I may be a bit older now than I was in 1999 – the year I first read Octavia E. Butler – but Butler’s fiction isn’t, not really. There’s a reason Parable of the Sower felt to so many people like a handbook for surviving 2020. There’s a reason, when reading Kindred with students in two courses last fall, I truly felt the book could have been written last year, as if it were responding to right now, rather than published six months before I was born.
Out of the dizzy techno-optimism of the 1980s and 1990s, Octavia E. Butler saw clearly what would actually come next. The rest of us are still trying to catch up. That’s why in an annus horribilis of pandemic, ecological crisis, and political turmoil, the book (set in a decaying America of the 2020s) felt more like prophecy than ever. That’s the source of the ever-reappearing Twitter hashtags #OctaviaKnew and #OctaviaTriedToTellUs.
But what did she know? And what did she see, not just for 2020 or 2022, but for farther into the future? On what would have been her 75th birthday, June 22, what knowledge might Butler have had for us about the next 75 years?
There’s something more than a bit therapeutic in this work. As truly nightmarish as her stories very often are, there is something about them that is healing, centering, that cracks us open and lets us see ourselves in a new way. If most of her stories aren’t politically utopian, exactly, they are nonetheless a literature of grief and of consolation. They teach us about hope: hope and how to live in struggle, if not the hope to fully end struggle. They teach us about communities that don’t throw people away. Her stories about disability have given me new tools for processing the place of disability in my own life; her work on climate and the environment, on animals and on resource extraction and cruel systems of human exploitation, has inspired and terrified me in roughly equal measure.
Her characters, all of them, are survivors – and not just that, they are also healers. And though I never met her – and our backgrounds and our struggles are in many ways very different – she taught me how to survive too. I needed that. I wish she were still here.
I dedicated my book on Butler to the two teachers who introduced me to her work: John Barbaret, who taught Sower in a utopias and dystopias course at Case Western Reserve University during my first year of college, in spring 1999, and Priscilla Wald, who reignited my love of Butler and helped give me the confidence to focus my research on science fiction in her ‘Human Being After Genocide’ seminar at Duke University in 2007.
In the time since, I’ve taught most of Butler’s fiction to hundreds of students in dozens of classes, including last fall and again this spring; I can see the way her work gets inside my students’ skin the way it got into mine and opens them up to new ways of thinking and knowing and feeling (ways both blazingly optimistic and terribly, terribly grim).
She is on a very short list of people whose writing I’ve read fully, every published word, and I’m hardly alone in this; we Butler fans tend to become fanatics, even evangelists. It’s because her work transcends the fictional and begins to mirror the self-help and self-affirmation material she was obsessed with in her own life.
Perhaps that’s why, 75 years after her birth and 16 years after her much-too-early death, Octavia E. Butler somehow feels more contemporary than ever. Her 1993 novel Parable of the Sower famously (and finally) reached the New York Times Best-Seller List in September 2020, the culmination of an ambition Butler dreamt for herself since the 1970s.
In the coming years, her work will continue to reach new eyes, in new forms. In addition to the acclaimed graphic novel adaptations of Kindred and Parable of the Sower by comics team Damian Duffy and John Jennings and a Parable of the Sower opera from Toshi Reagon and Bernice Johnson Reagon, nearly every major novel of Butler’s has been tapped for adaptation, with a Kindred pilot recently greenlit at FX, a Sower film at A24, a Fledgling series at HBO, and (my favorites) adaptations of Dawn by Ava DuVernay and Wild Seed by Viola Davis and Nnedi Okorafor under way at Amazon. Although she was under-regarded and badly undercelebrated at the time, it’s no exaggeration to say Butler is the most important and influential writer of science fiction in the post-New Wave period, one of only a handful of people who could even be part of that conversation.
Some of my deepest encounters with Butler’s writing, in the archives at The Huntington Library in San Marino, California, near her hometown of Pasadena, remain quite personal. As part of my research for my book, I was able to spend several months there reading her letters, journals, and unfinished and rejected drafts, including the glimmers of what might someday have become Parable of the Trickster and two separate versions of a completed but unsold novel, Blindsight (and much more besides). It was a once-in-a-lifetime, life-changing experience – and every so often snippets and images from those unpublished and unfinished texts bubble out of my brain, and I wish I could talk to more people about them.
What I want most for future readers, fans, and scholars of Butler is for this material to become accessible to all, not just those who can travel to The Huntington. I dream of the day when a new Octavia Butler novel is on the shelves, or some deluxe hypertext edition allows us to navigate all the possible paths she took in, through, and out of Trickster over the last 10 years of her life as she tried to figure out what to do with this massive, sprawling idea she had been chewing on since she was a child.
I think a lot about a simply unforgettable scene from her unfinished novel Paraclete, where a woman with the power to make things come true must write the story of her own miraculous survival from a brutal assault in her own blood, before she passes out. I also think of the characters from another unfinished novel, Bodhisattva, about a warring group of reincarnating immortals, some seeking to save the world, others only to finally die for good. I think about Blindsight (both versions!), a twice-completed novel she was unable to sell during her life. And I think about the half-dozen versions of another story, ‘The Evening and the Morning and the Night,’ she experimented with during the ’70s, all different, all interesting. The two-story collection Unexpected Stories, from 2014, was an early and very small taste of what still can be published. There’s so much more, and it’s all worth reading.
I hope in time these other stories can become part of the Butler canon, too. I hope that they can be lived in and thought through like the rest of her magnificent work, keep us moving through the next 75 years.
In the meantime, we have 11 novels (12 if you can get an old copy of Survivor off eBay, as I did, and as you should) and nine stories, all of which remain in different ways vibrant and current. If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably read a few of them; maybe, like me, you’ve read all of them. But wherever you are in your Butler completionism, I’d still recommend seeking out one you haven’t read yet or returning to one you have.
We’ll have those film and TV adaptations; at some point, maybe, we’ll have a biopic. There are a number of amazing biographies out already, and in production, that highlight her incredible life story, using that amazing gift of her archives to make it something you can see and hear. These show us how she nearly willed herself into existence as an artist against a hostile world that didn’t want to hear what she had to say. In the process, Butler transformed science fiction as a literary genre, and as a way of thinking about the future, forever.
Of course, it won’t be enough – but Butler will always be with us, somehow always having known exactly what the future would actually be like, and giving us the exact tools we need to somehow get through it together.
The Sydney Review of Books and Public Books have partnered to exchange an ongoing series of essays with international concerns. This essay, ‘Octavia E. Butler: The Next 75 Years’ by Gerry Canavan, was published by Public Books on 23 June 2022 as part of a series of reflections on Octavia E. Butler’s work and legacy, marking what would have been the author’s 75th birthday.