Reading Octavia Butler

Like many good things, I came to Octavia Butler’s writing late in life. Two weeks ago as a matter of fact. Two glorious weeks ago. Of course, I had heard about her work, heard her mentioned by feminist writers and scifi aficionados. Taking so long to seek out her books can only be attributed to my shocking talent for making lists then losing them for months or years. Thank goodness I finally rediscovered the list that included her name among must reads!

I chose to begin with Mind of My Mind because the premise is so much like (on the surface) a story I’ve had on the back burner since 2009. In this unassuming little novella lives the tale of an immortal who’s spent centuries developing a “breeding program” from which he hopes to gain a powerful telepathic descendant. I read the book jacket and thought, okay, okay. Let’s see how she did this.

What she did left me speechless for days. I read it cover to cover in 2 1/2 days—finishing only took me that long because the pages were yellowed and the font tended to get tinier and blurrier the longer I read. I will be requesting that the library get a newer copy for the sake of their readers’ eyes. Poor original print choices aside, wow. Wow.

Most admirably, the ins and outs of Butler’s premise doesn’t need a definitive explanation. Her presentation of character, of spoken and internal dialogue is so effortless that no question of plausibility can arise. I didn’t crave a detailed origin story for Doro, in fact, giving the whys and wherefores of his abilities would have ruined the story. What the author did was create a situation, a group of characters that made me want to know what was going to happen next. Even that question of what could possibly happen next was subtle but still powerful enough to drive me on. 

Just today I learned that Mind of My Mind is a sequel. I did not need the prequel in order to understand this story. Isn’t that beautiful?

Her language is so straight forward that blurbs and reviews go on and on about simplicity. We’re so accustomed to scifi being packed with technological, ideological, sciencing science that straight forward readable language has been deemed simple. Scifi expectations aside, I’ve read enough of everything and written enough of my own stuff to know that this kind of effortlessness on the page is rare because it’s just damn near impossible to produce. The work she must have put into developing her style!

It’s easy to forget, or to not even think about, the effort an author puts into bringing their work to the world. Years of it. Practice and frustration and self-tutoring and try try again. Octavia Butler worked. And oh my giddy aunt did it pay off!

Book two for me was Kindred. (Finished in four hours.)  And again, wow. Besides the straight forwardness of language and effortless style of writing that leaves no need for questions of how or why any of this could possibly happen, the author manages to give insight into one of humankind’s own monsters.

In this story Butler depicts perfectly the mysterious dichotomies of love and hate, crippling fear and assumed power, cunning and obvious insanity that allows one group of humans to hold another captive. The slave owning, killing, torturing, loving ancestor of Kindred’s protagonist epitomizes the men who took for the sake of taking and made up all sorts of self-righteous bullshit reasons to keep on doing it.

Notice I use the word allows above. I choose that because it still happens. Men like Rufus existed long before the slave trade came to America and they exist today. The crimes they commit just change window dressings from time to time. This story is powerful on so many levels it may take me years to pinpoint each. It may take me that long just to be able to adequately describe the fierceness of the protagonist, Dana.

Besides that gorgeous straight forward language that manages to build perfectly formed, utterly plausible characters and unquestionable situations, Butler brings us fierce women capable of dealing with shit the world throws at them. In an interview back in 2000, Butler said the black feminist characters in her stories “behave as if they have no limitations”. I love that. I love that she puts together fictional situations where the real dangers of our world exist but the women in the stories react as they should, not as they could.

Fast Forward: Octavia Butler Interview, 2000

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