Like a flailing restaurant patron who has a chunk of beef stuck in his windpipe, I write speculative fiction. It’s a messy process, of combing through research so I retain a kernel of accuracy in the story, say of physics or history, of plot points and character sketches, scratched out, erased, and written over in my notebooks. There are many notecards and scraps of paper tucked into my journals, so many that I tend to break the bindings of lesser-made books. Don’t forget this detail, that sub-theme, this one scene that keeps popping up in my daydreams. I go back, rewrite, reconceive, get frustrated, re-execute, finally feel satisfied.
It could very well be that all of my energy is in vain, and none of it is any good. I think it’s healthy for writers to drink a cup of hubris with a side of humility every so often. There is so little that keeps us honest. Writing is supposed to be sellable, and to make it to the commercial market, it needs to be definable—what’s the synopsis, who’s the audience, is it like any other bestseller out there, what’s the genre? It had better not fit in too many boxes, or the marketing department at the publisher will implode like an old Vegas casino.
Octavia Butler was one of those writers who defied pretty much everything in publishing—its tightness on genre categories, certainly, but also its expectations around audience appeal, topics that could be covered in fiction, and what bestselling authors should look and sound like.The first book I ever read of Butler’s was Kindred, assigned in a college course by Safiya Henderson-Holmes, herself an incredible poet. Kindred is the story of a modern African American woman who suddenly snaps back to antebellum Maryland to rescue a young white boy named Rufus, her ancestor. No explanation of the time travel, no exposition on character or any of the hook-of-the-moment openings, readers are just thrown into Dana’s perspective and then, as we identify with her, we feel the relentless terror at being marginalized in a culture that is all about that marginalization. And in five pages Butler has at once alienated and captivated her readers. (Read an interview with Butler on Kindred here.)
That’s often what I find missing in much of contemporary literature, and in speculative fiction. Colson Whitehead can pull apart society’s norms and make us wonder what’s real and what isn’t; Connie Willis can explore how history underpins current tension or political strife; Margaret Atwood is a master of awfulizing the weaknesses in culture and projecting them ahead to scare the bejeezus out of people, but Butler did all this and more in a direct, emotionally accessible way. She did not put on airs in her writing. Every grimace that leaped onto my face as I read—here I’m thinking of the almost pedophilia in Fledgling—got there without any over-intellectualizing on her part.
Often Butler’s work asked for some computation on the part of her readers—to make the leaps she did in creating new ways of work exchange, legal systems, and the like, but also with letting her take a story to unexpected places. One friend of mine groused that Fledgling turned into an extra-terrestrial version of a courtroom drama. But I think this misses a central point of the book; we give so much glorification to vampire lore and mythology, without asking about how else their world could be constructed. Why not use vampirism to explore jurisprudence? Who else writing out there is going to do it, and look at race at the same time?
Lilith’s Brood is a trilogy that reconceptualizes the military/alien invasion genre, by creating an alien species indebted to reunifying a human society torn apart by itself. At the same time that she turns the usual narrative on its head, Butler also gives us a heralded third gender, the ooloi, who can heal other species but also sexually arouse them. Layer after layer of meditations on race, xenophobia, gender, science, sexuality—there just isn’t anyone like Butler for tackling so many themes and topics while making such a readable, addictive series.
Butler said of science fiction:
People tend to think of science fiction as oh, Star Wars or Star Trek, and the truth is there are no closed doors, and there are no required formulas. You can go anywhere with it.
That is why I love Octavia Butler’s work. And why I will continue to miss her. Because nobody out there fills the void she left in American literature, or even comes close.