Octavia Butler (1/20/06)

December 29, 2006

Lots of writers think they’re genuises, but Octavia Butler — who died over the weekend at her Seattle home — was one of the few to have it certified: she received one of those MacArthur Foundation “genius” grants in 1995, which made it possible for her to buy a house and enjoy a measure of comfort after a lifetime of scraping by with her writing. The recognition was all the more striking because Butler was a — shhhhh! — writer of science fiction, that most cootie-laden of American literary genres, of which few critics have anything good to say and from which only a few lucky talents — Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, anybody else? — are allowed to escape.

Butler’s ticket to wider recognition was Kindred, an overwhelmingly powerful novel about Dana, a modern-day black woman who is repeatedly carried back to the antebellum South in order to save the life of a white boy named Rufus, who malignantly flowers into a raging bigot and slaveholder — and who turns out to be the heroine’s ancestor. Each time she goes back, Dana (and the reader) gets a wider, deeper view of life as a slave; each time she returns from the 19th century South, Dana bears psychological scars she sees reflected in the mid-1970s America around her. Butler is particularly good at showing the psychological deformations slavery requires of both master and his chattel; in the book’s edgiest sequence, Dana is wrenched back with her white husband, and must watch the appalling ease with which he assumes the privileges of a white plantation owner.

A book that deserves to be equally well known is Parable of the Talents, a panoramic view of a fundamentalist America that puts The Handmaid’s Tale completely in the shade. Reading her obituaries, I realize that her output was much wider than I realized — I have some catching up to do, and so do you if you want to read somebody whose work was not only several cuts above most science fiction writing, but much mainstream wrirting as well.

If science fiction is a literary form that provides a symbolic arena for talking about contemporary life, then Butler explored the limits of that form:

Several years ago I wrote a novel called Dawn in which extra-solar aliens arrive, look us over, and inform us that we have a pair of characteristics that together constitute a fatal flaw. We are, they admit, intelligent, and that’s fine. But we are also hierarchical, and our hierarchical tendencies are older and all too often, they drive our intelligence — that is, they drive us to use our intelligence to try to dominate one another.

More fiction? Maybe.

But whatever is the source of our intolerance, what can we do about it? What can we do to improve ourselves? Of course, we can resist acting on our nastier hierarchical tendencies. Most of us do that most of the time already. And we can make a greater effort to teach children to resist their hierarchical impulses and beliefs and to channel what they can’t resist into sports and careers.

Will this work? Well, it hasn’t so far. Too many people will not, perhaps cannot, do it. There is, unfortunately, satisfaction to be enjoyed in feeling superior to other people.

This item from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is the best obituary I’ve seen. Fellow writer Steven Barnes offers a heartfelt tribute on his Web site. This profile makes for good reading. Here is one of the better fan sites. In 2001, NPR interviewed Butler and ran one of her short essays — find them both here.

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