I wanted something very special for International Women’s Day this year, and Faye Ringel offered me the perfect piece, about Octavia Butler. Most people know Faye for her expertise in New England Gothic orfor her klezmer. Me, I know her from fandom. We’ve not met up that often, but we have so much to say to each other when we meet… I don’t know what she hears when I talk, but when she talks she gives wisdom and wit in equal measure. She knows so many people and has so many amazing stories to tell. If I could see her every day (as opposed to once ad decade) I’d still not run our of things to ask her and stories to hear. You’ll see what I mean when you keep reading. Gillian
A Tribute to Octavia E. Butler, by Faye Ringel
Octavia Butler was Guest of Honor at Readercon 14 (July 12-14, 2002). [Readercon (now approaching its 31st iteration) is a literary-minded SF convention held in the vicinity of Boston, Massachusetts, USA, celebrating (duh. . .) written SF/F/H and its readers.] I was accorded the immense privilege of serving as her interviewer. One of the many great things about Readercon is their serious treatment of their Writer Guests of Honor, including this one-hour interview in a “living-room” style setting onstage, with no programs scheduled against it. Without exaggeration, that hour spent in her company was the peak experience of my life. I was too busy listening to record her answers to my questions in detail, but it was not only her words that had me overawed—it was the entire Gestalt. Her manner was imposing, regal, yet equally shy: at times hesitant, at times eloquent, always enthralling. The photographs of her found online do not do her justice. She had Presence. The Readercon audience, full of fans who tend (to put it mildly) to lack the niceties of social behavior were quiet and leaned forward on the edges of their seats.
I had offered to show Ms. Butler the questions in advance, but she declined, preferring spontaneity. She answered each one graciously, considering her responses seriously without an “interrupter” (um, like, etc.) to be heard. How I wish her voice had not been stilled in 2006. What a devastating loss that was! She was still young—just 58—and she had so much more to write.
Should you want more biographical information, the Wikipedia article appears to be accurate (even if it does omit her Guest of Honor stint at Readercon). Its bibliography is—of course—incomplete. These days, Butler is one of the most often analyzed writers in all of Fantastika: searching on her name in the Modern Language Association database yields a longer list than any other genre writer I checked. Her novel Kindred has found a secure place in the canon of literature assigned in college, in courses ranging from American Studies to African-American Literature to English Composition.
In 2002, she had just completed the stipend period for the MacArthur Foundation unrestricted “genius” grant that she had won in 1995. I was humbled by her account of what that money meant to her—everything. Neither she nor her mother had ever lived in a house that they owned until the MacArthur grant enabled her to buy one. She was the ideal recipient: the money enabled her to live and work slowly (her preference) and to revisit and edit her earlier published fiction. The “authorized editions” we now have would never have existed without the grant.
Because I did not record her answers in any medium, I had to draw on the prepared questions and my memory for the following. Notes from the present are indicated in brackets as [2020 notes].
I wish I could remember all her answers!
Here are a few I do remember: I asked “In Parable of the Talents, Olamina’s daughter Larkin/ Asha Vere describes her mother as ‘a somewhat reluctant optimist.’ How accurate is that as a description of you?” She agreed: Despite all the convincing evidence to the contrary, she said she held on to hope.
I followed that question with a specific instance: “The breakdown of American society portrayed in the Parables called “The Pox” is similar in many respects to that found in Clay’s Ark–both extrapolate existing trends of poverty, violence, increasing division between haves and have-nots– but the aftermath or results are very different. Could you comment on this?” She answered that it was easy to write destructive apocalyptic fiction and more difficult to write believable yet optimistic science fiction. [2020 Note: 2002 predated the wave of widely-popular YA dystopian novels, many of which have unrealistic “happy endings,” wish-fulfillment fantasies wherein the young protagonists bring down the evil repressive state and restore democracy.]
