On February 24, 2006, the novelist Octavia Butler died at age 58 after falling and sustaining a head injury at her Seattle home. Her work, however, will long outlive its author. In 13 books, Butler struggled with themes of coercion, responsibility, and the individual’s relationship to the community, making her novels not just compelling stories but important additions to the literature of liberty.
Born on June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, California, the only child of a shoeshine man and a maid, Butler as a youth was a lonely, marginalized figure in almost every possible way: a shy, stammering, unusually tall black girl, a dyslexic, and a lesbian. Writing and speaking came to her with difficulty, yet Octavia Butler became one of the most imaginative and respected voices in science fiction, the winner of two Nebula Awards, two Hugo Awards, the Tiptree Award, and the PEN Center West Lifetime Achievement Award. Her accolades transcended her genre: Butler was the first, and so far the only, science-fiction author to be honored with a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.
In books such as the Patternist novels, published from 1976 to 1984, and the Xenogenesis trilogy, published from 1987 to 1989 and now collected in the omnibus volume Lilith’s Brood, Butler employed the stuff of hard science—biological engineering, interspecies hybrids—to create settings and situations that are both literally and figuratively alien. But the stories are less concerned with the specific details of science than with the broader issues of what it means to be human—most specifically, how we abuse, are abused by, and experience power.
Butler’s greatest achievements may be Parable of the Sower (1993) and its 1998 sequel, Parable of the Talents. The books are set in a futuristic Los Angeles violently pulling itself apart as the homeless and drug-addicted many prey on the employed, suburban few. The plot follows the young Lauren Olamina, left orphaned and destitute after her walled community is attacked.
As she travels north, as much in pilgrimage as in flight, she establishes a secular belief system she calls Earthseed, a faith that “God is Change” and “We shape God.” Olamina and her fellow travelers argue that human beings need to value adaptability, diversity, and responsibility if they are to halt social entropy and make something of the ruins left to them. In the second novel, Earthseed and the community built on it come under attack from religious fanatics, who prove as brutal as the urban gangs that plagued the city streets.
Whether she was describing human beings who serve as breeders for superior aliens or telepaths who use others’ bodies without their consent, Butler had no qualms about discomfiting the reader as she explored questions of liberty and servitude. In Fledgling (2005), matriarchal vampires, themselves the victims of prejudice, feed on human beings whose ability to provide or deny consent is questionable, to say the least. Although they seemingly enter the contract as “volunteers” and receive prolonged and peaceful life in payment for their blood, they surrender their autonomy, becoming addicted to a powerful narcotic in the vampires’ saliva, more victims than equals. Readers are not certain whether to be disturbed more by the human hosts’ dependency or by the fact that they can “seem perfectly happy” in such a powerless role. The master-slave dynamic, with its many variations, never ceased to fascinate and terrify Butler; she continually considered how power imbalances limit individuals’ choices and identities.
Such works explore not only the foundations of the institutions of power but how freedom can be lost and why it is given away. Butler didn’t merely empathize with the alienated, dominated, and oppressed. She inverted readers’ expectations, forcing them to examine their own assumptions and instincts, to perceive how they might identify with and even become the alienator, dominator, and oppressor. In Kindred (1979), for example, a time traveler can protect her own existence in the 20th century only by encouraging a slave woman’s bondage and rape in the past. When the protagonist asks, “See how easily slaves are made?,” the reader, with a new appreciation and terrible understanding of the dynamics of brute force and the survival instinct, cannot help but answer in the affirmative.
Butler challenged how well we understand ourselves and, without preaching or oversimplifying the subjects she broached, she pointed out how we may be at fault in the inherent cruelty of the human story. In Parable of the Sower, Olamina has a condition called “hyperempathy,” through which she feels the suffering of all of those around her. What the reader expects to be a crippling experience instead leads to enlightenment, causing Olamina to ask, “But if everyone could feel everyone else’s pain, who would torture? Who would cause anyone unnecessary pain?” In the dissolution of her own self, Olamina learns to respect the dignity of each individual and his or her experience. Butler challenges the reader to do likewise—to see casual unkindness and more extreme inhumanities as different in scale but not in nature.
Institutions of coercion, from governments to religions, were Butler’s targets. Individuals, not groups, were her protagonists. Through her fiction, Butler exhorted readers to act rather than be acted upon, to cede power only to leaders wisely chosen, and to examine the origins of our ideas, so that we might not simply “think what we are told that we think.”
If she expected a great deal from her readers, she asked just as much from herself. Her self-description was not entirely flattering: “a pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist always, a Black, a quiet egoist, a former Baptist, and an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.” The Washington Post offered a shorter, more fitting evaluation, calling her simply “one of the finest voices in fiction, period.”