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February 2021 Issue [Reviews]

Parable of the Butler

A science-fiction pioneer finds posthumous fame
Illustration by Chloe Cushman. Source photograph © Patti Perret

Illustration by Chloe Cushman. Source photograph © Patti Perret


Parable of the Butler

A science-fiction pioneer finds posthumous fame

Discussed in this essay:

Octavia E. Butler: Kindred, Fledgling, Collected Stories, by Octavia E. Butler. Edited by Gerry Canavan and Nisi Shawl. Library of America. 789 pages. $35.

A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler, by Lynell George. Angel City Press. 176 pages. $30.

Last September, as the country grappled with a new kind of mass death and seethed after a summer of police brutality and protest, the novel Parable of the Sower (1993) became Octavia E. Butler’s first bestseller. Set in the 2020s, as society collapses under a blowhard president named Donner, the novel entered the New York Times paperback list fourteen years after Butler’s death. (As of December, Butler’s books occupied the top seven spots on Amazon’s Black and African-American Science Fiction list, with a garish new graphical adaptation of Parable at No. 12.) Butler, who died in 2006 at the age of fifty-eight, would have savored this: as late as 2004, she told an interviewer how much she longed for such validation.

In the early days of the Trump presidency, 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale surged in popularity, as though dystopian science fiction could decode our new collective dread. The recent Butler renaissance has been somewhat different—partly because her profile was more obscure (though she was the first science-fiction writer to receive a MacArthur grant). More crucially, unlike Orwell and Atwood, Butler was intimately attuned to this country’s racial fault lines.

In her 1980 essay “Lost Races of Science Fiction,” Butler—for many years the only black female science-fiction writer of renown—asks, “Why have there been so few minority characters in science fiction?” If science fiction routinely visits other worlds, dimensions, realities, then why can’t it “reach into the lives of ordinary, everyday humans who happen not to be white?” She laments that “Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, Amerindians . . . have been absent” from most science-fiction literature. In Parable of the Sower, she included them all: “The freeway crowd is a heterogeneous mass—black and white, Asian and Latin, whole families are on the move with babies on backs.”

The book’s arrival into the mainstream perhaps mirrored the biblical lesson itself: the characters and ideas that Butler had sown twenty-seven years earlier had taken root over the intervening decades, a few fallen seeds finding the right conditions to sprout and “[bear] fruit an hundredfold.” The resonances are hard to ignore. The blended family of Parable’s black teenage narrator, Lauren Oya Olamina, lives in a gated community in Southern California, somewhat insulated from the chaos outside, “like an island surrounded by sharks.” People work from home as much as possible, and the importance of community is paramount. Readers might see a heroic version of themselves in “hyperempathic” Olamina, who physically feels other people’s pain and studies survivalist manuals. When the wall is breached and her neighborhood obliterated, Olamina escapes with her “grab and run pack.” Heading north, as California goes up in flames, she unites a multiethnic band of refugees and forms a new religion called Earthseed. Its central tenet: God is Change.

This deceptively simple philosophy is often set in precious verse—Olamina is a teenager, after all. Quotations from her future canonical work, Earthseed: The Books of the Living, appear as chapter epigraphs, the way excerpts from fictitious religious texts do in Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), a favorite of Butler’s. It’s no coincidence that these mantras (“All that you Change / Changes you”) sound like something out of a self-help book. Butler was a lifelong devotee of the genre, having come across Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People in adolescence. Even with several novels under her belt, she enjoyed taking walks with audio versions of The Psychology of Achievement or Seven Keys to Wealth and Happiness. Indeed, it was while listening to one that she became reacquainted with the parable of the sower and decided to ditch the clunky title God of Clay.

