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The Late Octavia Butler:

Our own Tyler Cowen praises her science fiction writing, in Slate. I haven't read her work, but Tyler makes it sound very interesting.

Tennessean (mail):
I had not heard that Ms. Butler passed away - a real shame. I just recently read the Bloodchild stories during a CLE that turned out to be much less intriguing than expected, and I am certain I made the right call.
3.2.2006 4:45pm
bud (mail):
Steven Barnes has published a short rememberence of her on his blog; they were friends.
3.2.2006 6:37pm
E (mail):
She was one of the few writers I actively despised. There was nothing in her writing but hate and venom. No joy, no hope, no goodness at least in the few books I read before giving up on her forever.
3.3.2006 12:23am
TDPerkins (mail):
E is way over the top, but much more correct than the first poster. Steven Barnes shows a lack of judgement and emotional maturity if he appproved of her work on an epistomological level.

Octavia Butler created and promulgated many dangerous, evil memes.

She is one of the few writers to gain any prominence outside the political hard left/deep ecology movement whose writings I think can leave little doubt that if humanity could not change to suit her utopian views of perfection, she would have rather in the long run that we be extinct.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
3.3.2006 10:18am
rick:
I'm consistently surprised at how some readers can completely misconstrue an authors writings.
3.3.2006 10:36am
rick:
My last post was too snippy. What I should have said is that I'm consistently surprised at how two different readers can take completely different meanings from any one particular authors writings.
3.3.2006 10:41am
TDPerkins (mail):
"She is one of the few writers to gain any prominence outside the political hard left/deep ecology movement whose writings I think can leave little doubt that if humanity could not change to suit her utopian views of perfection, she would have rather in the long run that we be extinct."

This was the explicit theme of at least the series of books I forced myself to get through, and about 10 or 15 years ago, I remember reading an interview where she specifically endorsed that meme.

Reading her for the sake of staying current with fads in SciFf was a depressing, tooth grinding experience.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
3.3.2006 10:57am
AlexM:
Butler interviews that I have read, for example (http://www.locusmag.com/2000/Issues/06/Butler.html):


I've been around people who don't have one [conscience], and they're damned scary. And I think a lot of them are out there running major corporations! How can you do some of the things these people do if you have a conscience?


seemed to suggest that I wouldn't find her work interesting, so I never read her fiction. However, based on general exposure to the genre, Tyler Cowen's claim that she "changed science fiction" is by far too strong. She had an acknowledged niche in the field, won a few awards, and so on, but "change science fiction" the way Campbell or Heinlein did? Nope.
3.3.2006 11:36am
rick:
I can't claim to be an Octavia Butler expert, and I'm not a particularly big fan of science fiction, but I read Parable of the Sower (?) and thought it was a great book. I certainly didn't finish it thinking she'd "rather" us be extinct, but perhaps I just focused on other themes.
3.3.2006 11:46am
Luis (mail) (www):
I am a huge SF fan and have probably read several thousand SF books and stories over the past twenty-six years. I always found Butler to be, bar none, the most difficult author for me to read. I have to say that in many ways I didn't like her writing -- it was too damned disturbing. I had terrible dreams when I was reading the XENOGENESIS series in high school.

However, as I get older, I appreciate much more that her work is disturbing because it is much more challenging than most of the other SF out there, in precisely the way that Tyler claims it to be in his appreciation.

Dismissing Octavia Butler's insights as mere polemic (or, much less intelligently, as "hatred") is, I believe, a huge intellectual mistake and reveals much more about the commenter than it can about Butler. Being challenged is not the same as being hated -- which, I think, might be the central lesson Prof. Volokh is attempting to promote in his own blogging. Or at least one of them.

Octavia Butler always strove to go well beyond her readers' comfort zone, but also (I am sure) beyond her own. This sets her well apart from practically any other producer of intellectual property I am at all familiar with. We are all the poorer for her departure.
3.3.2006 11:56am
TDPerkins (mail):
Rick wrote:

"...I certainly didn't finish it thinking she'd "rather" us be extinct..."


