This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler’s birthday. See all the posts here.
Women writers have interesting barriers. The Mary Sue and Tor.com have discussed how female SFF writers, and SFF female characters, can easily become overlooked or forgotten. We don’t receive as much coverage due to implicit bias in our culture. This is ironic since according to history women like Mary Shelley have created the science fiction and horror genres. Tor.com mentions that the women that leave a legacy are the Smurfettes of the world, the token female authors that are included to fill a social quota.
POC female authors face double the barriers, due to not fitting the standard “white male” generality. Recent groups working to disregard progress, like the Sad Numpties (they are not Sad Puppies, believe me), try to maintain that status quo. We can dismiss the extremists, but they reflect an uncomfortable truth: the mainstream doesn’t want to confront POC and gender representation, unless it meets quotas. Change is frightening, but fiction has to change to reflect society.
Never Tell Us the Odds
With all this, where can we place Octavia Butler? By the standard statistics, she ought to have joined the ranks of women writers who work hard and put out splendid work, but whom others generally ignore. That wasn’t Octavia’s story, however. A studious writer who earned her way into UCLA, she had the luck to impress Harlan Ellison with her writing, and to later win a Hugo for her short story “Speech Sounds”. In between she had five years of rejection slips, and Octavia worked on multiple novels in the meantime.
Octavia became a Smurfette. That’s not an insult. Being a Smurfette means that the mainstream acknowledges you, and will spread your words. She will exist as part of the American SFF pantheon, thanks to her namesake foundation as well as her impact on the genre. Her writing challenges POC writers to integrate social and racial issues into narratives without creating strawmen. She also asks people to think of how we become complicit in these everyday injustices.
Making of a Smurfette
Octavia earned all her laurels and honors. Fledgling manages to merge vampiric tales of love and obsession with class issues and eugenics. The Parable books craft a dystopia about and for POC, rather than attribute historical POC traumas such as sex slavery and loss of identity to white people, the way The Handmaid’s Tale does. She had to be better than the standard SFF writers of her time to gain notice. It shows in her work. We can quibble about the details and her portrayals, but the fact remains that she had talent. Octavia used that talent, to change our mindscape.
Education and timing contributed to her success. Octavia in her 1998 Conversation at MIT cited the space race as the reason for increased school funding. At the time, the nation prioritized teaching students to fight the Soviet Union. Classrooms as a result had a higher budget, more equipment and resources. She got a thorough understanding of science, and a thirst for education. Having the student mentality is good for writers because it means we are always learning.
Having allies in the industry also helped. As mentioned before, Harlan Ellison recognized Octavia’s talent when he was teaching a screenwriting course, and he recommended the Clarion Workshop. The Clarion director then accepted one of her works, and Harlan accepted another. Mainstays in the SFF industry make a great impact when they put the spotlight on debutante authors, especially POC women authors. Continuing this trend can only increase the number of Smurfettes to emerge.
The final factor lies in Octavia choosing stories that only she could tell, to quote Neil Gaiman. She draws on her experience as an African American woman who grew up in the 1950s, as well as her education in the sciences, writing and history. Octavia knew how to apply critical thinking to a concept, to take it in unexpected directions.
Recurring Themes of Complicity
Kindred emerged because Octavia learned that students her age didn’t know about American slavery creating cultural subservience. Octavia wanted to discuss that using speculative elements. As a result, the novel discusses complicity that one needs to survive a brutal social environment.
We all know, I hope, that slavery is wrong. Most textbooks don’t detail the brutalities that ensued, or persisted after the Emancipation Proclamation. People have photographed picnicking families at lynchings, crosses burned on yard. The psychological impact sometimes doesn’t come across through textbooks, because we’d have to confront our history. Kindred discusses that impact, and if one can make negative out of the positive.
We can look at another novel as an example of complicity. In Fledgling, the main vampire Shori bonds with several humans and tethers their life to hers. She has to drink their blood, or they’ll die. Consent becomes a constant discussion; Shori at first doesn’t ask her partners to bond with her, though the first one saves her life when he finds her in the woods. She just drinks their blood and stops. Some vampires try not to use humans as pawns, while others revel in it. Vampire clans also question Shori’s existence, and why she survived the massacre that killed her family. They doubt she deserves justice due to being a genetic engineering project.
Unlike certain other vampire novels we could mention, the issues are much greyer. Octavia in Fledgling applies her knowledge of consent, of societal differences and questioned humanity to the supernatural. She acknowledges that society changes, whether we like it or not, because new people emerge.
Smurfette and Proud
I’m really happy that one female POC author became a Smurfette. Octavia Butler definitely earned that title, and her honors. I’m even happier that her books are fantastic, and that we are remembering her.
We need to learn from her. Octavia has paved the path for future POC women writers, we hope, by inserting new narratives into the mainstream. We have to find the stories only we individuals can tell, and tell them. Also we need her luck in finding people who will listen and spread the stories. If Octavia could change minds about complicity, then so can we about our chosen themes.