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An Octavia Butler Reading Pathway

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Teresa Preston

Staff Writer

Since 2008, Teresa Preston has been blogging about all the books she reads at Shelf Love. She supports her book habit by working as a magazine editor at a professional association in the Washington, DC, area, which is (in)conveniently located just a few steps from a used bookstore. When she’s not reading or editing, she’s likely to be attending theatre, practicing yoga, watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer again, or doting on her toothless orange cat, Anya. Twitter: @teresareads

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.

Kindred by Octavia ButlerStart with … Kindred.

This is where I started with Butler, and of all her books that I’ve read, I think it has the widest appeal. Published in 1979, Kindred is the story of Dana, a modern-day black woman who is suddenly finds herself whisked back in time to a pre-Civil War plantation. There she meets her ancestors, both black and white. Now, she has to figure out how to survive in the past and in the present. The book tackles the complexity of the relationship between enslaved people and those who claimed ownership of them. And it’s a good story. Because the science fiction element is confined to the mysterious time travel that makes the story go, it’s a book that even those who don’t enjoy science fiction can enjoy. (It’s similar to Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad in that respect.)

Parable of the Sower CoverThen Move on to … Parable of the Sower

The first of Butler’s two Parable novels, Parable of the Sower is the story of Lauren Oya Olamina who lives in Los Angeles in the 2020s. Climate change has made basic resources scarce, and most people live at the mercy of the few corporations who have jobs and money to offer. Lauren starts the book in relative safety in a gated community, but her world gradually falls apart. Born with a special gift (and sometimes curse) of empathy, she clings to an idea called Earthseed, which develops into a religion based on the idea of God as change. It’s a remarkable book about hope and survival and the power of vulnerability. And it’s the lead-in to an even better book.

Lauren’s story continues in Parable of the Talents

When people talk about prescient fiction, this is the book that springs to my mind. Published in 1998, it’s alarming how close we are to the trajectory Butler lays out here. Lauren has created a new community called Acorn built on the Earthseed ideals. For a time, everything seems idyllic within Acorn, even as the world outside continues falling apart. But then the Christian America party’s presidential candidate gets elected under the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Their first order of business is to round up and reeducate anyone who is different. That includes the people of Acorn. The chilling thing is how they’re able to keep the persecution and torture just far enough out of sight to keep the masses ignorant of what’s going on.

But as terrifying as it is, there’s some hope. This is a book where institutions can be manipulated, but they can also, ultimately, work for the people’s benefit. It’s a long and horrifying journey, though. One I’d prefer to stop in its tracks as early as possible.

And finally, there’s Fledgling

Butler’s final novel is a fascinating take on vampires. The main character, Shori, is an Ina, a species with sensitivity to sun, a youthful appearance (Shori looks to be about 10 but is actually in her 50s), and reliance on human blood for sustenance. When the book begins, Shori has no understanding of who or what she is, and we are educated in Ina ways structures along with her. The book examines racial, sexual, familial, and societal structures, putting all of them up for harsh examination. There’s a lot in this book that might make readers uncomfortable, particularly given Shori’s appearance as pre-teen girl. I, however, appreciate that Butler was willing to dig into the discomfort. And, like her other books, it’s a great story, even without the complex ideas behind it.