Octavia Butler's Lasting Impact

Commentator Lester Spence remembers Octavia Butler, the author who introduced him to science-fiction writing and convinced him the genre wasn't just for white audiences. Butler died February 24 after a fall near her Seattle home. Spence is an assistant professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University.

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ED GORDON, host:

The literary world mourned the loss of Octavia Butler, a writer whose numerous science-fiction novels introduced the genre to millions of black readers. Commentator Lester Spence remembers the author who showed him blacks and literature have no boundaries.

LESTER SPENCE reporting: Like most black boys in the 70s and early 80s I grew up on a steady diet of Japanese monster movies, Chinese Kung Fu films, Saturday morning cartoons, superhero comic books, and a constant stream of science fiction and fantasy novels. And by the time I got to high school, though I read stories like Of Mice and Men and Romeo and Juliet because I had to for class, it was the novels of the science fiction giants, Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Arthur C. Clarke, that kept me up at night until my eyes strained.

But as I got older, I realized there was something missing in the science fiction I was reading; it did not generate the same enthusiasm in me because of the lack of black authors. Every now and then, I wonder what it would read like if someone like me were writing. Someone who'd grown up reading the classics, but was also exposed to hip-hop music, to Ralph Ellison, to James Baldwin, to Nikky Giovanni.

I realize now what I've been looking for is a younger version of Octavia Butler. Butler, who passed away February 24, was one of the few African-American, science-fiction writers in the business and to say she was a genius, one of the greats, is a sincere understatement.

Since she came to the forefront with her work Kindred, first published in 1979, she has transformed the genre. The central hook of Kindred is time travel. What would happen if we could go back in time? Butler was able to take that story and add meat to it by asking a simple question: what if African-American women found herself going back in time to the Deep South, living the life of a slave?

When Butler first proposed the novel in the 70s, the number of rejection letters she received were legions. What she proposed wasn't science fiction, time travel didn't occur in the Deep South and science fiction definitely didn't have black heroines. Before Butler stepped up to the plate, no one ever contemplated writing a science-fiction, time-traveling story about the Deep South and slavery.

No one had ever though about writing a story about how a young, poor black girl could create a religion that would change the face of the world. Indeed her female characters are some of the richest black characters ever to see print.

What Butler understood long before most of the writers in the field did, was that black culture throughout the diaspora could and should be used to tell universal stories of pain, of loss, of growth, of majesty.

She also understood that science fiction was never so much about the future as it was about dealing with the problems of the present. It should come as no surprise that she was the first science-fiction writer ever to receive the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Genius Award.

In an interview with Amy Goodman, Butler quoted a phrase from one of her characters: "beware, all too often we say what we hear others say. We think what we are told that we think. We see what we are permitted to see. Worse, we see what we are told what we see."

While Butler was able to mine the world around her for literary nuggets of gold, she never said what other's said, never thought what others told her to think. She brought black people into the future when no one thought we had a future. In this, she was not only a genius, but a revolutionary.

GORDON: Lester Spence is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University.

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