Thinking of the interview I just read that is linked to above, and her Xenogenesis series, I really think that she is very hopeful that we will change in the way she wants, but that if we don't she feels it is inevitable and good that we expire.

Again, that's from the Xenogenesis series. Her other books may be more palatable and accepting of human nature as it is, without endorsing the idea that we need forced genetic engineering by aliens to make us more placid and for lack of a better word "communal" in nature.

Yours, TDL, ml, msl, &pfpp
3.3.2006 11:59am
Colin:
Thinking of the interview I just read that is linked to above, and her Xenogenesis series, I really think that she is very hopeful that we will change in the way she wants, but that if we don't she feels it is inevitable and good that we expire.

I haven't read that interview, and it's been a while since I read those books, but I took away a much different impression. I don't recall thinking that she thought our extinction was either inevitable or good. One of the salient points of the series, as I recall it, was the somewhat desperate nobility of those people who resisted the changes that were essentially being forced on them. I think that it's a mark of the complexity of her writing that her readers found such divergent messages in it.

But even given the subjectivity of literature, I think it's unfair to say that she "created and promulgated many dangerous, evil memes." That seems a little wild-eyed and hysterical. Also, from just the diverse reactions in this thread, it seems especially unfair to say that there is "little doubt that if humanity could not change to suit her utopian views of perfection, she would have rather in the long run that we be extinct." I don't think that your interpretation is impossible, but it seems like there is obviously quite a bit of doubt about it.
3.3.2006 1:11pm
AlexM:

I really think that she is very hopeful that we will change in the way she wants, but that if we don't she feels it is inevitable and good that we expire.


Although "guess what the author was thinking" can be a fun game, books generally stand or fall on their own merits with little regard to whether their author was a saint or a devil. If there is a good chance that a book captures an interesting facet of the world around us; or strikes a nerve that I didn't know I had; or does something really interesting with the language; or extrapolates in a plausible yet unexpected direction — then I'll probably read it at some point. Admittedly, some extraordinary statements made by the author may make it hard to take him or her seriously from that point on, like that recent revelation that James P. Hogan is now a Holocaust denier.

Having said that, Butler's interviews made her sound more like yet another "eccentric yet glib left wing feminist lesbian environmentalist literary writer", almost a parody of the species, the kind of person that would say and write platitudes like:


I'm going to read a verse or two. And keep in mind these were written early in the 1990s. But I think they apply forever, actually. This first one, I have a character in the books who is, well, someone who is taking the country fascist and who manages to get elected President and, who oddly enough, comes from Texas. And here is one of the things that my character is inspired to write about, this sort of situation. She says:

"Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery."


Granted, there may have been more to her than these interviews and quotes from her fiction suggested, but I wasn't inspired to go out and start digging.
3.3.2006 1:20pm
Colin:
However, based on general exposure to the genre, Tyler Cowen's claim that she "changed science fiction" is by far too strong. She had an acknowledged niche in the field, won a few awards, and so on, but "change science fiction" the way Campbell or Heinlein did? Nope.

That's a difficult claim to make without having read her work, isn't it? "Changing" a genre is a vary vague thing; even just having an acknowledged niche (which I think is damning her with faint praise) could change the genre. Warren Zevon had an acknowledged niche in music, and when he died I was astounded by the number of prominent musicians who paid tribute to how he had influenced their work. I think her impact on the genre would be better measured by how many authors read and were affected by her work, rather than how famous she was.

I have only read a little bit of her work myself, and none at all recently, but I wonder if the moral and ethical complexities inherent in what I have read don't have echoes in the more recent works of David Gerrold or early Iain Banks. I'm no critic, so that's nothing more than a guess.

Frankly, regardless of her influence or lack thereof, I'm a little bit flabbergasted by the denunciations on this thread:

"She was one of the few writers I actively despised. There was nothing in her writing but hate and venom. No joy, no hope, no goodness at least in the few books I read before giving up on her forever."

She "created and promulgated many dangerous, evil memes."

