February 27, 2006
rips - octavia
Octavia Butler passed away over the weekend in Seattle. From what I've been able to gather, she fell (from stroke?) and hit her head, suffering a massive hemorrhage.
Butler's books were always tantalizing and difficult for me, especially the Xenogenesis series. I was amazed by the trilogy's scope, marveled at how Butler could inscribe what felt like the entire dynamic of being black in the New World into a plausible, science-fictional arc. There is a world of great black sci-fi, but I think Butler's books are the texts that most fully fleshed out the core insight of what sci-fi heads like to call afrofuturistism. Afrofuturists believe (and it is a form of belief) that only the specific formal interventions of the speculative narrative genres can accurately capture the shifting states and conditions and, yes, powers of blackness. ("Abducted by aliens, forced into slavery, secreted to a strange land and forced to participate in bizarre genetic experiments" - is that the trailer for a new X-Files movie or a page from black history?) In Butler's work the Afrofuturistic insight became solid and nodal and true, as opposed to what it had been before she crafted her amazing powerful stories: a hunch, a shadowy premonition shared by a range of people about a disconnected series of works.
The difficult part about Butler (for me, at least), always concerned in the way she treated the genetic hybrids that sat at the core of her writing. Hybridity is, for reasons that don't bear outlining here, an obsession of mine (WHAT IS B.O.G.?) and Butler had a take on it that I always found disquieting. In so much as her work imagined and re-imagined the encounter between black and white as an encounter between human and alien, I found myself occasionally recoiling from how she handled bodies with mixed parentage. There are three distinct hybrid modalities deployed in Butler, one where her hybrids seem akin to African Americans, one where her mutts seem like Americans in general, and one where her hybrids are what we commonly describe today as "mixed race." Each one of those modalities has implications and politics for me, and as Butler deftly juggled each, at times according them a place of honor, at times depicting them like a newcomer predator ravaging an ecosystem, I found myself being challenged and pushed out of my various comfort zones, no small thing considering that my default setting about such matters (for those of you who don't know me) can be basically summed up as "smug prick." Butler forced me to evaluate and reevaluate how I was reading and thinking about race, where I was suturing myself into the story. There are hundreds of books out there that have changed me, that have been absorbed into my psychic code-base, but Xenogenesis has always been grit in my mind's gears, a substance (isotope?) whose resistance to assimilation and smooth digestion produced a rendering of my own inner workings. Except for foundational works that blew my mind and educated me as a kid, I can't really think of any other writer who had the power over my thinking.
For at least 10 years I have kept track of the instructor list at the Clarion Science Fiction Writing Workshops offered in Seattle and Ann Arbor, MI. It's been a fantasy of mine to take one the workshops, and in my mind there was a very short list of writers that always made me lean a little more forward in my chair, Samuel Delany, Nalo Hopkinson, Nancy Kress, Maureen Mchugh, and, of course, Octavia Butler. I never got around to applying, and it typically never occurred to me that there wouldn't be a next year for me and the vague objects of my literary affection, be it a writer like Butler or the long unrequited love affair I've long had with my own as-yet-unmade fiction writing.