Why should you read sci-fi superstar Octavia E. Butler? TED ed
Why should you read sci-fi superstar Octavia E. Butler? by Ayana Jamieson and Moya Bailey. Following a devastating nuclear war, Lilith Iyapo awakens after 250 years of stasis to find herself surrounded by a group of aliens called the Oankali.
These highly evolved beings want to trade DNA by breeding with humans so that each species’ genes can diversify and fortify the other. The only alternative they offer is sterilization of the entire human race. Should humanity take the leap into the biological unknown, or hold on to its identity and perish? Questions like this haunt Octavia Butler’s “Dawn,” the first in her trilogy “Lilith’s Brood.”
A visionary storyteller who upended science fiction, Butler built stunning worlds throughout her work– and explored dilemmas that keep us awake at night. Born in 1947, Butler grew up shy and introverted in Pasadena, California. She dreamt up stories from an early age, and was soon scribbling these scenarios on paper.
At twelve, she begged her mother for a typewriter after enduring a campy science fiction film called “Devil Girl From Mars.” Unimpressed with what she saw, Butler knew she could tell a better story. Much science fiction features white male heroes who blast aliens or become saviors of brown people.
Butler wanted to write diverse characters for diverse audiences. She brought nuance and depth to the representation of their experiences. For Butler, imagination was not only for planting the seeds of science fiction– but also a strategy for surviving an unjust world on one’s own terms.
Her work often takes troubling features of the world such as discrimination on the basis of race, gender, class, or ability, and invites the reader to contemplate them in new contexts. One of her most beloved novels, the “Parable of the Sower,” follows this pattern.
It tells the story of Lauren Oya Olamina as she makes her way through a near-future California, ruined by corporate greed, inequality, and environmental destruction. As she struggles with hyperempathy, or a condition in the novel that causes her to feel others’ pain, and less often, their pleasure.
Lauren embarks on a quest with a group of refugees to find a place to thrive. There, they seek to live in accordance with Lauren’s found religion, Earthseed, which is based on the principle that humans must adapt to an ever-changing world.
Lauren’s quest had roots in a real life event– California Prop 187, which attempted to deny undocumented immigrants fundamental human rights, before it was deemed unconstitutional. Butler frequently incorporated contemporary news into her writing. In her 1998 sequel to “The Parable of the Sower,” “Parable of the Talents,” she wrote of a presidential candidate who controls Americans with virtual reality and “shock collars.” His slogan? “Make America great again.”
While people have noted her prescience, Butler was also interested in re-examining history. For instance, “Kindred” tells the story of a woman who is repeatedly pulled back in time to the Maryland plantation of her ancestors. Early on, she learns that her mission is to save the life of the white man who will rape her great grandmother.
If she doesn’t save him, she herself will cease to exist. This grim dilemma forces Dana to confront the ongoing trauma of slavery and sexual violence against Black women. With her stories of women founding new societies, time travelers overcoming historical strife, and interspecies bonding, Butler had a profound influence on the growing popularity of Afrofuturism.
That’s a cultural movement where Black writers and artists who are inspired by the past, present and future, produce works that incorporate magic, history, technology and much more. As Lauren comes to learn in “Parable of the Sower,” “All that you touch you Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change.”
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Credit: Ayana Jamieson and Moya Bailey