Octavia E. Butler
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Octavia E. Butler

Gerry Canavan

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Octavia E. Butler

Gerry Canavan

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"I began writing about power because I had so little, " Octavia E. Butler once said. Butler's life as an African American woman--an alien in American society and among science fiction writers--informed the powerful works that earned her an ardent readership and acclaim both inside and outside science fiction.

Gerry Canavan offers a critical and holistic consideration of Butler's career. Drawing on Butler's personal papers, Canavan tracks the false starts, abandoned drafts, tireless rewrites, and real-life obstacles that fed Butler's frustrations and launched her triumphs. Canavan departs from other studies to approach Butler first and foremost as a science fiction writer working within, responding to, and reacting against the genre's particular canon. The result is an illuminating study of how an essential SF figure shaped themes, unconventional ideas, and an unflagging creative urge into brilliant works of fiction.

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CHILDFINDER (1947–1971)

Published Works
“Crossover” (1971)
“Childfinder” (completed 1971, published 2014)
Octavia Estelle Butler was born June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, California, to Laurice and Octavia M. Butler. She’d had four brothers, all of whom died before she was born. Though she talked about this aspect of her biography in interviews only rarely, the fact of these lost siblings hung over her life, as did the very early loss of her father, who died while she was still a toddler. “I often wonder what kind of person I would have been if my brothers had lived,” she told Charles Rowell in 1997. “I wonder what kind of person I would have been if they had lived and if I had had more of the society of kids when I was a kid. But, anyway, since I didn’t have that, I made my own society in the books [I read] and in the stories that I told myself.”1 As for her father, his absence haunted her, too, both in her sense that she felt she grew up not understanding a male perspective and in her fascination across her fiction with parents “not being able to raise their own children.”2
She was raised primarily by her mother and grandmother, in a household where money was often quite tight. Butler and her mother were close—being able to help her mother financially following her MacArthur award in 1995 was one of the high points of Butler’s life—though like many parents and children, they were able to become significantly closer only once they no longer lived under the same roof.3 She considered her mother (and her grandmother, and her great-grandmother) as inspirations for surviving the harsh world of poverty and racial prejudice into which they were thrust; she spoke poignantly of the sense of inferiority that had always plagued her mother, who was pulled out of school at age ten to work. This respect was a hard-learned lesson, one that came too late. Butler recalled with shame looking down on her mother’s work as a housecleaner when she was young, and hurting her mother badly with her scorn, something she deeply regretted as an adult: “I didn’t have to leave school when I was ten, I never missed a meal, always had a roof over my head, because my mother was willing to do demeaning work and accept humiliation.” Many of Butler’s most-beloved heroines would be women quite like her mother, women who struggled and compromised not because they were “frightened or timid or cowards” but who made the best of no-win situations because “they were heroes.”4 Her mother’s support was crucial in other ways as well: somehow finding the money for her daughter’s first typewriter or her trip to the Clarion science fiction writers’ workshop, even as Octavia M. was unable to quite affirm or approve (or understand) her daughter’s choice to pursue writing as a career.
Her mother called her “Junie,” but she was “Estelle” to nearly everyone else—a name that lived on even when she became known internationally as “Octavia,” represented in the middle initial she insisted be included in her name in all her publications. Looking back on her childhood from the perspective of adulthood, Butler would describe herself as solitary and lonely; extremely, almost cripplingly shy; and a dreamer. From as young as age four she spent a great deal of time alone telling herself stories; she began writing them down, she said, only when she discovered that she was beginning to forget some of her favorites.5 Her earliest stories were animal fantasies, usually about horses who could change their shape and “made fools of the men who came to catch [them].”6 (In an 1970s interview with Jeffrey M. Elliot, intended for Negro History Bulletin but published, partially, elsewhere, she describes one origin for these fugitive horses: an early trip to a carnival where she realized the ponies were being terribly abused.7) But the focus of her writing changed completely in her adolescence, the night she watched a late-night B-movie called Devil Girl from Mars. “I saw it when I was about 12 years old,” she told an audience at MIT in 1994, “and it changed my life.” Butler’s characteristically ironic and self-deprecating narrative of her thought process watching this movie concedes an early understanding of SF as a degraded genre, filled with plot holes and clichés:
