Black SF&F Writers You Need to Read NOW! Part 2: Octavia E. Butler
February is Black History Month in Canada and the US. Featuring Black science fiction writers might seems like an unusual way to celebrate Black history, since science fiction is undeniably the realm of futuristic speculation rather than dwelling in the past. However, if you read my last post on N.K. Jemesin’s How Long ’til Black Future Month? you’ll understand why science fiction is so important to Black people: past, present, and future.
Next up on the list of my favourite Black SF&F writers is Octavia E. Butler. I first started reading Butler about four years ago when I stumbled upon this article from TOR.com “8 Sci-Fi/Fantasy Books Sexier than 50 Shades of Grey.” Granted, I’m not sure that’s such screaming praise… I’ve never read 50 Shades of anything, so I’m probably not the best judge. Anyway, Butler’s Xenogenesis/Lilith’s Brood trilogy was the only item on the list that I was intrigued enough to download.
It completely blew my mind. Not just the sexy bits (and there were a few of them) but the in-depth exploration of themes like: slavery, colonialism, and transhumanism (via subsummation by an alien species). It’s still one of the coolest SF series I’ve ever read. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Butler’s SF works.
Octavia E. Butler
“Octavia Estelle Butler was an American science fiction writer, one of the best-known among the few African-American women in the field. She won both Hugo and Nebula awards. In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant.
After her father died, Butler was raised by her widowed mother. Extremely shy as a child, Octavia found an outlet at the library reading fantasy, and in writing. She began writing science fiction as a teenager. She attended community college during the Black Power movement, and while participating in a local writer’s workshop was encouraged to attend the Clarion Workshop, which focused on science fiction.
She soon sold her first stories and by the late 1970s had become sufficiently successful as an author that she was able to pursue writing full-time. Her books and short stories drew the favorable attention of the public and awards judges. She also taught writer’s workshops, and eventually relocated to Washington state. Butler died of a stroke at the age of 58. Her papers are held in the research collection of the Huntington Library.”
— from Goodreads Authors
Wild Seed (1980)
In an “epic, game-changing, moving and brilliant” story of love and hate, two immortals chase each other across continents and centuries, binding their fates together — and changing the destiny of the human race (Viola Davis).
Doro knows no higher authority than himself. An ancient spirit with boundless powers, he possesses humans, killing without remorse as he jumps from body to body to sustain his own life. With a lonely eternity ahead of him, Doro breeds supernaturally gifted humans into empires that obey his every desire. He fears no one — until he meets Anyanwu.
Anyanwu is an entity like Doro and yet different. She can heal with a bite and transform her own body, mending injuries and reversing aging. She uses her powers to cure her neighbors and birth entire tribes, surrounding herself with kindred who both fear and respect her. No one poses a true threat to Anyanwu — until she meets Doro.
The moment Doro meets Anyanwu, he covets her; and from the villages of 17th-century Nigeria to 19th-century United States, their courtship becomes a power struggle that echoes through generations, irrevocably changing what it means to be human.
Mind of My Mind (1977)
A young woman harnesses her newfound power to challenge the ruthless man who controls her, in this brilliant and provocative novel from the award-winning author of Parable of the Sower.
Mary is a treacherous experiment. Her creator, an immortal named Doro, has molded the human race for generations, seeking out those with unusual talents like telepathy and breeding them into a new subrace of humans who obey his every command. The result is Mary: a young black woman living on the rough outskirts of Los Angeles in the 1970s, who has no idea how much power she will soon wield.
Doro knows he must handle Mary carefully or risk her ending like his previous experiments: dead, either by her own hand or Doro’s. What he doesn’t suspect is that Mary’s maturing telepathic abilities may soon rival his own power. By linking telepaths with a viral pattern, she will create the potential to break free of his control once and for all-and shift the course of humanity.
Clay’s Ark (1984)
A powerful story of survival in unprecedented times, from the award-winning author of Parable of the Sower. In an alternate America marked by volatile class warfare, Blake Maslin is traveling with his teenage twin daughters when their car is ambushed. Their attackers appear sickly yet possess inhuman strength, and they transport Blake’s family to an isolated compound. There, the three captives discover that the compound’s residents have a highly contagious alien disease that has mutated their DNA to make them powerful, dangerous, and compelled to infect others. If Blake and his daughters do not escape, they will be infected with a virus that will either kill them outright or transform them into outcasts whose very existence is a threat to the world around them.
