What I Have Learned From Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler has introduced me into the world of literary science fiction. Prior to taking this course, I have never read a science fiction novel before. I entered into this course with many preconceived notions about the genre and thought that it only concerned story lines about aliens and spaceships. I was very concerned that I would not like Octavia Butler’s work, because science fiction was a genre that was completely foreign to me. However, I am very happy to say that I was wrong. What I thought was going to be my least favorite class of the semester turned out to be my favorite. In my opinion, the works of Octavia Butler are captivating and contain many important themes that go beyond spaceships and aliens. In each one of her novels, Butler creates a fantasy world that explores the type of conflicts that are apparent in our own reality.

The types of questions that I entered into this course with dealt mostly with what the genre of science fiction was and what type of storyline it generally involved. However, my involvement in this course made me realize that there is not a specific storyline that science fiction is regularly concerned with. Reading Octavia Butler’s work has allowed me to observe how free this genre really is, because it ranges from a variety of different settings. When I first read Fledgling, I had no idea that a vampire novel could be classified as science fiction. I was so used to the pop cultural persona of the vampire novel (such as Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight) that I did not realize that science fiction could be written within this discourse. In Octavia Butler’s interview with Juan Gonzalez and Amy Goodman in Conversations with Octavia Butler, Butler talked about how she first became attracted to the genre of science fiction and how she liked how open it was. She spoke against the stigma that science fiction has, stating that “People tend to think of science fiction as, oh Star Wars or Star Trek, and the truth is there are no closed doors, and there are no required formulas. You can go anywhere with it” (Francis 224). I admit that I used to be a part of the group of people who thought that every piece of science fiction was similar to Star Trek and Star Wars. However, Octavia Butler’s novels are very different from one another and extends across different subject areas, such as Ina vampires, Clayarks, and telepaths.

Another question that I asked myself at the beginning of the semester was about the purpose of Butler’s work. I asked myself “what is Octavia Butler trying to accomplish in her science fiction novels? Is there a reason that Geneseo has made this author’s work into an author study?” After reading several of Octavia Butler’s novels, I have discovered that Butler sought to expose her audience to issues regarding racism, prejudice, and slavery. Prejudice is an issue that appears regularly in her novels and is particularly dominant in her vampire novel Fledgling. Shori was a victim of prejudice because of her genetically engineered body and dark skin color. In order to ensure that her form of Ina would never reproduce, the Silks murdered her family and attempted to murder her as well. Although this novel takes place in a world where vampires exist, prejudice and discrimination are very real issues that are prevalent in our own reality. After I read “Black Girls Are from the Future: Afrofuturist Feminism in Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling”, I viewed Fledgling more concretely about combatting prejudice and learning to live with difference. Within her article, Susana M. Morris discusses how “Butler’s Ina transgress conventional vampire tropes not only by being mortal but also by experiencing (and succumbing to) hierarchal divisions, such as those of racism, mirroring the violent systems of oppression that are the foundation of much of the human world” (Morris 161). Some of the similarities that the Ina share with human beings are their involvement in social class divisions, their oppression as a result of prejudice, and their ability to die. Furthermore, slavery was also a subject that Octavia Butler regularly dealt with in her literary works. In Wild Seed, Doro subjected Anyanwu into slavery as he forced her to take part in his breeding program without her consent. Anyanwu never willingly agreed to become involved in Doro’s program, but she was still forced to participate in it.

In many of our lecture discussions, consent was a topic that was touched upon heavily. Throughout my involvement in this course, I have discovered that Octavia Butler’s work regularly grapples with the issue of consent and how someone could lose their consent to life if they did not obey an individual’s refusal to consent to their demands. After we discussed the complexities of consent that are prevalent in Butler’s work, this left me questioning about what consent really involves. If someone’s life depends on another person, does that mean that they lose their consent to live if the individual does not wish to participate in their demands? Before I read Octavia Butler’s work, I never really thought about how complicated consent could be. Shori depended on her symbionts for sexual pleasure and nourishment while Doro depended on the bodies of his victims to house his spirit. In terms of consent, one aspect of Fledgling that really struck me was Shori’s ability to acquire her symbionts without their “natural” consent. Once Shori bit someone, she automatically received their consent to become her symbiont due to her venom. Because Shori’s venom persuaded humans to become her symbionts, this made me wonder if Shori’s symbionts were really giving their consent to be with her or if they were just being brainwashed to. On the other hand, Doro had to steal a person’s body without their consent in order to live. If Doro did not steal bodies, he would have died sooner once the body that he was in deteriorated. If both Shori and Doro did not take part in these relationships, does this mean that they have lost their ability to consent to life? These questions made me realize that in some cases, someone might have to take away another person’s ability to consent willingly in order to fulfill their own consent. Does this make disobeying someone’s refusal to consent right? Unfortunately, I still don’t know the answers to these questions and it might take me years to establish a definitive answer.

