Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Our Kindred Ancestors and Our Earthseed Futures

Today is the birthday of Octavia Butler, one of my favorite writers.  Notice I said one of my favorite writers, without any qualifiers.  Yes, she's a sci-fi writer, but she transcends that genre.  Yes, she's female, but her writing is more powerful than just about anyone else's, male or female.  Yes, she's African-American, working class--but again, those categories enrich her writing, not limit it. 

I'm using present tense verbs, even though she died several years ago.  She slipped on a sidewalk, hit her head, and never woke up.  Her death shocked me.  We forget how fragile our skulls really are.

Her scope is breathtaking.  She's as adept at envisioning new worlds and new races as she is taking us to the past.

Many people are most familiar with her novel Kindred.  In this novel, a black, female writer gets sucked back to antebellum Virginia.  It wasn't until reading this novel that I fully understood the horrors of slavery, the various threats of that time period.  To make the plot more interesting, she quickly realizes that she's being transported back to her ancestors, which limits some of her choices:  she can't just kill those people who threaten her; if her ancestors die, what will happen to her?  It's not one of my favorites of all the books she wrote, but it is one that I'm glad that I read--several times.

What would my favorite Butler novel be?  I'm torn.  At one point, I'd have said Parable of the Sower.  It's a novel that takes place in the near future, the year 2025, nearer now than when it was published.  It paints a picture of the future where money is not spent on infrastructure, but the space program remains somewhat intact.  It paints a picture of a crumbling future that seems more frighteningly possible to me now than it did when I read it back in 1994.  I've read this novel so many times that I rarely return to it; I'm so familiar with the book that it's hard for me to want to read it again.  If you like your future dark and dystopian yet shot through with a bit of light, pick up this book.

In 2001, I read Wild Seed, one of the most inventive books I've ever read.  At first, I thought I was reading about a different world, but eventually I figured out that I was reading about the earliest years of the slave trade.  What interesting wording--the slave trade, as if there was only one.  I mean the slave trade which brought Africans to the North American continent and the outlying islands.  It's an amazing book which deals with gender, race, and history in such amazing ways that it's impossible to look at those subjects the same way again.

One of the benefits of being a Butler fan is that she often wrote books that were part of a series.  And unlike some writers who do that, often each book of the series could stand on its own, while interacting with the others in interesting ways.

I was so happy when she won the MacArthur award.  I read an interview with her in Poets and Writers shortly after she won that award.  She talked about the value of money to a writer, how having a funding source freed her to write all the books she'd been storing up but couldn't write because she had to work.  And in her early years, that work was often menial labor, the kind that leaves one too tired to write. 

Her interview made me see myself as lucky.  Academic work might leave me drained on a different level, but most weeks, I'm not too physically exhausted to write.  So far, I've been lucky in that I've rarely had supervisors who were out to get me.  My coworkers have been pleasant and supportive.  While I might not find myself in a community of writers, my coworkers understand the appeal of doing it.

Octavia Butler was an amazing writer, and not a month goes by where I don't miss her and wonder what she'd be writing now, if she had lived.  She had such amazing insight, and I wonder what she would have made of our present time.  On the one hand, we have an African-American president, an amazing event.  On the other, we have so many grim features of our future bearing down on us.

In her book Dawn, a non-human character says that humans have two incompatible characteristics:  intelligence and the tendency to hierarchy (page 27).  Many of her books return to this theme again and again.  I suspect she'd tell me that these 2 incompatible tendencies explain a lot of our current problems.

Butler was a writer who writers could love.  Like many of my favorite writers, she stresses habit and persistence over talent and inspiration.  Here's a typical quote (found on GoodReads):  "First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you're inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won't. Habit is persistence in practice."

Maybe I'll return to Butler this summer.  It's been awhile since I read any of her books.  I need her voice in my head again.


Karen J. Weyant said...

I loved Butler's work and was devastated when she died. Great post!

Dave said...

I've only read the Lilith's Brood series (which I enjoyed enormously). This post has convinced me I must read more.