To be honest, I had never heard of Octavia Butler before signing up for this class. To be really honest, I had never even read much science fiction. “Science fiction? That sounds cool. Sign me up!” was my thought process. I did not know what to expect, so I didn’t really expect anything specific. I am not sure what I hoped for in regards to the material; I just hoped as usual that the class would be an open environment for discussion and exploration of whatever material we encountered. As for questions, my only real question was “Who is Octavia Butler?”
Throughout this course I both challenged and was challenged by Butler’s work. Her traps were frequent, and the questions she asked of me were often left unanswered; as were the questions I asked of her. The issue of consent was one of the main themes especially in the beginning and throughout the course and the lack of it was presented in the literature again and again; Fledgling, Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind – it came up in pretty much every story we read, actually. I found myself irritated at the time we discussed freedom. That discussion could go on forever and the line between individual freedoms (i.e. allowing yourself to be free) and societal freedoms (laws, rules, etc.) is blurry. But when discussing the “mutes,” I said that their freedom was compromised. It disturbed me that some felt their freedom wasn’t compromised because they had some freedom. Of course, with many freedoms that are compromised there is often some sort of security or benefit in turn. I guess everyone’s idea of what is reasonable and what they are willing to give up in turn for something else varies. When it comes to the individual, I think it varies even more since it is often belief systems that people are often not even aware of that limit their freedom. But I am getting off track. This is just an example of the thought processes that ensue while reading Butler’s work.
One of the main concepts that challenged me in the readings was the idea of what is important in life/what gives life meaning. I brought this up in a blog post and we discussed it in class as well; the problem I had/have lies in the fixation on procreation. It seemed to me that the characters were so focused on having children, giving birth, etc. In addition to that and to take it to an extreme, many of the characters were bred like animals. This was especially prevalent in Wild Seed, with Doro’s extensive communities and thousands of offspring created basically as experiments and treated like slaves. I obviously had a problem with such treatment of people, but it bothered me as well when even the more “likable” characters were so focused on their legacy, growth, expansion. It sickened me in a way. Why are they so focused on these things? It seems so self-centered and almost narcissistic – does life not even have meaning if you don’t procreate? Why don’t they actually live their own lives for a minute before creating another. What is the point of all this? But then… I have to stop myself because when I really thought about it, isn’t that the most valued aspect of life? Relationships with others? Friends, yes, but especially family. It is easy for me to say at a young age that there is more to life, but when I am ninety years old and all alone will I be wishing I had more people around me (specifically younger ones that feel obligated to take care of me…) I am haunted by Chris McCandless’s famous last words which he wrote after his self-explorative journey around the country: “Happiness only real when shared.” But I still can’t help but think that it is so self-absorbed to need to carry on one’s bloodline in order to be satisfied with life. After all, if people stopped thinking that way wouldn’t it solve the problem of overpopulation? Can we just slow it down with the damn procreation for a little while?! Why not adopt? There will always be babies; I’m not at all worried about the continuance of the human population (in that aspect, anyways). But again I am going off tangent; and I have to keep in mind that there are far more factors than simply the desire to have offspring that are contributing to overpopulation.
The class discussions in general were definitely the most engaging of any of my classes this semester. That is my favorite kind of class experience; where it is less about recounting every detail of the story and more about the discussion of its true meaning, the issues tackled, and the experience of reading the text. Since at Geneseo that has been a problem for me; not being able to discuss the experience (that is heresy and nobody cares!) It was a welcomed and appreciated chance to once again talk about how the texts made me feel because, no matter what anyone says to the contrary, I feel strongly that that is an important component to a text’s importance and meaning.
As far as the naysayers I may encounter, you could say I somewhat well-versed when it comes to dealing with them in general (thank you to certain family members). At this point, though, it just seems ridiculous that someone would question the value of Butler’s work given her race and genre. However, I could just be lucky in my lack of encounters with such people. As I stated before, I had never even heard of Butler prior to this class. The area in which I could see more speculation is in question of the importance of Butler’s work. Though I could not find it more relevant at this time, I am certain many would disagree. But I think it would be a greater rejection of current issues (i.e. climate change, slavery, gender inequality, etc.) rather than a rejection of the actual work. Then again, if the work does “convince” any readers that danger is imminent and action must be taken then I believe it has succeeded in that aspect.
One area in which I question Butler’s work myself is her style of writing. Although this could just be personal preference, I did struggle with the way the stories as well as the characters were presented to me as a reader. I can’t quite articulate what it is that I didn’t enjoy about it; it just had a way of dehumanizing the characters for me and making their actions seem on the verge of ridiculous to me. The only novel I did not feel this way about was Fledgling, throughout which I felt the characters were very lifelike. The characters in the Parables series also stood out to me as more relatable (for lack of a better word) and believable. To try and elaborate on what it is that I did not enjoy about the style (as I tried to do in a group discussion once to no avail) it just seems like the spectrum of emotion is so well-traveled that it desensitizes me. The characters just go through this spectrum so easily that it seems to devalue the emotions themselves; that irked me. I have not heard anyone else experience this specific frustration in regards to style and I am not sure if I can even properly explain it on paper, but it was one of the biggest challenges for me.
As I mentioned previously, I was both challenged by and challenged the material of this course. I feel that the themes could not be more relevant than at this time and that Butler confronts readers with difficult questions regarding both their individual self and society at large. Although I challenge some aspects of Butler’s work (mainly style and certain themes), I can’t help but think that I myself have just fallen into one of her many traps and out there somewhere she is yelling “Ha! Gotcha!” and letting out a roaring laugh.