Okay, choosing Samuel R. Delany to kick off our survey of black sf writers was maybe a little obvious. But then, so is Octavia E. Butler. Yet you can’t really talk about modern science fiction without mentioning either of them. And because they are essential, sometimes you have to be obvious.
The differences between them are illustrative of the changes that happened over the ten years or so between their respective debuts. Delany often used black protagonists, but rarely called attention to their colour, so I suspect that there are people who read his early books in particular who are unaware that the lead character is not white. Nevertheless, he was quietly establishing the idea that the future should not be all white. His books have rarely been overtly about race, in fact gender and sexuality are far more likely to be central. For Butler, on the other hand, race, and in particular the experience of being black in America where the shadow of slavery still looms large, was key to just about everything she wrote. Given the ongoing racial tensions in America, this has the effect of making her, in a way, a far more contemporary writer.
Her first major success as a writer came with the five books of the Patternist sequence, written between 1974 and 1984, though the idea for the series dates back to her childhood in the 1950s. The order in which the books were published is not the same as the internal chronology of the series, in fact the first book published was chronologically the last in the sequence. The correct internal chronology is: Wild Seed (1980), Mind of my Mind (1977), Clay’s Ark (1984), Survivor (1978) and Patternmaster (1976). As in so much of her work, the central issue of the sequence concerns dominance and control, analogues of slavery in which one person exerts mastery over another. Over the course of the sequence, the human race is divided into three warring groups. The Patternists have telepathic powers, by psionic chains bind everyone to the Patternmaster; the Clayarks are mutant superhumans who are host to a microorganism that impels them to kidnap and infect others; and the Mutes are ordinary humans who are subject to the dominance of the Patternists.
The first book in the sequence, Wild Child, is set in 17th century Africa and details the rivalry and mutual need that links a 4,000-year-old vampiric figure and a 300-year-old shapechanger, and that will eventually give birth to the race of Patternists. Mind of my Mind sees the creation of the Patternist gestalt in contemporary California, and the struggle for control of the breed. Survivor tells of humans who have fled Earth to escape Patternist control, and who must learn to deal with an alien race to avoid being enslaved by them. Clay’s Ark concerns the conflict between the Patternists and people infected by an extraterrestrial virus that changes them into a sort of superhuman. Finally, in Patternmaster, all of this comes to a head with a struggle for the role of Patternmaster that could exercise control over everyone.
Part way through writing the Patternist sequence, Butler broke off to produce what is probably her most personal and most affecting novel, Kindred. Her consistent themes of race and slavery, and the remaking of what it is to be human, are most clearly and vividly displayed in this novel. The story concerns a young contemporary black woman who finds herself moving back and forth in time between present-day California and the slave state of Maryland in 1815. There she encounters a white slaveholder who is one of her ancestors, and has to save his life on several occasions in order to preserve her own. The time travel plot is, of course, no more than a vehicle for exploring the horrors of slavery and the moral compromises it entailed, for both white and black (her modern-day white husband is also transported into the past and ends up working for the underground railroad).
Simple survival is often the highest goal for Butler’s characters who frequently have to adapt, or even make distasteful choices just to stay alive. That is most clearly illustrated in her next sequence, variously known as the Xenogenesis Trilogy or Lilith’s Brood. In the first novel, Dawn, Lilith is one of a handful of survivors of a nuclear holocaust that has destroyed the Earth. She has been rescued by an alien race, the Oankali, who offer her the option of mating with them to produce a hybrid race that will breed out humanity’s destructive tendencies. But the Oankali are disturbing and unsettling to human eyes, and in Adulthood Rites one group of humans revolt against them and attack Lilith’s hybrid offspring. Finally, in Imago, a new and more powerful race emerges that may be able to bring together humans and Oankali.
Many of the themes that inform her novels were also present in her occasional short stories. These include “Speech Sounds” in which a pandemic has caused humanity to lose the ability to read or speak or write, and which won the Hugo Award; and “Bloodchild” in which human refugees are protected by aliens who also use them as hosts for breeding their young, an encapsulation of the sense of body horror that also informs much of Xenogenesis and the Patternist sequence. “Bloodchild” won Hugo, Nebula and Locus Awards, and was the title story of her only short story collection.
After the Xenogenesis Trilogy, Butler embarked on another sequence that was, at one point, intended to consist of five volumes, though in the end only two were written. This is the Parable or Earthseed sequence which details the survival of a small self-sufficient community during the environmental and political collapse in the early years of this century. In the first volume, Parable of the Sower, a young woman sets out to escape a dystopian California by establishing the earthseed community to prepare humanity for life on another planet. In the sequel, Parable of the Talents, which won the Nebula Award, Earthseed is taken over by a fundamentalist Christian cult, but their brainwashing attempts fail and the community ultimately survives.
What issues of mastery, compromise, alienation and hybridity the community might have had to face in subsequent volumes we can only speculate, because after the first two book Butler broke off from the series to write Fledgling, a novel about humans and vampires living in a symbiotic relationship, and of how one young vampire must seek justice for the attack that killed her family.
Fledgling turned out to be her last book; she died the year after it was published.
Her legacy lives on, however. As with Delany, writers inspired by her work contributed to a collection of stories and non-fiction, Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements edited by Walidah Imarisha and Adrienne Marie Brown, which explored some of the political, social and cultural ideas that featured in Butler’s work. A critical monograph about her work, Octavia E. Butler by Gerry Canavan, has recently appeared in the Modern Masters of Science Fiction series.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.