Discover a woman writer: Octavia E. Butler

This women’s history month, I’m pledging to highlight the work of women writers I’ve loved. This series is intended to show the breadth, variety and quality of women’s writing, and to challenge the notion of a narrow category of “women’s fiction.”

Sometimes sci-fi (and I recognize this is probably on a very superficial level) can feel like a very white male field to me. Maybe it’s because I’ve soaked in the stereotype that hard science is not for me, but with a few notable exceptions, I have tended (in the past) to steer away from explicitly sci-fi books, feeling as though they “weren’t for me.”

So I was somewhat skeptical when someone lent me the Xenogenesis trilogy by Octavia E. Butler. This looked super sci-fi. And in many ways this trilogy really really is. Here’s the basic plot (which has minor spoilers, so here’s where I’ll insert a break):

 Following a devastating war in which humans nearly destroyed the Earth, the survivors are whisked away to ship of the Oankali, an alien species biologically driven to “trade” (that is, mate) with life forms they encounter. Through trading the Oankali evolve. The plan is to resettle the earth, with Oankali and human offspring.

If that sounds incredibly creepy, that’s because it is. Butler does not shy away from that. The Oankali are some of the most alien, disturbing life forms I’ve encountered in fiction. But they’re not just the bad alien overlords – they also believe in the rightness of what they’re doing. They’re also able to offer intense sexual pleasure to those humans willing to “trade” with them. They form strong emotional attachments to their human mates. In other words, it’s complicated.

If you get the Lilith’s Brood collection you get all three parts of the trilogy in one edition: Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago. One of the best things about reading the series together is watching Lillith’s arc – in the first book she is alone in an alien world, a pioneer. I don’t want to spoil the books too far – but a lot  happens to Lilith. And a lot doesn’t. Throughout she’s a fascinating character, complicated, and enduring through intolerable situations. Her narrative thread carried the series for me, even as she receded somewhat in the second and third books.

This complexity is what so interested me about Butler’s writing. One of the strengths of science fiction is its allegorical potential, and Butler exploits this potential to the maximum. There are deeply philosophical questions at stake here, about choice / consent / autonomy in the context of limited options. As the trilogy progresses questions of colonization, complicity and resistance move to the fore. Several months after reading this book I’m still struggling to untangle what I think happened and who was in the right – when of course the answer is perhaps, there is no clear right and wrong, no good nor evil.

As one of the few successful women of colour in science fiction, Octavia E. Butler challenged my assumptions about what science fiction was or had to be. It’s good for us, sometimes, to be jolted out of a genre boundaries. I’m not familiar enough with the science fiction canon to know how widely read or talked about Butler is, but I hope it’s LOTS. She deserves to be read and spoken about widely, both within sci-fi circles, and without.

6 thoughts on “Discover a woman writer: Octavia E. Butler

  1. Lauren Simonis

    I absolutely love Octavia Butler! I’ve read Kindred and the first of the trilogy in college for class. But her writing is just so wonderful that I plan to read more of her stuff!

  2. Glaiza

    I enjoy some scifi but there are so many complex and amazing stories by female science fiction writers that I have yet read. I’ll definitely check out her books the next time I drop by the library.

      1. Glaiza

        Definitely! The only other female scifi writers I’ve read include Marge Piercy (Body of Glass a.k.a He, She and It – an amazing novel but I think Piercy is better known for her historical fiction work which I haven’t read), Ursula Le Guin, Nancy Kress and Margaret Atwood (although she prefers the term speculative fiction because of the stereotypical associations around science fiction.)

      2. Glaiza

        I just read Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower and you were right about the complex and enduring heroines in her stories! I talked a little bit about the book on the blog but I definitely need to read more of her books because there is something engrossing about them.

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