Octavia E. Butler’s birthday is today, June 22, and her death in 2006 at age 58 — attributed variously to a stroke and also a head injury — came too early.
Active from the ’70s into the early ’00s, Butler was one of the first African American women to make an impact in science fiction, and as such has inspired a new generation of writers and creators, including N.K. Jemison, Nnedi Okrafor and even Janelle Monae.
But as a writer of extraordinary, painful humanity and uncompromising vision, we’d suggest that perhaps one of her only real peers is J.G. Ballard.
Butler and Ballard alike routinely depict their protagonists as subjects of vast evolutionary and cosmological forces that are quite beyond human control and even comprehension, and that produce dramatic tension around the struggle for survival, adaptation, and a few shreds of dignity. Both authors are similarly unflinching in their demonstrations of human cruelty — and both have a habit of destroying their characters with prose that is vivid, precise and chillingly dispassionate.
Two of her works are currently being developed for television: “Wild Seed” is coming to Amazon with Viola Davis at the helm, and “Dawn” is being adapted by the Ava DuVernay (“Selma,” “Wrinkle in Time.”)
TV can be great, and it’s a thrill to see your literary favorites come alive on-screen — but your own imagination is always the first and the best interpreter.
If you haven’t read any Butler, her work is gripping, remorseless and desperately hopeful when things are darkest. Here are some starter titles — but be aware, you can’t just dip your toe in the water. These books reach up and pull you in.
“The Parable of the Sower” and its sequel, “Parable of the Talents,” posit one of Butler’s many dystopian futures. Here, climate-related ecological degradation accompanies the decline of Western democracy and the establishment of a fascistic/Christianist theocracy in the United States. In response, a single, African American mother becomes the center of a new, quasi-religious movement that offers the psychological and emotional tools for survival through the tribulations of the era.
“Kindred,” Butler’s famous novel of time travel, ancestry, and the multi-generational impacts of chattel slavery in the United States, is a complex and bitter work. Life and hope win out, but at a terrible cost to the narrator, Dana is a modern-day African American woman who is repeatedly torn from her home and marriage in 1976, and hurled back to the antebellum South. Dana is there to save the life, repeatedly, of one of her ancestors, a young white boy, prone to entitlement and insensitivity, and born into a family of slaveholders. Butler juxtaposes Dana’s modern sensibilities with the brutal reality of American life before the Civil War, painting a vivid picture of desperation and the difficult costs of survival.
“Clay’s Ark” is an alien-invasion story, and also a horror story, about infection, cruelty and accelerated evolution. It’s part of the Patternmaster sequence that also includes “Wild Seed,” but it stands alone for its depictions of dystopia and dehumanization at the hands of others — and as a result of vastly greater forces.
“Bloodchild and Other Stories,” a collection of are oft-dark and and always profound marvels. The multip-award-winning title story alone is unmatched in the literature of science fiction for its depictions of love, pain, suffering and human persistence — not to mention the alien impregnation of the male lead character. In “Speech Sounds,” the human ability to use language has been destroyed by a virus that targets the speech centers of the brain — and yet, somehow, life goes on, and even delivers a little bit of fragile hope. “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” reveals the strange outcomes of a cancer cure that produces a new type of genetic disorder, and the consequent evolution of human of new behaviors and social patterns.
Head-stretching, unpredictable, demanding — Butler is required reading for anyone concerned with the human condition in a world that is changing, and changes us along with it.