In the following hours, Blake and his daughters each must make a vital choice: risk everything to escape and warn the rest of the world, or accept their new reality — as well as the uncertain fate of the human race.
An all-powerful ruler’s son vies for control over the human race in this brilliant conclusion to the Patternist saga, from the critically acclaimed author of Parable of the Sower. In the far future, the human race is divided into two groups striving for power. The Patternmaster rules over all, the leader of the telepathic Patternist race whose thoughts can destroy or heal at his whim. The only threat to his power are the Clayarks, mutant humans created by an alien pandemic, who now live either enslaved by the Patternists or in the wild. Coransee, son of the ruling Patternmaster, wants the throne and will stop at nothing to get it, even if it means venturing into the wild mutant-infested hills to destroy a young apprentice — his equal and his brother.
Xenogenesis/Lilith’s Brood series
One woman is called upon to rebuild the future of humankind after a nuclear war, in this revelatory post-apocalyptic tale from the award-winning author of Parable of the Sower.
When Lilith lyapo wakes from a centuries-long sleep, she finds herself aboard the vast spaceship of the Oankali. She discovers that the Oankali—a seemingly benevolent alien race—intervened in the fate of the humanity hundreds of years ago, saving everyone who survived a nuclear war from a dying, ruined Earth and then putting them into a deep sleep. After learning all they could about Earth and its beings, the Oankali healed the planet, cured cancer, increased human strength, and they now want Lilith to lead her people back to Earth—but salvation comes at a price.
Hopeful and thought-provoking, this post-apocalyptic narrative deftly explores gender and race through the eyes of characters struggling to adapt during a pivotal time of crisis and change.
Adulthood Rites (1988)
From the award-winning author of Parable of the Sower: After the near-extinction of the human race, one young man with extraordinary gifts will reveal whether the human race can learn from its past and rebuild their future . . . or is doomed to self-destruction.
In the future, nuclear war has destroyed nearly all humankind. An alien race intervenes, saving the small group of survivors from certain death. But their salvation comes at a cost.
The Oankali are able to read and mutate genetic code, and they use these skills for their own survival, interbreeding with new species to constantly adapt and evolve. They value the intelligence they see in humankind but also know that the species-rigidly bound to destructive social hierarchies-is destined for failure. They are determined that the only way forward is for the two races to produce a new hybrid species – and they will not tolerate rebellion.
The futures of both humans and Oankali rest in one young being’s successful metamorphosis into adulthood. You can also buy Lilith’s Brood as a single volume HERE. Or… It looks like beautiful new paperback editions are being released this year, so you might want to hold off until they come out…
Parable series (also called the Earthseed series)
Parable of the Sower (1993)
This acclaimed post-apocalyptic novel of hope and terror from an award-winning author “pairs well with 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale” and includes a foreword by N. K. Jemisin (John Green, New York Times).
When global climate change and economic crises lead to social chaos in the early 2020s, California becomes full of dangers, from pervasive water shortage to masses of vagabonds who will do anything to live to see another day. Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives inside a gated community with her preacher father, family, and neighbors, sheltered from the surrounding anarchy. In a society where any vulnerability is a risk, she suffers from hyperempathy, a debilitating sensitivity to others’ emotions.
Precocious and clear-eyed, Lauren must make her voice heard in order to protect her loved ones from the imminent disasters her small community stubbornly ignores. But what begins as a fight for survival soon leads to something much more: the birth of a new faith . . . and a startling vision of human destiny.
Parable of the Talents (1998)
Originally published in 1998, this shockingly prescient novel’s timely message of hope and resistance in the face of fanaticism is more relevant than ever.
In 2032, Lauren Olamina has survived the destruction of her home and family, and realized her vision of a peaceful community in northern California based on her newly founded faith, Earthseed. The fledgling community provides refuge for outcasts facing persecution after the election of an ultra-conservative president who vows to “make America great again.” In an increasingly divided and dangerous nation, Lauren’s subversive colony–a minority religious faction led by a young black woman–becomes a target for President Jarret’s reign of terror and oppression.