After contemplating the takeaways of science fiction, I have discovered that Octavia Butler’s work deals heavily with learning to co-exist with different lifestyles, especially lifestyles that are considered to be transgressive. In Conversations with Octavia Butler, Butler described her view of what she believed science fiction accomplished to Rosalie G. Harrison, stating that “I see science fiction as a way of disseminating the fact that we don’t have only one kind of people, namely white males, in the world. They are not the only ones who are here; not the only ones who count” (Francis 6). None of Butler’s literature involve only white individuals. Instead, Butler focused on individuals that differentiated from this norm, such as Doro in Wild Seed. Doro celebrated the concept of difference as he sought to breed individuals with special abilities in order to create a brand new superior race. If someone did not have any special abilities, Doro wanted nothing to do with them. Furthermore, Anyanwu also exemplifies Butler’s celebration of difference. Even though she was originally born as an African American female, Anyanwu had the ability to change her shape and appearance whenever she pleased. By including the concept of difference within several of her novels, Butler spread the message that being different is okay, and that it is crucial for society to learn to accept these differences in order to live with one another peacefully.

Before I discovered who Octavia Butler was and what her novels encompassed, I considered science fiction to be a genre that was only about spaceships, aliens, and extraterrestrial beings. After reading several of her literary works, I now view science fiction as a free genre that can range anywhere from concerning the spread of disease, becoming a victim of slavery, and becoming a target of prejudice. Science fiction has the ability to influence the audience to reflect on issues that involve how society responds to different lifestyles. Despite her unique settings that are vastly different from a traditional fictional novel, Octavia Butler’s science fiction addresses many of the issues that are prevalent in our own reality. Butler strives to fight in favor of lifestyles that are out of the norm, and I really respect that of her as a writer.

Sources:

Francis, Conseula. Conversations with Octavia Butler. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2010. Print.

Morris, Susana M. “Black Girls Are from the Future: Afrofuturist Feminism in Octavia E. Butler’s Fledgling.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 40.3/4 (2012): 146-66. Academic Search Complete. Web. 23 Feb. 2015.

Oankali and the Pathogen Stress Response

A friend recently showed me an article titled, “The Germ Theory of Democracy, Dictatorship, and All Your Most Cherished Beliefs” which she had read for her Parasitology class. It’s yet another scientific article that calls into question whether the choices we make are actually our own, though in this case the choices of communities rather than individuals are examined: directly under the article’s title is the line, “Is culture just a side effect of the struggle to avoid disease?” While reading it, I immediately thought of the Oankali and wanted to add it into our class conversation. Continue reading Oankali and the Pathogen Stress Response

Daredevil’s Brood

So I’ve been watching a ton of that newish Netflix series, Marvel’s Daredevil. And given that it’s finals week, I think it’s safe to say that this isn’t the most opportune time to get hooked on a show. Either way, as I’ve been watching—with the thought looming in the back of mind telling me that I should probably be writing a blog post instead—I’ve begun to notice how it might be possible to draw a few connections between some of the issues the show obliquely confronts with those of Butler’s fiction.

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Language Politics

One of the most powerful things that I’ve read in all of Butler’s assigned fiction, is the passage in Mind of My Mind where Doro asks Anyanwu if she understands the term ‘mute,’ and she replies:

“I know what it means, Doro. I knew the first time I heard Mary use it. It means n—–s!”

I know I’ve quoted this in at least one of my other blog posts, but I keep coming back to it. In light of racial tension seeming at an all time high, the events in Ferguson and Baltimore are drawing more attention and momentum across the country. While the larger issue of institutionalized racism in American law enforcement is finally being noticed, the smaller scale issue of the politics around language being used to discuss what is happening is almost entirely under the radar. An article on the Feminist Wire, Thugs-R-Us, discusses “the epithet ‘Thugs’” and how it is “a word that has an egregiously racial/black association.” The word ‘thug’, as the article says, “[conjures] up…scenes of ghetto chaos, criminality and macho swagger,” and therefore instantly brings up a negative connotation in our minds. Continue reading Language Politics

Walled Enclaves and Fortress Europe

I signed up to receive daily emails from the LA Times while I was doing research for my blog post on the California water crisis, and about a week ago I received an email regarding migration from Africa to Italy.  In 2014, about 170,000 “Syrians fleeing their civil war,” and “Africans escaping poverty and oppression” migrated to Italy, and in 2015, this number is projected to be closer to 219,000 people.  These refugees crossed the Mediterranean Sea in unstable and overcrowded, wooden boats, and many vessels don’t make it across the Sea.  According to the first article I read on the issue, over 700 migrants were packed into the lower decks of a75-foot fishing boat when it tipped over and sank.  Rescue efforts recovered 28 survivors.  After doing some research, I discovered that this event came about a week after over 400 migrants were lost en route to Italy in a similar disaster, and just one day after a migrant ship sunk while carrying up to 950 passengers.