Though Olamina makes for a strong heroine, at times she can seem one-dimensional—self-righteous, resourceful, and a bit humorless. Still, it’s hard not to root for Parable’s ragtag group of survivors as they navigate the devastated land. Their grit amid the appalling violence (a dog wanders by with “the fresh-looking bloody hand and forearm of a child”) brings to mind Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (2006). After escaping, Olamina attempts to establish a utopian community for people of color, making the book at least partly a work of Afrofuturism. It’s a fine entry point into Butler’s oeuvre, and new readers will find much more of interest in the Library of America’s first edition of her writing. Published in January, the volume features her breakout novel Kindred, Fledgling, and an octet of stories that distill her restless imagination.

“I was born on the bottom level of society,” a Butler stand-in tells God in one of her stories. Her real beginnings were humble: born in 1947 in Pasadena, California, Octavia Estelle Butler was the only child of a “freelance maid,” also named Octavia, and a shoeshine man who died when she was a girl. (She was haunted by the four brothers who had preceded her, all perishing in utero or in infancy.) Both parents came from the South, and her mother spent some of her childhood on a Louisiana sugar plantation. “It wasn’t that far removed from slavery,” Butler told Randall Kenan in 1990. “The only difference was they could leave, which eventually they did.” Butler lived for a time with her grandmother, who owned a chicken farm in nearby Victorville, where assorted other relatives also lived. Painfully shy and mildly dyslexic, Butler was teased by her classmates from first grade “all the way through junior high school.” Sprouting early to six feet tall, she escaped into fiction. “I guess you could say my body helped to make me a writer,” she said in 1997.

Butler found an early champion in Harlan Ellison, the self-styled bad boy of science fiction, who spotted her talent in a Screen Writers Guild class. He pushed her to attend the 1970 Clarion science-fiction writers’ workshop in Pennsylvania, and bought one of her stories for his massive anthology The Last Dangerous Visions. It was to be the final installment of a series that began with his landmark Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions, which featured sexually and formally provocative work by heavyweights such as Kurt Vonnegut and Ursula K. Le Guin, along with relative unknowns, each sandwiched between Ellison’s entertainingly grandiose introductions and afterwords. The books made clear that science fiction was no longer the domain of teenage boys, but an adult art form, with dozens of practitioners as proof. But the final volume was never published, its contents having swelled, ludicrously, to more than a million words.*

Would Butler’s fortune have changed had the anthology been published? The sale of her story must have felt like a cruel mirage. At the time, she lived alone, in near destitution. Self-help books kept her focused as she deliberately took on mindless work, including a stint as a potato-chip inspector, so that she wouldn’t have to interact with people, which was the only way she could maintain a schedule of writing from two to five every morning. Losing a telemarketing job spurred her to finish her debut novel, Patternmaster (1976), set in a world of servile “mutes” and their telepathically linked overlords—the first of a five-book series. She sent the manuscript directly to Doubleday, where it was published with a jittery cover designed by Stephen and Timothy Quay, who would later, as the Brothers Quay, become synonymous with stop-motion surrealism. (Grand Central Publishing is now returning the Patternist series to print—all but 1978’s Survivor, which Butler was unhappy with.)

A much-circulated image from Butler’s archives, held at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, shows a notebook cover flooded with exhortations. It begins:

I shall be a bestselling writer . . . My novels will go onto [the bestseller list] whether publishers push them hard or not, whether I’m paid a high advance or not, whether I ever win another award or not . . . This is my life. I write bestselling novels.

And goes on: “I will find the way to do this! So be it! See to it!” With Parable’s posthumous bestsellerdom, her 1980s prophecy seems to have come true. Call it the Parable of the Butler.