I suppose that's the cost of writing relatively complex literature, but golly, such harsh rhetoric. I agree that her work was challenging in many ways, but it never occurred to me before that readers would take that so negatively. I thought Luis' comment was insightful and fitting:

"Octavia Butler always strove to go well beyond her readers' comfort zone, but also (I am sure) beyond her own. This sets her well apart from practically any other producer of intellectual property I am at all familiar with. We are all the poorer for her departure."

I agree.
3.3.2006 1:30pm
AlexM:


However, based on general exposure to the genre, Tyler Cowen's claim that she "changed science fiction" is by far too strong. She had an acknowledged niche in the field, won a few awards, and so on, but "change science fiction" the way Campbell or Heinlein did? Nope.


That's a difficult claim to make without having read her work, isn't it?


There are always writers that one hasn't read, but that doesn't mean that one can't claim that they didn't change the genre that they worked in. After all, it's not like the people who did change the science fiction genre over the decades are unknown or obscure. Hamilton and Smith created space opera in the 1920s; Weinbaum came up with sympathetic aliens in the 1930s; Campbell, Heinlein and the rest of the usual suspects reinvented the genre in 1939-1941; Gold and Boucher took it elsewhere in 1950. Then there was the New Wave, the Cyberpunk-Humanist division, and so on, all of it well known and frequently repeated in encyclopedias and what not. Even supportive genre critics do not make this claim about Butler's work.


"Changing" a genre is a vary vague thing; even just having an acknowledged niche (which I think is damning her with faint praise) could change the genre.


Well, if we are talking about "subtle but potentially far reaching influences" as opposed to obvious changes in the genre, then that is conceivable and hard to comment on without first hand knowledge of her work.
3.3.2006 2:20pm
TDPerkins (mail):
Here is an excerpt from Mr. Cowen's article.

The Xenogenesis trilogy ("Dawn," "Adulthood Rites," and "Imago") is Butler's masterpiece. The Oankali, a nomadic alien species, have engineered themselves into genetic dead ends. They have refreshed themselves many times in the past through cross-planetary interbreeding. Now they are looking to take the best traits from humans by combining our genetic material with theirs, using an advanced race of tentacled breeder-beings called "ooloi." (They have a special love for our cancer genes, which they find creative.) From the Oankali point of view, humans, taken alone, are disastrously hierarchical and domineering; the new blend will be less fierce and less individualistic. When they arrive on Earth, humans have barely survived mutual destruction.


Ostensibly, our self-destructiveness makes the Oankali intervention at worst relatively morally neutral as Butler presents it.

The reader, learning that human beings are to become more like plants, nonetheless feels an impending nausea. It does not matter that the Oankali are portrayed as no less ethical, noble, or happy than the human race, and arguably as more so. It is also no comfort to recall that the human race is the product of many accumulated genetic changes from the past. We react with a pro-species, pro-status-quo bigotry. We root desperately for the humans who prefer to die out rather than merge. We suddenly revel in the destructive side of our nature. Having been led down this path, we then wonder whether we are different than bigots of times past. Time and again, Butler shows us how the different really can be disgusting, whether we like it or not. Butler was deeply invested in the disadvantaged, but her work shows suspicions of tidy pieties and political correctness.


Even Tyler seems to excuse the relatively sympathetic protrayal of the extinction of our species by forced genetic manipulation--his article draws no distinctions between what occurs naturally, what occurs by choice, and what is imposed by force. If I recall, neither does Butler. How does opposing coercion make anyone like the bigots of the past? In and of itself, how could it? Butler frankly failed at the metaphorical leap, and it was not morally courageous but morally incorrect for her to attempt it. If of course, she had any morals I could agree with, which as far as her writing goes I'm not sure.

In her work, Butler asks just how far globalization and cultural integration should go. She labels the Oankali "traders," and in Imago we learn that the human-Oankali hybrids will consume and thereby incorporate the genetic material of all of the Earth's species, much as we might eat all the food at a sumptuous banquet. But it is of cosmopolitanism—in the sense of believing that all perspectives and interests can be intermingled without great tension—that Butler's works show the greatest suspicion. Most culture is a synthetic product of multiple influences, but Butler's fiction asks whether there is any point at which we should rebel against intermingling and embrace identity for its own sake.


