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Butler, Octavia E

Entry updated 25 October 2021. Tagged: Author.

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(1947-2006) US author 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 the appearance of the Patternist series: Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977), Survivor (1978), Wild Seed (1980) and Clay's Ark (1984), all but Survivor assembled as Seed to Harvest (omni 2007). 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 West Africa. The seemingly Immortal 4000-year-old body-snatcher Doro, "the Founder" (see Identity Transfer) has long been engaged on a breeding programme designed to produce a Secret Master cadre of superior humans whose Psi Powers, including Telekinesis and Telepathy, mark the new race (see Eugenics; Genetic Engineering). During this long campaign Doro discovers a second immortal, the Shapeshifter Anyanwu; 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, who also breeds with "wild seeds" uncovered by Doro; and found with her a sanctuary first in upstate New York and later in Louisiana, where her Mutant children can grow to adulthood.

The next volume in terms of internal chronology, Mind of My Mind, which is 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 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 omnivorousness of this Pandemic invests the extraordinarily savage telling of this tale. Finally, in the first-published 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 laid down 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 African American, and much of the power of the sequence derives from the chargedness and cognitive focus occasioned by her background and punishing early experiences in urban California, a confluence of influences and incarcerations that she drew on for many tales, and seems to have underwritten – as with other writers who were non-white – the tough embodiedness of the characters she created: as a Black person in a racist culture, she must have expected to have to survive being gazed upon, thickeningly, as Other. Her work can be seen as a series of earned voyages through this opacity (see Perception; Posthuman; Transcendence) into some human world deeply transparent to mutual communications.

While Patternist was in progress, Butler published a singleton, Kindred (1979), in which these issues move to the foreground. Dana, a contemporary African American 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 in that era. He is a slaveholder's son who has, at some point after she had (more than once) saved his life, impregnated (which is to say raped) a slave, who subsequently gives birth to one of Dana's ancestors(see Race in SF): requiring her to travel through time to save his life in order 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 sold into Slavery; 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 Railroad; 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 relatively 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; vt Lilith's Brood 2000). 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 Fellowship 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); the latter won the 2000 Nebula for best novel. The sequence is set at a period of systems collapse in early twenty-first-century Los Angeles, where a slow toxic Pandemic and Climate Change are primarily understood through their effects on the poor, the customer-facing, the non-white, the displaced, those whose embodiment makes them invisible: just as in the real world a few decades earlier. The "hyperempathic" narrator (by this point in her career, Butler 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 northwards with some followers from the collapsing suburb where she was born, while simultaneously creating a humanist Religion called Earthseed, for which God can be defined as Change, and which is 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 fundamentalist 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. In this new tale, Vampires are conceived of as a separate species created through Genetic Engineering whose saliva is profoundly addictive to humans, the vampire receiving nourishment and the symbiont gaining good health(see Parasitism and Symbiosis). The novel fascinatingly recasts her basic underlying premise – argued in almost every tale she wrote – that the more extreme a situation is, the more complicit may be those who participate (as victims or predators or both) in its workings. The marriages of life and power and Sex and race, Butler here again suggested, could best be understood when wrought to their uttermost. Her premature death the next year terminated this long argument, though the depth and extent of her influence, intrinsically in her own work and as a founder of Afrofuturism, are attested in Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction from Social Justice Movements (anth 2015) edited by Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha. Academic criticism [see Checklist below] has begun to proliferate.

Butler was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010 and received a 2012 Solstice Award (see SFWA Grand Master Award). [JC]

see also: Asimov's Science Fiction;

Octavia Estelle Butler

born Pasadena, California: 22 June 1947

died Seattle, Washington: 24 February 2006

works

series

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/Enric]
  • 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]
      • Lilith's Brood (New York: Warner Books, 2000) [omni: vt of the above: Xenogenesis: pb/Marc Yankus]

Parable

individual titles

collections and stories

about the author

links

previous versions of this entry



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