News & Politics

Oh, Octavia

Octavia Butler forced me to rethink contemporary American politics in ways that Thomas Pynchon never will.
I spent all day wrapped in a blanket, barely noticing my body except to reposition it when some part went numb. I was reading Octavia Butler's latest book, Fledgling. It's the tale of Shori, a vampire whose mother has genetically engineered her to be black so she'll resist the sting of sunlight better than her pale-skinned relatives. Some of the other vampire families in their community hate the idea of genetic engineering and racial mixing. Their vendetta against Shori and her family propels the narrative into fascinating new territory: It's a polyamorous romance, a horror epic, and, ultimately, a vampire courtroom procedural.

Nobody could have written this novel but Octavia Butler. Only she could handle themes like vampire racism as well as what it's like for a young woman to manage multiple sexual relationships with the humans who are her symbionts (I bet you can guess what that means). Butler's writing is a rare combination of fantastical and pragmatic: She can invent a new species, place them in a detailed alternate world, and yet never forget that her characters need to eat and go to the bathroom. She isn't afraid to compromise her point-of-view characters' morals and make them deal with it. She isn't afraid to kill characters you love and make you deal with that. Fledgling promised to be the first of a new series -- Butler is fond of writing several novels with overlapping characters -- and Fledgling ends before Shori attains her full adult powers.

Sadly for all of us who loved Butler, she died of a sudden stroke Feb. 24 -- she was 58 and at the height of her prowess. She leaves behind some of the greatest science fiction and fantasy novels ever written, along with many mourning fans like myself. We still can't believe we've lost our only source of stories that deal with mind-bendingly cool aliens and monsters as well as the everyday political issues of gender, race, and class.

In genres still populated mostly by white boys, Butler was proud to be a black feminist. While other pop writers like Greg Bear and Anne Rice casually (and unconsciously) offer readers all-white, mostly male casts of characters, Butler just as casually gave her readers black women. As Massachusetts Institute of Technology prof Henry Jenkins writes, however, Butler didn't ever weight her stories down with simplistic, antiracist allegories. Identity politics are simply a concern her characters can't dismiss.

One of my favorite Butler novels is in her wide-ranging Patternmaster series. Called Mind of My Mind, it's about a revolution of ghetto telepaths -- the descendants of an African immortal -- who quietly take over a rich, white neighborhood in Los Angeles after they discover they can control minds. Other novels in the same series ask questions many writers would be terrified to approach: What would happen if Africans were running their own eugenics programs? Are female tyrants worse than male tyrants? Is colonization always a bad thing?

In her Lilith's Brood series, Butler creates the Oankali, a group of nonhierarchical, ecoconscious aliens who have three genders. Unfortunately, they can only reproduce by colonizing and merging with other species whole-cloth. Lilith, the first human they contact, fights to maintain an independent human culture even as she is gradually seduced by the Oankali and bears their hybrid children. (Did I mention the hot, mind-control tentacle sex? Yes, yes, yes.) In the novel Kindred, we find a similarly conflicted character whose concerns are less alien: A time-traveling black writer from the 1970s must ensure her existence by encouraging her female ancestor, a slave in the antebellum South, to bear the child of her white master.

It's only been a few weeks since I finished her latest book, and a few days since she died, but already I sorely miss Butler's bravery and unabashed imagination. In a culture where political novels are only valued if they are "literary," and science fiction is only valued if it's "entertaining," she wrote page-turners that forced me to rethink contemporary American politics in ways Thomas Pynchon never will.

When asked what motivated her to start writing, Butler always told the same story. As a kid, she devoured her first science fiction movie, a B flick called Devil Girl from Mars. As it ended, she thought, "Anyone could write a better story than this."

Few will ever write stories better than Octavia Butler. I will always be rereading her.

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Annalee Newitz is a surly media nerd who has nothing sarcastic to say for once.