The Genius and Courage of Octavia Butler

“Tolerance, like any aspect of peace, is forever a work in progress, never completed, and, if we’re as intelligent as we like to think we are, never abandoned.”

Octavia Butler

The first thing I thought when I heard of Octavia Butler’s passing, just two weeks ago, is that her loss is insupportable. At fifty-eight years old and after having published in October her fourteenth book, Fledgling, Butler had many more thrilling tales of reason and self-consciousness in her and she was getting better and better at it. The loss of her knocked me down and, while writing these words in her memory, it’s been hard to get up again.

In many ways, Fledgling was a new departure: a “vampire” book that had returned her to the supreme pleasures of storytelling. I was in the audience at a “lecture” she gave at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York in November, a few weeks after Fledgling’s release. There she admitted to everyone that writing Fledgling was fun, that she hadn’t experienced this kind of joy in writing a novel for a very long time. In her most recent interviews, she was calling the new novel “light,” yet this playful description was meant in direct comparison to her previous novels, which are utopian in the heaviest sense you can imagine.

I put “lecture” in quotation marks because all Butler wanted to do that night in New York was have conversation with the members of her audience. She refused to lecture. In their questions, many of her readers proved to be just as perspicacious as their writer-hero up there on stage lounging comfortably, as if this particular spot was for Butler no different than being at home in her reading chair. I remember thinking that these questions from the audience substantiate well the claim that every artist deserves the audience they end up getting.

This particular audience was simply brilliant, in a laid-back kind of way. It was a hard-earned cool, a self-ironic knowingness based on the fact that they have been reading, and rereading, books written not for the market or for a clique of like-minded people but rather for the genuine love of our abused humanity.

The line at the end of the lecture to have Butler sign the books they had brought with them was endlessly long and was not moving. I had brought several of my favorites for her to sign (Patternmaster, Dawn, and the Parable series) as well as my entire English class, who at the time was reading and studying Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. But the line’s lack of progress deterred me from joining, so I went home. The next day, when I asked my students how long they had had to wait, many shot me disapproving glances. Had it been necessary, they would have waited all night long.

It turns out the line didn’t move well because Butler insisted on answering every question asked of her, including an intriguing one posed by a student of mine. He related to me and his classmates that he had asked her when his turn came why she made Lauren’s “hyper-empathy syndrome”-one of the main plot devices of the Parable series-so ambiguous, that is, biological, psychological, and socio-economic at the same time? Butler had paused, set down her pen and explained patiently to him her rationale.

From the beginning, Butler’s genius was impossible to deny and nobody undertook what would have taken strenuous effort the attempt to do it. In the early 1980s she won the Hugo and Nebula Awards, which are science fiction’s most coveted prizes, and in 1995 she won the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant. But you could still not find an official Octavia E. Butler web site, because one did not exist, on purpose, and never would. And forget about catching her on C-Span’s Booknotes or on Charlie Rose. She was an unapologetic, self-declared hermit yet I had suspected, which was confirmed for me while in her presence last November in New York, that she had a good political reason for always staying on the down low. She deliberately avoided celebrity status because it requires an end to thought, and that’s all her books do-think.

Writing about one’s favorite writer, especially when that writer has without any notice up and died on you, should be short and to the point, because this exercise can lead into a long, drawn-out self-therapy session. I could use to talk about what Octavia Butler has meant to me, how she saved me more than a few times from cynicism, and more importantly how she has constantly enlivened my classrooms for the last sixteen years. But that would be for me, not for her. To her, I’d like to say three simple things.

Thank you for weathering the storm of American irrationalism. The degradation of thinking and writing over the last twenty years in this society is hardly believable. If visited by another solar species-a storyline you made famous in your Xenogenesis trilogy (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago)-the conclusion they are compelled to draw is that the human species is unusually cute and often cuddly, and it continues to produce a lot of cute and cuddly art and literature, but its lethal and highly toxic fatal flaw has never been dealt with rationally, honestly, openly and systematically, and as a consequence we are now closer than ever to doing ourselves in, albeit in a really cute, cutting-edge, fashionable way.

You called this fatal flaw our “hierarchical tendencies,” a pattern of species-specific behavior that is completely transparent to anyone who takes a moment to observe humans from outside their pre-programmed pro-corporate consciousness. How else can we keep missing it? All the genocidal wars of conquest and mass extermination, almost always for higher profit margins and therefore higher placement on the planet’s human-made, market-driven totem pole; the everyday assaults on each other’s vulnerable humanity; the unspeakable vengeance and spite. The frightening lack of historical consciousness and the idiotic denials of the root of the real chaos causing all the weak denials in the first place. The incessant and seemingly inexplicable exact repetitions of past blunders. A blind following of leaders who are absolutely not fit to rule, and the odd religious conservativeness in a species secular and often revolutionary in its actual possibilities; the familiar preference for easy comforts and solutions, for instant gratification over long-range planning, self-criticism, self-sacrifice, and rational experimentation with forethought and care.

The second thing is that your books have encouraged the best feature of humanity, intellectual curiosity. Your books never close the door; instead they broaden current horizons and open up new ones. They make people want to go to the library and search out for themselves rational and scientific explanations for the opaque world in which we live. You have showed people that the thickness of reality can be penetrated through focused and persistent intellectual effort. You termed this type of mental labor a “positive obsession,” this trying to survive whole.

The third thing is you have unsettled the minds of a lot of people who otherwise might have gone on thinking their shit don’t stink, people who think of themselves as morally-sound, broad-minded, liberal, and tolerant. You have in every book of yours flipped the script on them by showing they are very tolerant indeed, of racism and stupidity, illiteracy, hunger, preventable and treatable disease, the scapegoating, bullying, and persecution of the poor and the politically defenseless, legal theft and official lying, the wholesale deforestation of the planet and the capitalist single-minded pillaging of what remains of our earthly paradise, megalomania and self-seeking, and a lock-step obedience to irrational and discredited authority.

In one of your last interviews, you put it tersely and profoundly as was your style. This style led many people to call you an oracle, a label that always made you chuckle. The interviewer had asked you if you’re pessimistic or optimistic about the future of the United States.

“At the present,” you answered, “I feel so unhopeful. I recognize we will pay more attention when we have different leadership. I’m not exactly sure where that leadership will come from. But that doesn’t mean I think we’re all going down the toilet, I just don’t see where that hope will come from. I think we need people with stronger ideals than John Kerry or Bill Clinton. I think we need people with more courage and vision. It’s a shame we have had people who are so damn weak.”

Your own strengths as a writer and an intellectual, expressed always with a determined humility and without any fear of what those in power might say about it, will remain in all your novels. So we mourn not the loss of your words but of your future words and how they could have straightened out our thinking by focusing it on the root causes of all the purposefully fabricated and contrived confusions and controversies. It seems to me this is the whole lesson of your Parable books. Lauren created this new communist community you called Earthseed to save herself, but her great intention was for us readers to keep planting it deep in the ground of every place we live, work, and educate.

JONATHAN SCOTT is Assistant Professor of English at the City University of New York, Borough of Manhattan Community College. He can be reached at