Lynell George’s recent book A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky, sparked by the author’s long immersion in the Huntington’s Butler archives, “offers a blueprint for a creative life,” as the jacket copy says. It doesn’t investigate Butler’s fiction, instead turning her years of struggle into an inspirational guide: “In the blue half-light, Octavia makes her way to her table, flips the notebook to a new page.” George notes fourteen-year-old Octavia’s fascination with the self-help author Napoleon Hill, whose methods “inspired her creation of the Magic Marker signs Scotch-taped to surfaces in her home where her eye might fall.” Hill’s rhyming adage, “Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe he can achieve,” became part of Butler’s permanent mental arsenal. Reproduced in full color, her scraps look like the relics of a saint, from a manila envelope labeled free-floating ideas to the handwritten contract she drew up for herself on loose-leaf paper on February 27, 1974: “This waking period I will complete a rough draft of a short story.” George’s book exists to motivate readers to maximize their potential. Maybe that’s not the worst thing; indeed, it’s the kind of book Butler would have cherished, a template for regaining confidence and focus when things look particularly bleak.

Kindred was published in 1979, Butler’s fourth novel in as many years. Unlike her other books, it wasn’t marketed as science fiction. Its narrator is the character Butler felt most resembled her: Dana, a black writer living in Altadena, California, in 1976. (She’s sold some stories to “little magazines that no one’s heard of. The kind that pay in copies of the magazine.”) Shortly after moving into a new house with her husband, a white novelist named Kevin, Dana is transported to antebellum Maryland, though she is unaware of her coordinates at first. She saves a redheaded boy named Rufus from drowning—to the relief and bafflement of his parents—then returns abruptly to the present. Subsequent trips last longer, and destabilize her present-day life, where time barely passes. After one particularly arduous two-month interlude, Dana returns to Altadena and sees that the meat she took out to thaw is still frozen on the counter. Dana and Kevin (who is sometimes sent back as well) scour their shelves for books that might help her survive.

Rufus, the son of a slaveholder, initially refers to Dana by the N-word and insists that she call him master, but the two go on to form an unlikely bond, which is tested when Rufus takes over the plantation. (Dana later winces when two slaves casually use the same epithet.) She soon deduces that “Rufus’s fear of death calls me to him, and my own fear of death sends me home.”

He is, of course, Dana’s ancestor, the father of her oldest known relative, Grandmother Hagar, born in 1831, who recorded in a Bible that her parents were named Rufus and Alice Weylin. If Rufus were to die before Hagar was born, Dana would cease to exist. It’s an ingenious storytelling loop, a mortal coil of revulsion and intimacy. All time-travel stories are essentially oedipal, but the stakes are rarely so high. Would it be worth killing a slaveholder if it meant wiping out your own life? Dana grits her teeth as she tries to educate Rufus, whose boyish good nature grows more savage and confused as he gets older.

At the Weylin plantation, Dana appears to the slaves as novelty and phantom, traitor and sage. (Though Rufus knows the truth, Dana and Kevin maintain the facade that she’s his slave.) To them, she is science fiction, a barely comprehensible figure from the future, to say nothing of the bizarre fact that she’s traveling with a white man. Some regard her warily; others respect her knowledge. Paradoxically, the time-travel conceit makes the story more believable. Modern-day Dana, like Butler, takes meaningless jobs from the “casual labor agency” (or as Dana wryly calls it, “slave market”) to support her art:

I did the work, I went home, I ate, and then slept for a few hours. Finally, I got up and wrote. At one or two in the morning, I was fully awake, fully alive, and busy working on my novel.

Her heroine’s perspective gives the book a tactical advantage. Dana’s disorientation mirrors what any of us might feel if jettisoned back to an earlier era. The artifice of time travel falls away as she moves through this alien America, her sensibility yoked to our own.

Though it has moments of ironic humor, the novel is built to shock. We read in horror as black characters are violated physically, sexually, and spiritually. One of the most crushing scenes isn’t a whipping or beating, but what should be a cheerful vision of children at play:

“Now here is a likely wench,” called the boy on the stump. He gestured toward the girl who stood slightly behind him. “She cook and wash and iron. Come here, gal. Let the folks see you.” He drew the girl up beside him. “She young and strong,” he continued. “She worth plenty money. Two hundred dollars. Who bid two hundred dollars?”

The little girl turned to frown at him. “I’m worth more than two hundred dollars, Sammy!” she protested. “You sold Martha for five hundred dollars!”

