“I don’t write utopian science fiction”

Excerpts from Octavia E. Butler, the new Modern Masters of Science Fiction book by Gerry Canavan:

“If we humans are, as Lauren believes, and as I believe, a part of Earth in significant ways, then perhaps we can’t, or shouldn’t, leave and go to another world. The system of Earth is self-regulating, but not for any particular species, in the same way that the human body has its own metabolic logic. Perhaps the Acorn community represents the most logical way to halt the damage we’re doing to the Earth and to ourselves as humans.” —Octavia Butler

“Lost Races” also mentions the other side of Butler’s critique of race and SF, what she long saw as black people’s lack of interest in the future. She did not blame African Americans for this lack of interest; their lack of inclusion, and the dire lack of writers speaking to their concerns, explained the case. Butler recounts that at times she herself has been very frustrated with SF, both as a future-oriented literary practice that could not move beyond its antiquated assumptions and with regard to fandom circles, where she had often felt like an unwanted outsider. She noted also, with sadness, that the serious problems facing black people sometimes precluded their interest in imagining other worlds, ventriloquizing within the essay the sorts of words that were often hurled at her when she was young: “How can you waste your time with anything that unreal?”

Frequently her heroes turn sour, or become suspect, or seem to cross unthinkable lines of ethics and integrity in the name of survival. Just as frequently as they fight back, her characters choose not to resist their invaders, but to aid them—or fall in love with them, or merge entirely with them. In biological terms, her most frequent metaphor is not individualistic competition but mutual interdependence: symbiosis. We need the Other to live (whether we like it or not).

“I don’t write utopian science fiction,” Butler said, “because I don’t believe imperfect humans can form a perfect society.” But this tells only half the story: Butler longed to write utopian fiction, “fix-the-world scenarios,” and was stymied despite her “need to write them” by, she said, the sad “fact that I don’t believe in them—don’t believe humanity is fixable.” The Oankali stories laid out the terms of this lack of belief—Butler believed the notion of the “human contradiction” she laid out in those books was basically the correct diagnosis, and returned to it repeatedly in interviews and in her personal journals over the course of her life.

In Butler’s novels power acts as it always does, rapaciously inflicting itself upon those without; it is the task of the powerless to turn the tables, or else survive in the gaps. Nearly every story in her oeuvre considers the inevitable struggle for dominance that occurs when two “alien” forms of life, with different capabilities, and different needs, encounter each other for the first time.

“When I was in my teens, a group of us used to talk about our hopes and dreams, and someone would always ask, ‘If you could do anything you wanted to do, no holds barred, what would you do?’ I’d answer that I wanted to live forever and breed people—which didn’t go over all that well with my friends. In a sense, that desire is what drives Doro in Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind. At least I made him a bad guy!” —Octavia Butler