Butler, Octavia E

Tagged: Author

(1947-2006) US writer who began publishing sf with "Crossover" in Clarion (anth 1971) edited by Robin Scott Wilson, but who made no real impact on the sf field until she began to publish the Patternist series: Patternmaster (1976), Mind of my Mind (1977), Survivor (1978), Wild Seed (1980) and Clay's Ark (1984). The order of publication has little to do with internal chronology; indeed, the first volume published stands last in a sequence that runs from the late seventeenth century into the Far Future. Wild Seed, which begins in 1690, demonstrates the very considerable strength of Butler's imagination in being a prequel manifestly more interesting than much of the material it adumbrates. The setting is Africa. A 4000-year-old body-changer, Doro, who has been long engaged on a breeding programme designed to produce a race of superior humans with whom he can feel at home (> Genetic Engineering), selects for this purpose the "wild seed" shape-changer Anyanwu (> Shapeshifters); their graphically ambivalent relationship is described in terms which potently evoke reflections on everything from family romance and Sex and Feminism to slavery itself. Doro and his son both breed with Anyanwu, and found with her a sanctuary in New England and later in Louisiana where her Mutant children can grow to adulthood. Mind of my Mind, set in contemporary California, focuses on the formal founding of the Patternist gestalt community, which begins to articulate itself into the hierarchical social organism of the final (though first-written) tale. Survivor takes place in a moderately distant future when Earth has become dominated by Patternists, whose hierarchies conflate family ties and a range of Psi Powers into a complex whole. The novel depicts a conflict between star-travelling "mutes" – normal humans – and the Alien inhabitants of the planet to which, in a kind of missionary endeavour, they have been sent. Clay's Ark, set on Earth, depicts a conflict between those humans who have been transfigured by an extraterrestrial virus into intensely aggressive monsters and those, both Patternist and mute, who have not been infected; a powerful sense of the viral omnivorousness of plague invests the extraordinarily savage telling of this tale. Finally (first), in Patternmaster, Clayarks and Patternists continue what has become an age-long conflict, now brought to a head by a family dispute as to the proper inheritor of the role of Patternmaster: the one who wins will exercise paranormal control over the entire scene, making a Heaven or a Hell with his or her one voice. The strength of the Patternist books lies not in the somewhat melodramatic action template put in place in this first published volume, but in Butler's capacity to inhabit her venues with characters whose often anguished lives strike the reader as anything but frivolous.

Butler was herself black, and much of the power of the Patternist sequence derives from the chargedness and cognitive focus occasioned by her background and punishing early experiences of black life in urban California. While the series was in progress, she published Kindred (1979), a singleton in which these issues move to the foreground. A contemporary black woman finds herself forcibly inserted, by Time Travel, into the slave state of Maryland in 1815, whenever young Rufus Weylin's life is at risk. He is white, the son of a slaveholder, and, at some point after she has (more than once) saved his life, impregnates a black woman, who gives birth to one of the protagonist's ancestors – giving some justification to the sf Time Travel mechanism, as she must save his life to preserve her own. The deep interest in the novel lies elsewhere, however, than in its melodrama: the horror of the position the protagonist is in, as she is soon owned; the almost comparable horror of her white husband's lot, as he has been associationally yanked back to Maryland with her, but is trapped there for most of a decade, engaged in work on the Underground Railway; and the extraordinary (and forgiving) complexity of Butler's portrait of a wide conspectus of characters making lives out of potential (and real) nightmare, from which no one escapes unmaimed. Butler wrote few short stories, but the best of them shares an intense complexity of vision with Kindred. The most notable of them are perhaps "Speech Sounds" (mid-December 1983 Asimov's), which won a Hugo, and which dauntingly limns a Post-Holocaust California as well as laying down some sharp Gender lessons; "Bloodchild" (June 1984 Asimov's), which won both Hugo and Nebula, and which matches the conceptual complexities of Kindred in its analysis of colonial mentality, Sex, family, race, all in an intriguing Alien setting which serves as an intense arena for a marriage of Intimacy and Predation; and The Evening and the Morning and the Night (May 1987 Omni; 1991 chap), a harrowing treatment of Medicine and sickness. All these, with two further stories and three essays (one introductory), are collected in Bloodchild and Other Stories (coll 1995; exp 2005).

Her main full-length work of the 1980s was a second sequence, the Xenogenesis books: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989), all three being assembled as Xenogenesis (omni 1989). Thematic likenesses with the previous series – once again the human race is subjected to an intense breeding programme – are evident, but prove of little importance, for the Xenogenesis books are very differently told. The human race has managed to almost entirely destroy itself and its planet, and only a few relics have survived in Suspended Animation aboard the great interstellar ship of the visiting three-sexed, exogamous, gene-trading Oankali, who reawake selected humans in order to breed with them. Much of the plot takes place on a rehabilitated segment of Earth, but the action there is arguably peripheral to the exposition of the central concept: the presentation of a convincingly alien species, and the marriage of that species to those humans who can abandon the territoriality/aggression knot which has proven to be a fatal evolutionary dead-end.

Butler was awarded a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1995, while in the midst of her third sequence, the Parable series comprising Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998), which won the 2000 Nebula for best novel. The sequence is set at a period of systems collapse in early twenty-first-century Los Angeles; the empath narrator (by this point in her career, she may have been wearying of the ESP-powered protagonists she seemed to feel required if any transcending of our human lot were to be envisioned) escapes the collapsing enclave where she was raised, while simultaneously creating a humanist Religion designed to focus humanity's attention on the stars. The second volume, awkwardly couched at points, carries the story past the protagonist's death, and despite the resistance of Christians, towards Transcendence. During these years, Butler had suffered severely from writer's block (perhaps induced by medication), and the publication of Fledgling (2005) gave some hope that she had broken through. By conceiving of the Vampire as a separate species whose saliva is profoundly addictive to humans, the novel fascinatingly recasts her basic underlying premise – which she argues in every tale she wrote – that the more extreme a situation is, the more complicit will be those who participate (as victims or predators or both) in its workings. The marriages of life and power and sex and race, Butler found, could only be understood as extremism wrought to its uttermost. Her premature death the next year terminated this long argument. She was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010 and received a 2012 Solstice Award (> SFWA Grand Master Award). [JC]

see also: Afrofuturism; Asimov's Science Fiction; Immortality; Parasitism and Symbiosis; Race in SF.

Octavia Estelle Butler

born Pasadena, California: 22 June 1947

died Seattle, Washington: 24 February 2006

works

Patternist

  • Patternmaster (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1976) [Patternist: hb/Tim and Steve Quay]
  • Mind of my Mind (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1977) [Patternist: hb/Jan Esteves]
  • Survivor (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1978) [Patternist: hb/One Plus One Studio]
  • Wild Seed (Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, 1980) [Patternist: hb/John Cayea]
  • Clay's Ark (New York: St Martin's Press, 1984) [Patternist: hb/Lee Wade]
    • Seed to Harvest (New York: Warner Books, 2007) [omni of all the above excepting Survivor: pb/Herman Estevez]

Xenogenesis

  • Dawn (New York: Warner Books, 1987) [Xenogenesis: hb/Enri]
  • Adulthood Rites (New York: Warner Books, 1988) [Xenogenesis: hb/Wayne Barlowe]
  • Imago (New York: Warner Books, 1989) [Xenogenesis: hb/Wayne Barlowe]
    • Xenogenesis (New York: Science Fiction Book Club, 1989) [omni of the above three: Xenogenesis: hb/Pat Morrissey]

Parable

individual titles

about the author

links

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