I have never been particularly interested in science fiction. I have always preferred more realistic narratives to “space alien stuff”, and as such, I struggle to imagine realities that differ from our own. When something appears to be completely intangible, it is easy to take it at its surface value and move on. It is easy to skim through a reading that is difficult to grasp, and walk away with only the plot. It is easy to breeze through a reading that is both easy and interesting to read, and miss the point. Octavia Butler does not allow me to do that – at least not anymore, after a semester of learning to read her novels.
To clarify, it is first important to backtrack a little. When I first picked up Fledgling, I had very little experience with science fiction, let alone Butler’s speculative fiction. However, I was very familiar with the vampire trope, and I believed that Fledgling would be similar to other vampire novels that I read before. I had barely read twenty pages of the novel when alarm bells started going off in my head. Fledging made me feel uncomfortable, confused, challenged, unsure, and a whole slew of other emotions that I had never before associated with science fiction. I was not prepared for the way in which the novel would make me feel. I wondered why a book about a young vampire could produce such a visceral reaction in me. And, somewhere between getting caught up in Butler’s traps, my own alarm bells, and the novel’s plot, I missed the point. I thought that I understood all of the themes that Butler was trying to present – her commentary on racism, the power, or lack thereof, of her heroine, Shori. Even still, did not consider an ablest perspective while reading Fledging. In fact, I had not even heard of ableism until the novel was discussed further. I could not believe I had missed something so important when I was reading to the best of my ability (or so I thought). Additionally, the alarm bells that I experienced when reading Fledgling came back again and again throughout the semester. Luckily, simply going to class helped enormously, as it helped me discover where I went wrong in my reading, and allowed me to hear other people’s interpretation of the novel. Counting off or clustering into groups was an incredibly beneficial part of every class period. These groups answered the questions at hand, as well as discussed little details that other classmates may have missed, theories for what might come next, dialogue regarding the parts of the novels set off alarm bells and trapped readers, as well as the parts of the novel that were so crazy and so “space alien” that all we could do was discuss it’s strangeness.
By the time we had finished discussion Fledgling as a class, and had moved onto our next book, I had already picked up a number of invaluable lessons from Butler. Reading more deliberately was an important lesson that Butler’s fiction taught me. I learned to read more carefully, and to never assume that any detail is written without both intent and precision. When we began to read the Patternist series, I felt much more comfortable with Butler’s novels. It became easier to discern Butler’s voice, especially in a series that was not written and published in the order that it was meant to be read. Additionally, reading more of Butler’s works allowed some of her most salient themes, the ones that prompted many of our most interesting class discussions, to connect novel to novel. Seeing the trends in her works was certainly intriguing, but understanding why these themes exist was even more so. In her paper “Connections, Links, and Extended Networks: Patterns in Octavia Butler’s Science Fiction”, Sandra Y. Govan articulates the unique qualities that remain consistent in Butler’s novels. The paper references an interview in which Butler explains that she writes about power so frequently because she has so little. Suddenly, the themes that I had been observing became all the more apparent, and all the more powerful. Understanding the motivations behind the novels was another very helpful tool when it came to learning to read and understand Butler.
There were many points throughout the semester where Butler frustrated me, trapped me, tricked me, and made me want to throw my book across the room. There were also many points throughout the semester that I did not feel intelligent enough to truly understand Butler, and this was one of the biggest challenges that I faced while taking this class. I second guessed my ideas and worried my blog posts and comments in class would be completely wrong. Yet, learning to manage these frustrations was a very important lesson that I took away from the class. This in mind, perhaps the most beneficial aspects of the course was creating the annotated bibliography. While the work was meticulous, as properly attributing each idea to its rightful owner took a large amount of time, learning the perspectives of scholars who know a great deal more about Octavia Butler than I do was an incredibly rewarding thing to do. While it is important for a reader to be able to interpret, think creatively, and gain unique perspectives, it is equally important to be able to keep an open mind, take the opinions of others into consideration, and expand previously established viewpoints with the help of the ideas of others. Each of the annotated bibliography articles offered an intriguing take on Butler’s novels. In fact, there were novels that had a number of scholarly articles written about them, and yet each interpretation was both distinctive and stimulating. Having the ability to keep an open mind when reading Butler is such so important because it so easy to get caught up in the details of the worlds that she creates. It is important to remember that Butler utilizes the genre of science fiction so effectively that it practically becomes a vessel with which she can present social and political issues without sounding overtly political, preachy, or didactic (Duchamp 86). By using fantastic characters, situations, settings, and activities, such themes can be addressed in a way that is both lively and readable.
While reading Octavia Butler’s fiction did not make me like the genre any more than I did before the beginning of the semester, it allowed me to walk away from the course with not only an appreciation and a better understanding of science fiction, but also a greater understanding of humanity. Seeing how Butler stood alone, and succeeded in a genre that is typically reserved for while males was invigorating, especially because I have dedicated so much of my academic career studying a genre that was also, at one point, reserved for white males, but has gained an increasing amount of female Caribbean writers – Bildungsroman. Connecting Butler’s ideas with articles from the Feminist Wire, scholarly papers, the ideas of my classmates, class lectures, and situations in everyday life has broadened my perspective on salient societal and political topics. Though at times the texts frustrated me, and at times the worlds that Butler created were so fantastic that I could hardly grasp them, reading her work, as well as the numerous corresponding texts, has done nothing but benefit me. As a scholar, I am more meticulous, more thorough, and more confident to take on difficult texts and assignments. As a person, I am more open minded, more willing to imagine realties completely foreign to me, and more knowledgeable about problems that face our world that I had never before considered.
Duchamp, L. Timmel. “Sun Woman or “Wild Seed”? How A Young Feminist Writer Found Alternatives to White Bourgeois Narrative Models in the Early Novels of Octavia Butler.” Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler (2013): 82-94.
Govan, Sandra Y. “Connections, Links, and Extended Networks: Patterns in Octavia Butler’s Science Fiction.” Black American Literature Forum 18.2 (1984): 82-87.
One thought on “How I Learned To Read Octavia Butler”
I love Time Travel. Not necessarily science fiction but enjoy traveling back in time ‘romantic’ genre.
That is what drove me to Kindred. And allow me to stress I am a white woman.
When I picked Kindred from my public Library the Librarian tried to discourage me. She told me it was most definitely my style. When I returned it and checked out others I whispered back… “do not EVER discourage anyone again from reading any word that has been written!”