As if she thinks the opposition to comingling at gunpoint is like Buchannan at his worst, except then she has the actors causing forced intermingling winning, as if humanity as it is should not be here. She almost seems to think she has successfuly presented the Oankali not as choosing beings, but ones who are only a force nature which is happening to us and she's more concerned with our rections, and as also simultaneously as if the Oankali are what she dislikes about human nature which is deservedly being visited back on us. This is not hard to elide this reading from her books, it fairly jumps up and down on your desk.

The Oankali are referred to by Butler as the Oankali Traders. They are not "Traders" they are Takers. They introduce forced genetic change on us, and do not allow the procreation of unmodified humans. It is clear from Butler's several statements which, roughly speaking, concern capitalism in all its forms--she conflates trading with taking. This unsophisticated meme has an antecedent most prominently with Marxism, the idea which killed some 100 million people this last century.

Colin writes:

"One of the salient points of the series, as I recall it, was the somewhat desperate nobility of those people who resisted the changes that were essentially being forced on them"



And what is the more salient is the fact Butler has them being doomed to failure.

"I think it's unfair to say that she "created and promulgated many dangerous, evil memes." That seems a little wild-eyed and hysterical"


Tell that to the millions dead from Marx's memes. Ideas have consequences.

"I suppose that's the cost of writing relatively complex literature, but golly, such harsh rhetoric."



I actually found her work to be simplistic and predictable, on the nose, maybe not moreso than most, but certainly no better.

I do believe E was a little over the top, but what I think what I said is quite defensible in the details, and E's comments are motivated by a sense of disdain I think Butler's work well merits.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
3.3.2006 3:12pm
Colin:
AlexM,

"Well, if we are talking about 'subtle but potentially far reaching influences' as opposed to obvious changes in the genre, then that is conceivable and hard to comment on without first hand knowledge of her work."

I think that I would put her infuence somewhere between those poles, but I agree that she didn't single-handedly shifted the course of the genre. In other words, I think we're on the same page.

TDP, you said, "Tell that to the millions dead from Marx's memes. Ideas have consequences." Somehow I don't see millions of people dying because Butler wrote a fable that involved the extinction of the species. Accusing her of spreading evil ideas and calling her writing morally incorrect seems more than a little bit hysterical; calling on the ghosts of the millions of victims of Marx doesn't lend much gravity to your assessment.

You also said, in response to my comment that Butler did not necessarily present the human refuseniks in a negative way, that "what is the more salient is the fact Butler has them being doomed to failure." I don't understand your point. Why would their failure necessarily equate to the author's condemnation of their ethic? Butler's work is, to my way of thinking, not as simplistic a morality tale as you suggest; being doomed to failure doesn't mean the pro-humanists are 'wrong.' An interesting comparison would be Gordon R. Dickson's "Way of the Pilgrim," goofy ending aside, in which the human race is entirely subjugated. The hopelessness of the protagonist and the species' plight is part of the structure of the narrative; the revolution against the overwhelmingly powerful invaders is doomed to failure, but is still presented as a positive and necessary thing.

In other words, I don't think that the fact that "she has the actors causing forced intermingling winning" means, as you suggest, that the moral of the story is that "humanity as it is should not be here." I think that at the very least it was her intent to allow the reader to come to his own conclusions, and even if it wasn't, the novels are complex enough to allow that.

Of course, if her books wind up killing millions of people, I'll retract my defense of morally complex fiction and jump on the "Octavia Butler is an evil, morally incorrect, and simplistic author" bandwagon. But since I imagine that her books haven't killed more than, say, a few hundred thousand innocent people, I maintain that there is more value in her writing--completely independent of her personal politics--than you suggest.
3.3.2006 4:04pm
TDPerkins (mail):
"Somehow I don't see millions of people dying because Butler wrote a fable that involved the extinction of the species."


