By Todd Sullivan
My first memorable experience with black speculative fiction was from the works of Octavia Butler. My oldest brother moved from our hometown of New Orleans to Chicago in the mid-1990s, and came back with Parable of the Sower. For those who haven’t read it, go out and get it immediately. It’s an apocalyptic narrative about a young girl who suffers from an extreme form of empathy. If she sees someone injured, her body forces a similar injury upon her.
Throughout the novel, a parable runs through the narrative. To this day, I still recall it: All that you touch, you change/All that you change, changes you/The only lasting truth, is Change/God is Change.
Though I thoroughly enjoyed Parable of the Sower, and the next books I read by Octavia Butler, Kindred and The Xenogenesis Trilogy, my favorite novel of hers is Wild Seed.
Wild Seed sets up a complicated relationship between the female shapeshifter, Anyanwu, and an immortal male, Doro. Throughout the novel, they are at times lovers and at times enemies as they chase after separate goals that put them at odds with each, while also bringing them together.
I found the battle of wills between Anyanwu and Doro to be captivating. I must admit that I have continued to be enthralled by the character, Doro. He is not good person, often skirting evil. He is selfish, powerful, and driven to fulfill his dream. Yet despite this, there is an opportunity for change and redemption for him. The question the novel sets up is whether or not he will become a better man, or will he let the chance slip through his fingers.
Octavia Butler challenged her readers to like her characters. There are few authors as great as she at crafting narrative worlds and populating it with people that seem genuinely alien. It took me a long time to figure out how she managed it, and I have attempted to employ a similar technique in my own fiction.
Though it is a shame that Octavia Butler’s writing still hasn’t entered popular culture, I do think it’s only a matter of time. She wrote a new type of narrative that has the power to influence generations of authors that follow her. All it’ll take are writers who are hungry to craft something unexpected, something new, and something outside of the mold.
Octavia Butler exemplified originality.