I asked about a few common threads in her work:
Family: In Parable of the Talents, Olamina observes that “kids were the key to most of these adults”–and it is so. The urge to generativity—to parent, not necessarily to reproduce.
Examples: Patternist novels: the mutant gene from the stars causes humans to reproduce, but their humanity causes them to love the resulting families of clayark mutants.
Xenogenesis, also known as the Lilith’s Brood series: the human desperation for children causing the resister humans to steal children—even knowing they are construct hybrids. In turn, Lilith and the others who mate with the Oankali deeply love their children, and come to believe that the loss of species identity is worth the sacrifice. The drive to parent animates BOTH races—the Oankali exist to propagate their own race by adopting and absorbing other races, while the human race’s instinct to bear children seems to outweigh all other instincts including personal survival.
In Imago, the Oankali explain that their bodies seed life—may have been responsible for life on many lifeless worlds: “If I died on a lifeless world, . . .organelles within each cell of my body would survive and evolve. In perhaps a thousand million years, that world would be as full of life as this one.” (166)
Imago ends with the PoV character Jodahs, a “construct” ooloi—that third sex required for propagation by the Oankali, literally “planting a town.” He nurtures a seed within his body that when planted will grow into a town and eventually into a ship that will leave the planet: “ I gave it a thick, nutritious coating, then brought it out of my body through my right sensory hand. I planted it deep in the rich soil of the riverbank. Seconds after I had expelled it, I felt it begin the tiny positioning movements of independent life” (last words of the book).
The Parables: adoption across race and class is a given, and adults seem to exist only to nurture their children. One of the unusual conditions of this dystopia is that this future has abandoned birth control, that everyone seems to be having children, naturally or by stealing them.
Butler agreed with all my examples, and she spoke movingly about her own single, childless state. I hope she knew before her death how deeply she had inspired an entire generation of Black women writers of the fantastic, and how they thought of her as a mother.
Theme of Symbiosis: So much of your work is about the benefits of symbiosis and the dangers of parasitism, rather than the simpler relationships of predator and prey. For example:
In Adulthood Rites, Nikanj compares the Oankali to “normal” human relationships with our mitochondria and other helpful bacteria:
“So many very different things are working together to keep him alive. Inside his cells, mitochondria, a previously independent form of life, have found a haven and trade their ability to synthesize proteins and metabolize fats for room to live and reproduce. We’re in his cells too now, and the cells have accepted us. One Oankali organism within each cell, dividing with each cell, extending life, and resisting disease. Even before we arrived, they had bacteria living in their intestines and protecting them from other bacteria that would hurt or kill them. They could not exist without symbiotic relationships with other creatures.” (427) . This continues in Imago, the last of the Xenogenesis books (1989).
In Clay’s Ark, the “invaders” from Proxima Centauri are also symbionts: “We’re the future. . . We’re the sporangia of the dominant life form of Proxi Two—the receptacles that produce the spores of that life form. If we survive, if our children survive, it will be because we fulfill our purpose—because we spread the organism.” These organisms also convey enhanced strength and near-immortal resistance to disease. Imago shows us that future, as the formerly humans spread out through the galaxy and are apparently capable of interbreeding with just about anyone. [2020 note: I did not call attention to Survivor, the last Patternist novel, which Butler was so unhappy about that she did not allow it to be reprinted. Reportedly, she was embarrassed about its depiction of a human woman bearing a child by an alien species through normal birth].
In Parable of the Talents:
Partnering: from Earthseed: The Books of the Living:
Partnership is mutualistic symbiosis. Partnership is life.
. . . Partner diverse communities. Partner life. . . . Partner God. Only in partnership can we thrive, grow, Change. Only in Partnership can we live.
In Kindred, Dana is irretrievably tied to her hated ancestor the white slave-owner Rufus: she depends on his continued survival for her own existence; he in turn controls her with emotional blackmail and threats. Is this a comment on the symbiotic as well as parasitic relationships of chattel slavery? The objective correlative for the hold of these past toxic relationships on the present is that Dana has to literally lose her arm—she must cut away part of her body—to be free of the pull into the past. Slavery is in the genes of modern Americans, whether descended from the Black or the White side of the blanket—or both.