As I was watching this film, I had a series of revelations. The first was that “Geez, I can write a better story than that.” And then I thought, “Gee, anybody can write a better story than that.” (Laughter/Applause) And my third thought was the clincher: “Somebody got paid for writing that awful story.” (Applause) So I was off and writing, and a year later I was busy submitting terrible pieces of fiction to innocent magazines.8
And so she began, writing that night the first of the short stories that would dominate her teenage imagination and would ultimately come to make up the spine of her Patternist universe.
In her MIT talk (and in others like it) Butler sought to differentiate the raw narrative badness of Devil Girl from Mars’s plotting with the free space of the imagination opened up in the 1960s by the possibility of new worlds and new histories. As she told an interviewer in 2006: “I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.”9 This wide-open horizon, she says elsewhere, was so attractive to her in part because of her sense that, as a “little ‘colored’ girl in that era of conformity and segregation [ … ] my real future looked bleak.” In response the young Octavia “fantasized living impossible, but interesting lives—magical lives in which I could fly like Superman, communicate with animals, control people’s minds”—all three of which would later go on to structure key moments of pleasure in the otherwise bleak Patternist series.10
Crucially—and characteristically—the adult Butler came to understand this sense of unconstrained possibility quite dialectically; she suggests in the MIT talk that throughout the 1960s both science fiction and “science” more generally were hopelessly imbricated in the neocolonial politics of the nationstate, from Devil Girl’s Mars-Needs-Men! send-up of imperial fantasy to a Space Race inseparably bound up in Cold War paranoia about “those evil Russians.” Still, the dreams of empire and widespread national paranoia were good for something; it at least made the wide-ranging speculations of SF “OK [ … ] because prior to this, there had been the idea that comic books and science fiction could rot your brains.”11 She especially adored The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, with a crush on William Shatner secretly recorded in her diaries using codenames (a common practice for her);12 the Huntington even has among its papers a Star Trek fan fiction composed sometime between her late teens and the sale of her first novel,13 and she watched Star Trek avidly as an adult when the franchise returned to TV in the late 1980s and 1990s.
But Butler’s early fantasies were most strongly influenced by the reading she did at home and at the library. She was a voracious reader, especially of science fiction, ecstatically consuming whatever she could get her hands on. First it was the stories she found in magazines at the grocery store, like Amazing and Fantastic and Galaxy; she would purchase a magazine or two if she had the money, or simply read the stories as her mother shopped if she did not.14 As soon as she was allowed out of the “romper room” of children’s literature at the library, she turned to novels. She read Heinlein, Sturgeon, Herbert, Asimov, Bradbury, all the well-known writers of Golden Age SF, and internalized their assumptions about the universe and about human potentiality; many of her later stories would retain the traces of these writers, even as she added new favorites like John Brunner, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Suzy McKee Charnas. An avid collector of comics, she was especially fascinated by texts about supermen, including the original, Superman himself;15 she also adored the animal stories of Felix Salten, especially Bambi’s Children, a book she admired and thought about across her life.
A particular early favorite, not so well-known today as some of the other names, was Zenna Henderson, whose works thematically reflected Butler’s intense sense of being different, and alienated, from the people around her;16 many years later, struggling with her drafts of Parable of the Trickster, she would recall a slogan from Henderson’s novels, “Different is dead.” She would buy used copies of Henderson’s Pilgrimage (1961) and give them to her friends, in search of someone to discuss the books with—“loaning them,” she told Veronica Mixon in an Essence interview in 1979, to friends she thought “might be susceptible.” She felt Henderson’s novels appealed almost universally to young girls; she would later try the same trick with Dune, she said, with much less success.17 Henderson’s novels were focused primarily on “The People,” mostly beneficent aliens with telekinetic and telepathic abilities who live in secret exile among human beings on Earth after a catastrophe destroyed their home world; it isn’t hard to see their impact on her stories of the much more sinister Patternists (who, though biologically human, live in hiding in mainstream society) as well as the “Missionaries” of Survivor (who flee to other planets after the catastrophe of the Patternists destroys human civilization on Earth).
