
We're not going to have a perfect society until we get a few perfect humans, and that seems unlikely.
Besides, any true utopia would almost certainly be incredibly boring, and it would probably be so overspecialized that any change we might introduce would probably destroy the whole system.
As bad as we humans are sometimes, I have a feeling that we'll never have that problem with the current system."
These themes are woven throughout Butler's body of work, which asks complex and often challenging questions about the nature of autonomy and how it interacts with community, and usually with no clear answers, but Butler's work uses science fiction to advocate for a more just world, despite knowing full well that the road to get there won't be easy, nor, like Lauren not personally leaving Earth to see humanity spread beyond the stars, would she live to see it.
(page rustling) Jim Miller writes that, "The ideal for Butler seems to be a society which respects individual differences, but not at the expense of the greater good of society as a whole.
The achievements of the collective good should not require the neglect of individual autonomy, nor should the price of freedom be the inevitable deprivation of the weakest among us."
Octavia E. Butler is a name that has only grown in esteem in the past few years as black authorship in science fiction and fantasy has only expanded.
Regardless of how you feel about her work, because boy, can it get dark at times, she laid the foundation through which contemporary Afro futures stand upon.
She was bold and brave in her blackness, and the way in which her stories feel so modern is a testament to her own genius and creativity.
Taken much too soon, there is no telling how much she could have done if she were alive today, still writing and still pushing black people to the stars.