You’d have to be a serious B-movie fan to remember Devil Girl From Mars , a piece of generic schlock in which a Martian woman arrives in a Scottish town in search of willing, able male volunteers to breed with other women from her planet.
Octavia Butler saw the film when she was 12 years old and decided she could do much better—she had been writing since she was 10, but it was the Devil Girl who inadvertently kickstarted one of the more unusual SF careers of our time. Butler had all the wrong credentials for a writer in a white, male-dominated field: she was black, female and utterly uninterested in writing about gizmos and machines.
Many years later, when Butler had become a name to reckon with in SF and experimental fiction, her intelligent, morally questioning work the precursor to the kind of SF novels Margaret Atwood and Nancy Kress would write, she looked back to the early struggle. She had a hard time finding a publisher for her first novel, Kindred . This work, set in the plantations of the American South that featured a black woman protagonist who travels in time to save a white man who turns out to be her own ancestor, fitted no conventional SF matrix. The meagre $5,000 advance she got for the book helped Butler, no stranger to hardship and deprivation, survive for almost a year.
The first African-American woman to break barriers in the SF field continued to break the mold right till the end. Butler died this week at the age of 58 after she slipped and fell on the sidewalk near her house; news of the accident spread fast on SF networks, and tributes have been coming in from Greg Bear, Harlan Ellison: peers who were also fans. She had just published Fledgling , which promises to change the face of vampire fiction. The protagonist of Fledgling , Shori Matthews, is a 53-year-old vampire who looks like a 10-year-old black girl—probably the first time Dracula’s many literary descendants have included a black female among their numbers.
Butler came up with two fabulous twists on the vampire story. In her version, vampires are actually members of a matriarchal race that predates humanity: aside from needing human blood to survive, they are shy, peaceful people. And Shori’s skin colour is because of an experiment to see whether black-skinned vampires might be able to bypass the race’s legendary intolerance of sunlight.
Like many women writers in the SF field, Butler’s work often revolved around gender. In Bloodchild , for instance, she asked a deceptively simple question—what if men could become pregnant—and came up with a typically unusual answer. But while she was definitely a feminist role model for many writers, it would be limiting to define her as a writer whose central theme was gender.
Butler’s fascination with women’s stories came out of a genuine and abiding fascination with history—her advice to young writers was to study subjects like history or anthropology, on the very sound basis that they would have to know a great deal about humanity before they could try to write about alien intelligences. And like the best of writers in any field, she never let go of a driving moral curiosity, a passionate interest in how to define virtue, religion and ethics in rapidly changing societies. Perhaps her best known sequence of novels is the Patternist series, where she created a world of elite humans who had developed telepathic powers—Butler’s interest lay not in the mechanics of psionic powers, but in the way a telepathic culture would develop its shibboleths, taboos, virtues and cultural straitjackets. Wild Seed was described by one reviewer as “an unholy cross between Roots and Wuthering Heights .
For me, Butler provided the key that unlocked the doors of science fiction. I read Kindred years ago with joyful astonishment: instead of the stereotypes of SF that we had been fed, tales of spaceships and wars between distant galaxies, here was a writer who was willing to push the frontiers of the genre as hard as she could. There were other writers who made me realize the vast, rich variety of SF, from Philip K Dick to Walter Leibowitz to Jorge Luis Borges, from Mary Shelley to Margaret Atwood to James Blish. But Octavia Butler was the first. For all of us who knew her work, the true sadness lies in knowing that we will never again look forward to seeing what brave new worlds she would open up this time.
(I miss her. Wrote this just after she died, and my reaction to her death was simple: no way, she was too young. I know: we reserve the “too young” cliche for people who die in their twenties and thirties and teens. But Butler was only in her fifties; she had at least two, maybe three, great writing decades left. She died way, way, too young.)