You don't know in what minds her thoughts might take root it in and grow, or what the hands those minds command might do. But then that hardly matters, I am describing the validity of her memes, not describing their extant consequences to date as she writes them.

That does not disparage their similarity to memes have have been just as murderous as I've said.

"I don't understand your point. Why would their failure necessarily equate to the author's condemnation of their ethic?"

Firstly she protrays them ambiguously, given their goals, I think that is telling. Simultaneously it is side-by-side with what Tyler Cowen reports to be, and I agree is, her sympathetic portrayal of the Oankali: "the Oankali are portrayed as no less ethical, noble, or happy than the human race, and arguably as more so" No. Doing what they are doing, they are acting as the worst of what humanity has done--or you and she think genocide is not a negative thing if it means changing humanity to be more plant like and not so individualistic.

According to Butler--and I think accurately portrayed by Cowen--as she writes, the genocidal Oankali are good and win, and the humans who want to preserve the species are bigoted and lose. This may strike you as a very simplistic analysis of her work, but there is nothing I have not yet seen anything that shows she thought there was more to it.

I am not familiar with Way Of The Pilgrim.

"Of course, if her books wind up killing millions of people, I'll retract my defense of morally complex fiction and jump on the "Octavia Butler is an evil, morally incorrect, and simplistic author" bandwagon."

As I mentioned, although you may be determined to tenditously assert otherwise, my views of her work are not dependent on her works directly influencing the murder of many human beings in future events. I find it somewhat enlightening as to the origins of your objections to my review of her work, that you insist the tale is morally complex.

It isn't. What is a crystal clear situation morally is presented ambiguously, but she fails to justify the ambiguity.

Yours, TDP, ml, msl, &pfpp
3.3.2006 4:45pm
Colin (mail):
"Firstly she protrays them ambiguously, given their goals, I think that is telling."

I agree that her portrayal is ambiguous. I think that's more justified than you suggest, and that the underlying issues are not as morally "crystal clear" as you suggest. But I think that at this point we are both standing on top of a large stack of subjective assumptions.

But I don't understand why you say, "Simultaneously it is side-by-side with what Tyler Cowen reports to be, and I agree is, her sympathetic portrayal of the Oankali..."

Didn't you argue yourself that she portrays the Oankali as the worst of what she sees in humanity, revisited upon the species? That the "Trader" appellation is, given the politics you attribute to her, meant to be a condemnation of them as conquerors and abusers? At the very least, doesn't the fact that her take on the Oankali can't be easily summed up or pigeonholed suggest that there is more moral complexity in the work than you give her credit for?

Too, it was never my intent to seriously suggest that your opinion is actually "dependent on her works directly influencing the murder of many human beings in future events." My comments were tongue-in-cheek. My underlying point was merely that you use terms like "morally incorrect" and even "evil" in regards to fiction that, in my mind, is much too complex to hang such absolute labels on.

Even you can't quite decide whether she meant the Oankali to be villains or saviors--are they meant to show the wickedness of imperialism or the harmony of enforced collectivism? Do they represent an ideal, or merely an inevitable evil to be resisted, or (as I think is more likely) both? I don't think it's an easy question, and you don't seem to have an answer. How can you call her ideas "evil" and "morally incorrect" so easily, without being able to pin down exactly what those ideas are?

I don't have an answer to my own question; I suspect that even if I had read those books recently, I wouldn't be able to form an opinion on her intended message without a lot of equivocation and back-and-forth. It's the nature of complex fiction; it's not only difficult to tell what the author meant, it's difficult to say whether that matters, when the work stands on its own. If I had to venture a guess as to what her alien creation was meant to represent, I would say she meant them to be both positive and negative, and the same would be true of the humanists in her stories; they're primarily tools to draw out more complex ideas, rather than monochromatic allegories in their own right.