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“The repressive effects of empathy”

Saidiya Hartman’s discussion of empathy in “Innocent Amusements,” from her book Scenes of Subjection provides a really interesting lens through which to examine Lauren’s hyperempathy. Hartman studies the letters of an abolitionist named Rankin who endeavored to, “reenact […] The grotesqueries enumerated in documenting the injustice of slavery and intended to shock and to disrupt the comfortable remove of the reader/spectator,” in order to, “rouse the sensibility of those indifferent to slavery” (Hartman, 17, 18). Hartman cites Rankin’s explanation for the rhetorical moves that he makes: “We are naturally too callous to the sufferings of others, and consequently prone to look upon them with cold indifference, until, in imagination we identify ourselves with the sufferers” (Hartman, 18). Rankin’s theory is predicted on the idea that, “pain provides the common language of humanity; it extends humanity to the dispossessed and, in turn, remedies the indifference of the callous” (Hartman, 18). The really interesting move that Rankin makes is to, “literally narrat[e] an imagined scenario in which he, along with his wife and child, is enslaved” (Hartman, 18). Continue reading “The repressive effects of empathy”

Gender Identity in Lilith’s Brood

In recent discourse there has been more attention paid to the ideas of gender identity and sexuality. In media coverage on a daily basis one can see that there is more attention being paid toward the trans and gay communities, yet there are still many people who have no voice. It is often believed that these communities, especially those who declare themselves as gender fluid or non-binary or anything other than the typical male and female genders , claim to be these things for attention rather than an actual feeling of relating to neither or both or other genders. This snubbing of a person’s identity has become a violent act against a whole community of people and it is only recently that any sign of people speaking out against it has been seen on a large scale. This, apparently new found, feeling of support and unity in these communities can be largely drawn back to the fairly recent popularity and downright unavoidability of social media.
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Lilith’s Brood, Bible Style

I know by this time in the semester, I probably should have moved onto another book in Butler’s cannon, but after reading Mary Papke’s article, “Necessary interventions in the Face of Very Curious Compulsions: Octavia Butler’s Naturlism Science Fiction” for our annotated bibliography, I feel as though I had to revisit Lilith on the living space ship one last time. The article touched on Lilith’s name, and it’s undeniable relationship to the Lilith as Adam’s first wife. Although she is not mentioned in the Torah, apparently she is referenced to help explain the two dichotomous creation stories in Genesis. I related this second version of the creation story to the human’s second chance to survive, and possibly thrive, with the Oankali. It is also believed that Lilith’s biblical character could have descended from a Sumerian myth that focuses on female vampires. Lilith’s beginning is routed in sentiments that perfectly relate to another one of Butler’s novels, Fledgling. Just from searching Lilith’s name, I have found that many of Butler’s choices are linked to religion. Lauren starts her own religion, and as I reflected upon in an early blog post, many of the names choosen for Fledgling summon ideals of morals, and possibly a religious tone, such as Wright and Joseph (what we assume to be the English translation of Shori’s father’s name).

While researching the origin of Lilith’s name, I found many connections to the novel and to varying explanations of the genesis story that connect to Lilith. The discrepancies found in the two Genesis stories had an explanation I had never heard of. There is a story about the creation of an “androgyne”, a creature that was both male and female. This creature immediately reminds me of the Oankali, and their gender duality. This emphasis on religion makes me view Lilith’s Brood in a slightly different way. Although I had always imagined because of the imaginative settings and characters, these choices had been coming straight from Butler’s brain. After doing just a little bit of research, I find myself questioning some of her originality; maybe she has been borrowing from myth and fact more than I had previously thought, and weaves these aspects into creations from her mind. This is not a bad thing, obviously, but just not something I had previously thought about. I wonder if I went back though the texts we read for this class, and if I did a little research, I could find well documented myths, legends and maybe facts that would have colored my readings, if I had thought earlier to search for them.

 

 

 

On Capitalism and Lilith’s Brood

Ever since the class we had where Beth broke our time into 15-minute segments, I’ve been trying to do this on my own. Ever since, I’ve noticed a huge increase in my productivity. I remember that when that class finished, Beth mentioned something along the lines of keeping in mind why we usually break our time into one or two hour sessions, and how capitalistic society encourages this. The success of my own experiment reminded me of the first time I ever consciously realized the depth to which I had internalized a negative capitalistic concept:

I had just graduated high school, and was out to dinner with an English teacher I had gotten especially close with. I mentioned to her my confusion over how to become a productive member of society. I was half-joking, though it was a topic I had a lot of anxiety about: my health at the time was very poor, to the point where I wasn’t capable of getting out of bed without significant pain and some assistance, and I didn’t see a future in which I would be able to contribute to our society. In response to my comment, my teacher told me that there was “no such thing as a productive member of society,” and it was just something I had been trained to think. She said that solely by existing I was contributing to the world just as much as lawyers or doctors. It made me reevaluate how I saw value, and why I saw it that way.

Continue reading On Capitalism and Lilith’s Brood