Science Fiction/Fantasy

Why Octavia E. Butler is Essential SciFi Genre Reading

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This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler’s  birthday. See all the posts here.

I’m not really sure when I became a huge fan of Octavia E. Butler, but I do remember the first novel of hers I read: it was Kindred. I had been loving sci-fi novels at the time, but everything I picked up after The Hunger Games felt stale and repetitive (Christ, did we really need a whole Divergent series? Sorry, not sorry). I picked up Kindred because it sounded genuinely original, and it is: I couldn’t put it down and I read it one sitting. Butler is, of course, an incredible storyteller, but this book revealed such a glaring gap in sci-fi to me: where are the women of color who write sci-fi? As a Latina woman I felt slightly ashamed not to have noticed this before and just accepted whiteness as a standard in the genre.

Over the years, as I read through Butler’s catalogue, she has always stayed in my mind as the best example of a black female author who has been severely wronged by the world around her. I’m resentful that nobody sat me down and showed me her work. I’m upset that for years, I did not read about women of color in my sci-fi books and what they would be doing in these imagined worlds. I’m irritated that, even when women of color receive the credit they’re due, it still took me ages to discover her. Because, yes, Butler is widely celebrated, but she’s not the go-to name at the tip of everyone’s tongue when we speak of sci-fi like Isaac Asimov is. For this, I can’t help but carry Butler in my mind whenever I think of books and representation.

And when I say that I carry her in my mind whenever I think of books and representation, I really do mean it. Since I discovered Kindred and realized the real gap in sci-fi when it comes to race and gender, any time I go into a bookstore I will scan the sci-fi shelves for Butler. It doesn’t really matter where I am: I want to make sure that bookstore isn’t criminally hiding Butler away from potential readers, like she was hidden from me. Even if I don’t have the intention to buy any books, I’ll scan the shelves for her name, because that’s the impression Kindred and her other novels made on me: I see her books as necessary reading for any fans of the genre. And if a bookstore isn’t carrying at least one copy of her books, I genuinely see red.

The overbearing whiteness and maleness of the sci-fi genre can get mind-numbingly boring, so Butler really saved the genre for me. It’s not only that she created diverse worlds (and this includes all races and ethnicities, yes, but also aliens and vampires), but also that her worlds were so far from the standard sci-fi tropes that she changed the genre forever. I dislike celebrating the fact that people of color have to work twice as hard to get half as far as their white counterparts, but Butler was so determined to see her work published that she would wake up at 2am before her day job shift to write. I think it’s remarkable that anyone would have that much confidence in their own work (I certainly don’t) that they would push through so much adversity, and wake up so early to work. It certainly paid off: by bringing African American mysticism, spiritualism and mythology to the genre, she pushed it to places it had never been before. And the introduction of these aspects into the genre, as well as main characters of color in her novels, solidified the path for other authors of color to create their own worlds. And for that, I am grateful.

While my heart hurts to think someone as talented as Butler had to fight so hard to be published–and let’s be real, authors of color still struggle to get published to this day–I am so grateful to her stories and I believe that if you haven’t read her work, you’re really missing out. Besides the fact that Butler is an incredible writer, her novels will make you hunger for sci-fi that pushes boundaries across gender and race. Thankfully, nowadays, finding more books with that premise is much easier.