I suppose at the root of the argument is that I don't recall a "crystal clear situation morally" in those books. What is the black-and-white dilemma that seems so simple to you? Is it just that she portrays the Oankali somewhat sympathetically? Didn't Milton treat Satan sympathetically?
3.3.2006 5:51pm
AlexM:

But since I imagine that her books haven't killed more than, say, a few hundred thousand innocent people


In Butler's defense, she wrote fairly short novels. I doubt you could kill too many people with her books. I bet there have been more serious accidents with the last volume of Harry Potter than all of her books combined!
3.3.2006 7:16pm
skeptic (mail):
I've read just enough of Butler's fiction to find her writing proficient but uncompelling and a little disagreeable. What interests me more is that she was, to my knowledge, the only science fiction writer -- certainly the first, at any rate -- to be awarded a MacArthur grant (the so-called genius grant). Considering that she was neither the most acclaimed nor the most influential nor the most daringly original figure in the field, why did the MacArthur Foundation single her out for its prestigious award? Was Butler the genre's undisputed genius? Hardly. But she happened to be a black female -- and for the politically correct souls at MacArthur, that clearly was sufficient.
3.4.2006 4:32am
AlexM:
Well, if you want to pursue that line of thought, she was also a lesbian. However, the MacArthur Foundation's official Fellows Program criteria are as follows:


The MacArthur Fellows Program awards unrestricted fellowships to talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction. There are three criteria for selection of Fellows: exceptional creativity, promise for important future advances based on a track record of significant accomplishment, and potential for the fellowship to facilitate subsequent creative work. ...

Although nominees are reviewed for their achievements, the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential.


Perhaps they thought that it was a worthwhile "investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential". If so, they must have been disappointed since Butler ran into a writer's block (likely due in part to her hypertension problems) around the time they gave her the money.
3.4.2006 10:48pm
D Lacey (mail):
I haven't read any books by Octavia Butler in quite some time. I found the Parable of the Talents (her most recent book I bought) unpleasant reading and never finished it. But when I was a teenager I very much enjoyed her books, my favorites being Kindred and Wild Seed.

I also liked the Xenogenesis trilogy. As I (over a haze of years) remember it, the aliens forcing the humans to interbreed and create a new species that was a cross of both was not portrayed from within the story as objectively a good thing or a bad thing; most of the Oankali thought it was good, most of the humans thought it was bad, most of their joint children had mixed feelings but thought it was necessary and how they came into being.

Given her earlier work I had read, my take on this was that it was first and foremost an imaginary speculation on what would really happen in such a situation with aliens of that belief system and power level. But in relating it metaphorically to some historical circumstance, what came to my mind (I had read Kindred, which was time travel where a couple from the present went into a slave-owning past Southern USA) -- was that the humans were the black slaves, and the Oankali were white slaveowners, interbreeding with their chattel forcibly. That doesn't look very well for the author thinking it was a NICE thing for them to do... I didn't get that impression at all.

Her stories often had individuals who were terrible people (the body stealer in wild seed was a prime example), but she never had entire races or cultures who were. But their cultural beliefs led them to do terrible things, all the while believing they were doing what was right. (Oankali maybe a great example of this)

Besides Kindred and Wild Seed, and the Xenogenesis series, I also liked Clay's Ark and Survivor. I recommend them with reservations to people who like that kind of thing (and "that kind of thing" has nothing to do with political sides). It's probably better to read it without getting the idea that the author is somehow using the story to metaphorically slam your beliefs... that's true in general though, not just of Octavia Butler's work.

Having been a reader of her work for most of my life, I'm a bit surprised to, only now that she has died, be finding out in Slate that she was a lesbian. There were lots of black themes in her work and it was no surprise she was black; I knew that for years. But unlike an author who was fairly well known to be black and gay like Samuel Delany, there was nothing I can remember about gay themes in her work. Was there actually any that I am simply not remembering? (I would not say that having 3 sexed aliens counts at all... Isaac Asimov and Iain Banks among many others had 3 sexed aliens, it's a semi traditional science fiction standard thing to have to show alien weirdness, I think.)
3.6.2006 12:22am