“You shut your mouth,” said the boy. “You ain’t supposed to say nothing. When Marse Tom bought Mama and me, we didn’t say nothing.”

Dana’s final visit to the past occurs on the Fourth of July, 1976. Kindred is a delayed reaction to that bicentennial year—the flip side to the patriotic fanfare. When Dana and Kevin try to explain that they’re from the future by producing a commemorative quarter, a doubtful Rufus responds, “Well, I guess you could have made these yourself.”

The second novel in the Library of America volume, Fledgling (2005), contrasts poorly with Butler’s confident early work. The editors likely chose to pair the two books because they are her only stand-alone novels—the three additional installments will each contain one of her series: Patternist, Xenogenesis, and Parable—but the unfortunate effect is to highlight a falling off.

Butler was gripped with writer’s block after finishing Parable of the Talents (1998), her eleventh novel and the Nebula Award–winning follow-up to Sower. She began a third Parable book, then abandoned it, filling her files with false starts. Rather than embark on another epic, she tapped into her growing fondness for the new vampirism, including television’s Buffy. Fledgling’s amnesiac narrator wakes up in a cave, naked and grievously wounded. The prose is knowingly schlocky right out of the gate: “In two places my head felt crusty and lumpy and . . . almost soft. And I was so hungry.” The ravenous waif rips apart a deer, and before long a good Samaritan/horndog named Wright picks her up and lets her drink from his neck. She meets other bloodsuckers (who are called Ina), is told her name is Shori, and learns that several razed structures nearby belonged to her family. Someone—human or vampire—wants her dead.

The early scenes unfold near Seattle, where Butler moved in 1999, and the rainy atmosphere suits the gothic material. (Coincidentally, Stephenie Meyer’s Washington State–set vampire blockbuster Twilight appeared a month later.) The book scrambles age and race, myth and desire. Though Shori is fifty-three in vampire years, her body is that of an eleven-year-old girl. Born of the union between a white Ina male and a black human mother, she’s a genetic experiment of sorts, an attempt to see whether increased melanin might let vampires survive exposure to daylight. Ina have long, nonmonogamous relationships with several human “symbionts” of either sex, nurtured for blood and for pleasure, leading to some unusual nomenclature (e.g., “Loren Hanson sym Elizabeth Akhmatova”) and occasional orgies. But Fledgling wilts halfway through. The racism among the overwhelmingly white Ina is toothless compared with the urgent, human sort dissected in Kindred, and the story concludes with a thudding courtroom procedural. Butler was relieved to have finished a new novel at last, but expressed her despair “over its quality during proofreading.”

Its inclusion in the Library of America volume is redeemed by the short stories that round out the book—ironic, given that Butler’s complex visions seemed to require a multivolume opus. (“The truth is, I hate short story writing,” she wrote in 1996. “Trying to do it has taught me much more about frustration and despair than I ever wanted to know.”) The stories start out modest. In “Childfinder,” a telepath trains children with psionic potential—a less painful version of Lauren Olamina’s hyperempathy—to heal the world, a noble plan that fails because of bureaucratic racism. “Near of Kin,” published just after Kindred, bears no relation to the novel, but takes its exploration of incest to a new extreme.

It’s with “Speech Sounds” (1983) that Butler starts to make the short form sing. Appropriately for a story about the loss of language, language itself is heightened. (Two years earlier, she had submitted a manuscript to Toni Morrison, then an editor at Random House; Butler has credited reading Morrison’s novels with teaching her new ways to “use words, ways that I hadn’t been using [them],” a departure from her pulp science-fiction roots.) A woman named Rye is driven out of her house by “loneliness and hopelessness.” A wordless fight on a Los Angeles bus reveals a world gone wrong—a future in which a mysterious pandemic has swiftly turned people mute and left society in shambles. It’s one thing to tell the reader that the economy has broken down; what makes the decay believable is an image of the bus driver “past[ing] old magazine pictures of items he would accept as fare on its sides.” The Twilight Zone atmosphere is pitch-perfect: “Loss of verbal language had spawned a whole new set of obscene gestures,” Butler writes, as though simultaneously disgusted and awed by human adaptability. In this postapocalyptic story, a few sentences of articulated speech seem enough to save the world.