The earliest versions of these stories—available now in the Butler archives at the Huntington, in the very composition notebooks she wrote them in decades ago—typically concerned a young girl (plainly a stand-in for young Estelle herself) who is visited by a UFO from Mars in the middle of the night and taken around the solar system by the ship’s occupant, the dashing and romantic “Flash.” Most of these stories revolve around the adventures of “Flash” and the girl, renamed “Silver Star,” though the reader of her later books is immediately drawn to the presence of a character named “Doro,” the shifty and duplicitous “first protector of Sol.”18 In these early stories Butler worked out many of the assumptions about telepathy, and about power, that would ultimately drive the Patternist books she would begin to publish nearly two decades later; while the setting shifts from the solar system to a postapocalyptic Earth, many of the characters were retained without significant changes, including not just Doro but also Coransee, Flash himself (renamed Teray in the published Patternmaster) and Silver Star (who ultimately becomes the healer Amber in Patternmaster, as well as the Ur-template for any number of other Butler heroines to come). (In a quiet suggestion of her lifelong fidelity to these childhood fantasies, in the early 2000s her private email address would be [email protected].)19 Almost literally everything Butler would ever write spiraled out of those early stories, which can be networked together into a singular whole, almost into a kind of Butlerian “mythos” (something like the supernarrative frameworks used by Asimov and Lovecraft). Butler constantly adapted and remixed her own fiction, especially to rescue material that didn’t work in its original context.
Nor are the stories purely juvenile, despite her age and relative unsophistication. In many cases they explored dark and disturbing—and certainly adult—themes. Early on in the Flash series (1961, when Butler is fourteen) she writes of Silver Star being wed to Flash in a sadomasochistic Martian marriage ceremony that seems to involve extreme subjugation, even literal enslavement (including branding with a ceremonial knife). In a strong anticipation of several of her later novels, the character seems utterly in thrall to Flash, perhaps even being manipulated in some way by his powers and unable to freely or fully consent; the character’s first impulse is to run, until she hears his spoken command to stop resisting.20 It is perhaps not surprising that when Butler listed her own early influences, she frequently included alongside Golden Age science fiction writers “some interesting pornography I found in someone’s trash”—or that she recalls being accused of receiving adult help with her writing because she wrote about such adult topics: “In other words, I sometimes wrote dirty stories.”21 In another early fragment, this one from around 1967—seemingly an experiment in erotic writing—she describes a truly horrifying world of legalized sex slavery, narrated nonchalantly and with extremely explicit language in the first person by a girl whose entry into this world begins at age six, after an attack by her male babysitter; in still another, “Hope”, circa 1960, a young girl in a concentration camp during the Holocaust is forced to trade sex for the lives of her family members.22 Writing was an extremely erotic practice for Butler across her life—she saw her sex drive and her writing drive as very tightly linked23—and from these early stories we can already see the extent to which the erotic, as a category, would be for her bound up very tightly with domination, submission, and the sometimes very radical blurring of consent. Much of what we get in the published work actually turns out to be a somewhat sanitized version of her original ideas, especially when we trace those ideas back through the de...

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Citation styles for Octavia E. Butler
APA 6 Citation
Canavan, G. (2016). Octavia E. Butler ([edition unavailable]). University of Illinois Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/2383093/octavia-e-butler-pdf (Original work published 2016)
Chicago Citation
Canavan, Gerry. (2016) 2016. Octavia E. Butler. [Edition unavailable]. University of Illinois Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/2383093/octavia-e-butler-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Canavan, G. (2016) Octavia E. Butler. [edition unavailable]. University of Illinois Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/2383093/octavia-e-butler-pdf (Accessed: 15 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Canavan, Gerry. Octavia E. Butler. [edition unavailable]. University of Illinois Press, 2016. Web. 15 Oct. 2022.