by silk-jazmyne hindus
Octavia Butler’s writing breaks through racial genre barriers giving a glimpse into the psyche of black characters while putting readers into different surroundings. Butler was born in Pasadena, California on June 22, 1947. While studying at the Screenwriter’s Guild Open Door Program and the Clarion Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop in 1969 and 1970, she took a course with science fiction master Harlan Ellison. She eventually became his mentee, leading her to sell her first science fiction stories. Since then, she has published novels, many which are apart of entire series, and story collections.
Though science fiction is one of my favorite genres, I often found myself wondering where the people who looked like me were or being confused by the behaviors of the characters that resembled me. The first time I remember seeing a black woman in science fiction was around seven or eight while watching Star Trek: Generations and Whoopi Goldberg was playing Gaia.
There seems to be this notation that black people don’t like nerdy entertainment, specifically science fiction. To be honest, I only found out about Octavia Butler recently with the announcement of her novel “Dawn” being adapted for the small screen by Ava Duvernay. “Dawn” is the first book of the Xenogenesis Series published in 1987.
This is the book I began my journey with. The first thing I noticed while trying to procure the novel was how difficult it was to locate locally. Not only did the neighboring stores not carry the book, they didn’t even know who Octavia Butler was. I found it interesting that this Hugo Award Recipient and Science Fiction Hall of Fame Inductee, praised by critics, peers, readers, New York Times and Washington Post writers was just a vague name even to literary professionals.
When the book arrived from Amazon, I literally danced around my place ready to consume new greatness. The cover struck me first. A black woman with french braids covering her breasts with folds of plants all around her and rambunctious bangs. The main character, Lilith was showcased on the cover, and although she didn’t literally look like me… she was me. I saw myself in a genre that often doesn’t give people of color, especially women of color, much forethought. The cover merely was a reminder of releasing art that’s true and knowing that the right people will find it.
The overall theme is Lillith becoming the mother of a new hybrid race of humans who will be genetically better than their ancestors. I was struck by the unapologetic declaration that the black woman birthed the earth. Butler’s world building is phenomenal. Within pages, I was absorbed by this place that was alien but also familiar. Moments when things are starting to get too alienated to understand, Butler provides simple but strong human truths to ground you. Concepts that require you to unpack your own humanity in a attempt to understand what it is exactly that makes one human. What makes one extraterrestrial? Is violence bred within us or do we learn violence? Can violence be genetically engineered out of us? Could the ailments that can’t be cured by our physicians really be an unlocking of the potential of the human genome? Questions that Butler leads you, like a parent would lead a child, to a new experience is a scary new way of thinking but definitely more fun. The title “Grand Dame of Science Fiction” definitely isn’t wasted on Octavia Butler.
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