Even better is Butler’s 1984 novelette “Bloodchild,” which, like “Speech Sounds,” ran as a cover story in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. It begins with the familiar, then drops the reader into a wholly alien zone:

My last night of childhood began with a visit home. T’Gatoi’s sister had given us two sterile eggs. T’Gatoi gave one to my mother, brother, and sisters. She insisted that I eat the other one alone.

Each sentence illuminates the previous one while drawing the reader deeper into the bizarre, provoking an endless series of questions. Butler weaves in details across the next several pages: T’Gatoi has a “long, velvet underside” that the narrator, Lien, rests against. Lien’s human family lives on something called the Preserve and are known as Terrans. (The humans appear to be of Vietnamese descent.) T’Gatoi turns out to be a Tlic, one of the sophisticated insectoids on whose planet the Terrans have landed after fleeing their home. The gory compact between the species—think Alien’s chest-busting scene, but make it consensual—is delivered with maximum horror and surprising sympathy. “Bloodchild” cycles effortlessly from coming-of-age parable to crypto-slave narrative to pregnant-man shocker. Butler does world-building right, ensuring that even her most far-flung imaginings are rooted in relatable emotion.

The stories that follow are hardly less ambitious. In “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” (1987), the side effects of a cancer cure have led to Duryea-Gode disease, which drives its sufferers to extremes: murder, suicide, self-mutilation. Butler finds poetry amid the body horror, as when describing a blind sculptress who has gouged out her eyes, destroyed her face, and now speaks “words blurred by her ruined mouth but just understandable.” “Amnesty” (2003) begins with what seems like a parody of the opening line of Ulysses: for the mock grandeur of “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed,” Butler gives us “The stranger-Community, globular, easily twelve feet high and wide, glided down into the vast, dimly lit food production hall of Translator Noah Cannon’s employer.” She unpacks the surfeit of outrageous phrases, telling an all too human story of xenophobia, directly inspired, according to Butler, by the U.S. government’s improper jailing of the nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee.

The last work of short fiction she published, “The Book of Martha” (2003), takes the form of a conversation that a Butler-like author has with God. He has a job for her. He will grant her some of His power, which she is told to use “so that people treat one another better and treat their environment more sensibly.” But when gamed out, her ideas (e.g., “What if people could only have two children?”) all lead to misery. Part mental exercise, part valediction, “The Book of Martha” concludes with a plan for utopia: every man, woman, and child will be blessed with incredibly vivid and fulfilling dreams, night after night—dreams that will also teach them to be “a lot more awake and aware when they are awake, a lot less susceptible to lies, peer pressure, and self-delusion.”

Over the course of the story, the deity—a glowing, bearded, twelve-foot-tall white male, like Michelangelo’s Moses—starts to resemble the narrator. “What you see is up to you, Martha,” God says. “Everything is up to you.” The transformation, and God’s affirmation, turns the story into a kind of holy self-help book, and suggest one last parable of Octavia Butler. In interviews, Butler acknowledged the inspiration she found in such books. They told her what she needed to hear, gave her the tools to achieve her goals. She wasn’t bothered by the fact that the authors were men, or that their advice was often directed at men—perhaps it made their methods that much more effective.

Asked by Essence magazine in 1989 what she was reading, Butler mentioned both Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror and the audio version of Jim Rohn’s Seven Keys to Wealth and Happiness. Listening to the latter, she discovered that one of the cassettes had a blank side. Butler recorded her own eulogy on it, noting cheerfully, “It reminds me how good my life is.”

 is the author of the novel Personal Days. He wrote a science-fiction column, Astral Weeks, for the Los Angeles Times from 2007 to 2011.

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