Octavia Butler and the Question of Diversity in Sci-Fi

For another great take on the issue of women authors in the sci-fi canon, Ian Sales has a well-written guest post over at the Little Red Reviewer.

Sci-Fi Month is more than halfway over, and to be perfectly honest, I feel that I’m not getting as much out of it as I’d thought. It’s mostly me, since I could’ve set a more aggressive posting schedule for myself instead of limiting my posts to only twice a week. But I had a feeling that I would burn out if I set a higher reading/posting goal, and hey, if you’ve been reading me and my blog, you know that I’d rather ramble on for a couple of thousand words once in a while rather than post short segments more frequently.

I’ve been getting a lot of great sci-fi title suggestions from various commenters, and from the various top-10 or definitive sci-fi book lists that have been posted by other bloggers. They all look interesting and I’m looking forward to reading as many of them as I can get my hands on, but one thing that I’ve noticed (and again, this is no fault of the people giving the suggestions) is how so many of the authors skewed male and white. And while I’ve nothing against white male authors (many of my favorite authors are white males), I wanted to learn about and highlight someone who doesn’t typically fit the preconceptual image of SF author.

Octavia Butler was born on June 22, 1947 in Pasadena, California. Like many of us sci-fi fans, she was shy and got into sci-fi and writing stories to “escape loneliness and boredom.” One of her favorite anecdotes recalls how she, as a child, atched a terrible movie called “Devil Girl from Mars,” and thought that she could do a lot better than that.

In her career, she published thirteen novels and a collection of short stories, which includes the Hugo and Nebula award winning story, “Bloodchild.” She was also the recepient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, a lifetime achievement award in writing from PEN, as well as other writing awards. She passed away in 2006 at the age of 58.

To prepare for today’s post, I read Bloodchild and Other Stories. I’ve obviously never read anything by Octavia Butler before, and I was impressed, horrified, and awestruck at the power of her stories. The titular story tells of a relationship between an centipede-like alien and the human family that it cares for. The human race has been conquered by the aliens, and most humans are barely treated as livestock by their respective masters. In this instance, though, the alien Tlic is a caring, seductive master. It’s an interesting and different approach to the alien-human story and has been the subject of discussion between sf fans and the academic community.

As a member of academia, it’s easy to look at Butler’s story and to then see the parallelisms between the world she created and the current social reality. The situation in “Bloodchild” has been compared to the situation of slavery in the United States; after all, here is a master/slave situation, with the master thinking that he is loving and taking care of his people, yet forgetting the fact that he is still lording power of these same people as long as they are under his care. Even under the kindest master, if you are a slave, you remain a slave. However, in reading interviews and conversations with the author, Octavia Butler really dislikes these interpretations of her work. Her novel, Kindred, focuses on a woman who time travels to slavery times; and Butler insists that unless she specifically says that her work is about slavery, we shouldn’t think that it is.

Whether or not I agree with that (I come from a long line of English majors, and we always pull out the “Reader Response Theory” card when an author says something like that) is not what I wanted to focus on, though. As reader of science fiction, it saddens me that voices and stories such as and like hers still aren’t mainstream, even in this future of 2013 that we live in. It saddens me that people got upset when they realized the Rue was black. It saddens me that the majority of the crew of Star Trek Into Darkness was Caucasian, including Khan. These are the mainstream, popular works of sci-fi that even non-fans watch and consume, and the creators and the audience don’t want to see anybody with skin darker than a tan. Is this what sci-fi and its infinite possibilities have in store? Are even the aliens going to appear as blonde and blue-eyed? (Though according to Pittacus Lore’s Lorien Legacy series, they probably are.)

Maybe I’m being unfair and only cherry-picking out examples where poor decisions were made by Hollywood execs and that doesn’t really reflect the general feeling of sci-fi readers and fans. I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m feeling jaded when I keep reading and seeing the same things and stories. Sci-fi technically opens up the universe but what are the stories about? Both Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers are about humans fighting a war against alien bugs — so basically it’s a war story, only with a different, non-human enemy. I mean, is this the paradox of sci-fi: that in the end, the story will always go back to human issues and concerns, because well, it’s created by a human?

I apologize if this post has diverged into directions that weren’t part of the original intent, that is, to write a profile for the great Octavia Butler. I did just want to write down what’s been concerning me, and I figured that this space is as good a place as any.

This post is part of #RRSciFiMonth hosted by RinnReads

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5 thoughts on “Octavia Butler and the Question of Diversity in Sci-Fi

  1. When I choose a title to read I usually do it knowing nothing about the author: it’s the story that I go for, not necessarily who created it. Obviously after you’ve read book by a certain author and enjoyed it, you seek out more of their stuff and maybe find out something about them. Or maybe that’s just me. There are plenty of big name female science fiction authors, but it never occurred to me to seek them out because they were female. I just read them because they wrote great stories. Anne McCaffrey (I love her Pern novels), Julian May (The Pliocene Exile books are great), and more recently Octavia Butler and her Lilith’s Brood trilogy (which sounds like a reworking of Bloodchild on some levels, I’ll have to check the stories out) are all female authors who write great science fiction stories. All of the series that I’ve mentioned will represent a significant time sink if you read all of the novels within them, which makes it a little difficult to recommend them if someone isn’t looking for a major commitment.

    • I think most people do the same as you do, and even when I recommend books, I think about the story and whether the person to whom I’m recommending the book to will enjoy it.

      But at the same time, you seem like an open-minded and expansively-thinking reader. You seek out various authors and stories and storytelling methods. My impression of hardcore SF fans (of which there are probably less than mainstream fans now) are those who stick to the conventions of the old guard, and if you deviate from this pre-established formula, you’re a ‘fake’ SF fan (very much like the anime/geek fandom and the fake geek girl issue blah blah).

      Maybe using the term ‘diversity’ is too politically charged — I should’ve used ‘variety’ probably? As much as I appreciate everyone’s enthusiasm about Star Trek/Star Wars/Doctor Who/et al, I maybe was expecting something more and/or different. Sorry, I’m also being extra-complainy today.

      • No need to apologize, I like hearing about your experience getting into sci-fi. Part of the old guard stuff is the same no matter what fandom you’re trying to approach. I thought about that a lot when I was starting to think about writing about anime (you can tell that I’m a horrible procrastinator, can’t you). You can’t talk about THIS until you’ve seen THAT, your opinion about THIS is invalid if you don’t know about the super obscure doujinshi that it’s based on. Some of that is valid if you’re trying to make certain statements in your writing, but in general it’s crap. I’m interested in your experience with the material, seeing the expression on your face (or the face of your writing) when THAT happened. Sometimes it’s nice to hear opinions from people who don’t have a ton of preconceived notions about something, and sometimes you want a scholar’s take. All of it has a place.

        As for me, I’m a terrible fan in general, hahaha. I love content and will go wherever I need to get it, and I don’t see the value in trying to keep fandom exclusive. I started with epic fantasy and grabbed things that looked interesting in B. Dalton’s Fantasy / sci-fi section, and for the most part I discovered the things that I enjoy on my own. My dad read a bit of sci-fi, but he never really recommended books to me. Thinking back on it, I’m not sure why he didn’t, unless he thought that most of the stuff he was reading was inappropriate for ten year old me. Boy did I lend him some racy stuff over the years….

        I think that’s enough of me talking for now, just know that I’m here to get YOUR experience, and not to see how well you fit into any sort of mold.

  2. Pingback: Octavia Butler and Diversity in Sci-Fi | Tokyo Jupiter | Jesse Rice-Evans

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