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.
Science Fiction Short Story Collections by Authors of Color
This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler's birthday. See all the posts here. Like so many fantastic genre writers before and since, Octavia Butler got her start when she sold the short story Crossover. Short story publishing has often provided authors of marginalized backgrounds with a better chance to get off the ground. Publishing a novel takes a greater commitment of time and money, so companies are more hesitant to pull the trigger on unknown authors with "non-traditional" backgrounds and stories. And yet, some of the most iconic works of fiction are only a few...
Fear and Butler in America
This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler's birthday. See all the posts here. I spent most of my life afraid of Octavia Butler. A 1988 copy of Kindred sat on my bookshelf for years. It traveled across the country with me. Twice. Actually, I’ve had two copies; I traded in the one I had when I found an older version with a more interesting cover. I sort of knew what it was about. Something involving a black woman from the present traveling back to the Antebellum United States. I knew it...
Fierce: The Short Fiction of Octavia Butler
This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler's birthday. See all the posts here. Fierce. That was my reaction when I read the work of Octavia Butler for the first time. This is a woman to be reckoned with. I don't say that just because she is a black woman writing in a genre that is dominated by white men - even more so than literature as a whole - and that is nothing if not impressive. I say it because she does something with her writing that so many authors attempt...
A Smurfette in Science Fiction and Fantasy: Octavia’s Legacy
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...
LUMINESCENT THREADS: Knowing Octavia Butler Through a Community That Loves Her
This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler's birthday. See all the posts here. Do you often write dead letters - that you pen down in your journal on nights when you’ve been defeated - to your favourite author? I have done this, and I’m sure, dear Reader, that you have too. We have all bared our secrets and mysteries to our favourite authors at some point. A good thing about this habit is, of course, that at some point, brilliant people like Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal might want to consolidate and...
Is it Possible to Misread Octavia Butler?
This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler's birthday. See all the posts here. "Bloodchild" is one of Octavia Butler's most haunting, disturbing, and memorable stories, and is also one of the greatest things she ever wrote. And I know that I am not alone in having completely misread the story and entirely missed what Butler had accomplished. The titular tale in Butler's one and only short story collection, "Bloodchild" describes a future where humanity has developed a complicated relationship with a race of insect-like creatures known as the Tlic. The Tlic chooses...
Why Octavia E. Butler is Essential SciFi Genre Reading
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...
Writers Inspired by Octavia Butler
This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler's birthday. See all the posts here. Octavia Butler inspired many writers -- especially writers of color -- by showing them that they could be writers, that there was a place for their fiction. That their dreams were worthy of following. These writers' stories about Octavia Butler's influence shows how important the Own Voices movement is in publishing. We need books written by black women, with black women on the cover, prominently displayed on bookshelves. We needed them yesterday, but today will have to do. Thankfully, for...
Science Fiction That Isn’t Quite; or, Books to Read if You Loved KINDRED
This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler's birthday. See all the posts here. My first significant memory of Octavia Butler is from college, when I was in a class about representations and intersections of race and sexuality, and we read her Kindred. Kindred is a strange, beautiful, harrowing, painful book in which a black woman in the contemporary U.S. find herself repeatedly and inexplicably drawn back in time to an antebellum plantation. For me, the “inexplicably” was so important that, when a friend in the class described the book as “science...
Discovering Octavia Butler’s FLEDGLING And Rediscovering Genre Fiction
This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of Octavia Butler's birthday. See all the posts here. I discovered Octavia Butler because of Betty Smith. Really! Ok, so what happened was: I read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn many, many, many times, for the obvious reasons. It was about a girl who loved to read, and while my family was not as poor as Francie’s we were not well-off. We were both Irish! (Well, I’m a quarter, but it counts in my head.) And, like Francie, I often spent hours and hours in my local...
5 Science Fiction and Fantasy Women of Color Authors to Read After Octavia Butler
Already read everything by the majestic Octavia Butler? In honor of her birthday, check out these other science fiction and fantasy women of color authors who are writing innovative, mind-blowing novels today. N.K. Jemisin Honestly, if you’re a fan of Octavia Butler and you haven’t read N.K. Jemisin yet, where have you been? Since the publication of her debut novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms in 2010, Jemisin’s ground-breaking, unique fantasy novels have only been getting better. To date she has three series to check out: the Inheritance trilogy, the Dreamblood series, and the Broken Earth series, the third novel of...
An Octavia Butler Reading Pathway
This is one of numerous posts written today at the Riot in celebration of the birthday of Octavia Butler. See all the posts here. Today at Book Riot, we're celebrating Octavia Butler day. If you're not already a Butler fan, we hope that our posts have piqued your interest! If you're interested in reading Octavia Butler's work but don't know where to start, this post is for you! These books will give you a great introduction to Butler's writing. Start with ... Kindred. This is where I started with Butler, and of all her books that I've read, I think it...