The Hugo and Nebula-winning short story “Bloodchild” has been read—[Butler said it has been misread]—as an allegory of slavery and colonialism. Instead, in person and in the Afterword, she interprets it as being about symbiosis—“a story about paying the rent.” When humans land on far-off planets, “It wouldn’t be the British Empire in Space, it wouldn’t be Star Trek. Sooner or later, the humans would have to make some kind of accommodation with their um. . . their hosts. [. . . ] Who knows what we humans have that others might be willing to take in trade for a livable space on a world not our own?”
In responding to this litany of symbiotic relationships, she paid me the compliment of saying she had never realized how thoroughly the theme of symbiosis had pervaded her own writing. She described being inspired by the revolutionary biology of Lynn Margulis, herself long considered an “outsider scientist. ” [2020 note: She continued writing this theme into her work, most notably in her final novel, Fledgling, published just before her death in 2006. In Fledgling, the theme of the vampire as parasite is transformed to vampire-human symbiosis. Humans voluntarily feed the vampiric Ina with their blood, but in return, they are given great pleasure, healed to achieve healthy, long lives—and neither can live without the other. This mutualism explains the existence of vampire folklore on all continents, and also the unlikely association of vampires with sexual pleasure.]
I asked “How does it feel to create a religion? Heinlein’s Church of All Worlds from Stranger in a Strange Land has had a strange afterlife of its own—have you heard anything about fannish or mundane-world adaptations of Earthseed?” I remember her low amused chuckle as she said “Of course not. Next question.”
More 2020 notes: Parable of the Talents appears to have predicted the rise of Trump, including MAGA: “Jarret’s talk of making America great again. He seems to be unhappy with certain other countries. We could wind up in a war. Nothing like a war to rally people around flag, country, and great leader” (26). Of course, the Trump-like Jarret ends up declaring war on Canada and a seceding Alaska. And it takes only 3 years of indecisive, bloody war to make people ready to dump Jarret—unlike America’s current situation and the interminable wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East, now on their third president.
She was also prescient in her portrayal of “Christian America,” with its hatred of outsiders and non-Christians, the revival of Crusaders, witch hunts—and witch-burnings. Not to mention the widening gaps between haves and have-nots, debt slavery, organ selling, and rising homelessness in California. She invents (in Parable of the Sower) the drug “pyro” to accelerate the burning, but this year, between the American West and Australia, no added accelerant is necessary.
Another common thread: “species adulthood.” In the Parables, The Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the starts. “The Earthseed Destiny. . . .is important for the lessons it forces us to learn while we’re here on Earth. . . It’s important for the unity and purpose that it gives us here on Earth. And in the future, it offers us a kind of species adulthood and species immortality when we scatter to the stars.”
We cannot achieve this species adulthood without conquering—either by ourselves or through intervention by other species—the defect in our genetic evolution that retained our tendency to violence and self-destruction even as our intelligence and technology evolved. Another way of expressing this evolutionary paradox is Hierarchy vs. Intelligence. In so many of Butler’s works, slavery is a manifestation of Hierarchy—you must enslave or be enslaved—and also expressed through telepathy as mind control, the very opposite of empathy.
As Olamina says in Parable of the Talents, “There seems to be solid biological reasons why we are the way we are. If there weren’t, the cycles wouldn’t keep replaying. . . We can choose. We can go on building and destroying until we either destroy ourselves or destroy the ability of our world to sustain us. Or we can make something more of ourselves. We can grow up. And fulfill the Destiny.”
It’s not fair: Butler should still be walking among us, honored as a Grand Master by the generations of readers and writers who grew up inspired by her work. But the work remains. Go forth and read!