Years later, Asha Vere reads the journals of a mother she never knew, Lauren Olamina. As she searches for answers about her own past, she also struggles to reconcile with the legacy of a mother caught between her duty to her chosen family and her calling to lead humankind into a better future.
The visionary author’s masterpiece pulls us—along with her Black female hero—through time to face the horrors of slavery and explore the impacts of racism, sexism, and white supremacy then and now.
Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her twenty-sixth birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stay grows longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.
“A master storyteller, Butler casts an unflinching eye on racism, sexism, poverty, and ignorance and lets the reader see the terror and beauty of human nature.” — The Washington Post
This is the story of an apparently young, amnesiac girl whose alarmingly unhuman needs and abilities lead her to a startling conclusion: She is in fact a genetically modified, 53-year-old vampire. Forced to discover what she can about her stolen former life, she must at the same time learn who wanted-and still wants-to destroy her and those she cares for and how she can save herself.
Short story collections
A perfect introduction for new readers and a must-have for avid fans, this New York Times Notable Book includes “Bloodchild,” winner of both the Hugo and the Nebula awards and “Speech Sounds,” winner of the Hugo Award. Appearing in print for the first time, “Amnesty” is a story of a woman named Noah who works to negotiate the tense and co-dependent relationship between humans and a species of invaders. Also new to this collection is “The Book of Martha” which asks: What would you do if God granted you the ability—and responsibility—to save humanity from itself? Like all of Octavia Butler’s best writing, these works of the imagination are parables of the contemporary world. She proves constant in her vigil, an unblinking pessimist hoping to be proven wrong, and one of contemporary literature’s strongest voices.
Whenever we envision a world without war, prisons, or capitalism, we are producing speculative fiction. Organizers and activists envision, and try to create, such worlds all the time. Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown have brought 20 of them together in the first anthology of short stories to explore the connections between radical speculative fiction and movements for social change. These visionary tales span genres—sci-fi, fantasy, horror, magical realism—but all are united by an attempt to inject a healthy dose of imagination and innovation into our political practice and to try on new ways of understanding ourselves, the world around us, and all the selves and worlds that could be. Also features essays by Tananarive Due and Mumia Abu-Jamal, and a preface by Sheree Renée Thomas.
“Those concerned with justice and liberation must always persuade the mass of people that a better world is possible. Our job begins with speculative fictions that fire society’s imagination and its desire for change. In adrienne maree brown and Walidah Imarisha’s visionary conception, and by its activist-artists’ often stunning acts of creative inception, Octavia’s Brood makes for great thinking and damn good reading. The rest will be up to us.” —Jeff Chang, Who We Be: The Colorization of America
Indie Book Bonus!
A writer friend of mine who is featured in Octavia’s Brood (above) has his own SF novella out right now, and I highly recommend checking it out. You can buy The Ballad of the Bladesinger directly from Jelani Wilson by clicking HERE! I’ll be doing a review of it this month, but for now suffice it to say: Read it now! It’s so much fun! You’re going to love it!
“Space Wizards! tells the story of five cosmic mages a dozen years after a failed attempt to topple a technocratic regime that ruthlessly controls all interstellar travel and activity for dominion and profit. After their defeat, our heroes have been left scattered across a cluster of star systems known as the Constellation.
Demoralized, these five survivors embark on cruel, lonely journeys to a destination of last resort. Through acts of bravery, a philosophy of intelligent combat, and feats of cosmic sorcery, they face certain death in a desperate attempt to catalyze liberation for all.”
Have you read any Octavia E. Butler? So far I’ve read the Lilith’s Brood trilogy, Parable of the Sower, and Fledgling and I’ve loved all of them. They’re all very different! Lilith’s Brood is science fiction in the aliens and spaceships kind of way, though it feels a bit like pioneer/colonization SF at times. Parable of the Sower is a brutally dark post-apocalyptic novel that is definitely not for the faint of heart, but there is a thread of hope running through it that saves it from being a Cormac McCarthy style depression fest (I’m looking at you, The Road…) And Fledgling is a SF vampire story unlike anything you’ve ever read! I can’t wait to dig into the Patternmaster series next.
Who’s your favourite Black science fiction writer?
Want more Black SF&F Writers?
Check out my “How Long ‘Til Black Future Month Series” for more articles featuring my favourite Black SF&F writers: