Tome Raider: Viva Octavia

Why is Butler still known as that black, female science fiction writer?

Any writer would be thrilled to have achieved the kind of career success Octavia Butler had. Her best-selling work, 1979's Kindred, which followed a black woman who traveled back in time to visit her white male relative, sold over 250,000 copies. She was the first genre writer to win a MacArthur Fellowship (in 1995), and she also won a Lifetime Achievement Award from PEN.

So why is Butler, who lived in Lake Forest Park until her death last year, still known as that black, female science fiction writer? For starters, she had little company. Among the few: Nalo Hopkinson,author of The New Moon's Arms. She was supposed to be touring right now with Butler (whose 2005 book, Fledgling, has been recently released in paperback). Instead, Hopkinson will be reading at an Octavia Butler tribute this week at the Central Library, alongside sci-fi cohorts Nisi Shawl and Vonda McIntyre.

Hopkinson estimates that the ratio of male tofemale sci-fi authors is "getting to half. But when it comes to people of color, not so much." "Look at the über-story," she says, speaking from her home in Toronto: "It's to get in the ship, go somewhere foreign, and colonize the natives. You can see why we would have issues with working within a genre like that."

Butler's way to work around these conventions was to simply not think about them and write the stories with sci-fi elements that she was interested in, as a vehicle to discuss racism and equality. She credited her science education with sparking her interest in science fiction, but her works weren't about the physical science of craving blood and becoming a vampire (a theme in Fledgling). Instead, works like Fledgling gained their traction and depth by exploring the relationships between humans and Ina—the race we know as vampires. This emphasis on interspecies interactions, hierarchies, and the emotions they evoke anchored Butler's works more firmly in social science than physical science.

"If you're interested in writing about social change, it's a wonderful genre to get into," Hopkinson says, adding that Butler's presence helped her see that the "water over there [in the sci-fi world] wasn't any colder than it is anywhere else."

Hopkinson observes that many books written by black authors with fantastic elements—works that could be considered science fiction—often end up shelved in the "African-American" section. Even press materials for Hopkinson's new book name-drop How Stella Got Her Groove Back. Walter Mosley wrote in a New York Times article that the market for black writers has only recently begun to look beyond realist stories documenting the experience of being black in America. Thanks in part to front-runners like Butler, "Within the next five years I predict there will be an explosion of science fiction from the black community," he wrote. Unfortunately, he made that prediction in 1999.

Karla Starr

 
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