The Parables of Octavia Butler: A Science-Fiction Writer's Rich Libertarian Legacy

By Sturgis, Amy H. | Reason, June 2006 | Go to article overview

The Parables of Octavia Butler: A Science-Fiction Writer's Rich Libertarian Legacy


Sturgis, Amy H., Reason


ON FEBRUARY 24, 2006, the novelist Octavia Buffer died at age 58 after falling and sustaining a head injury at her Seattle home. Her work, however, will long outlive its author. In 13 books, Buffer struggled with themes of coercion, responsibility, and the individual's relationship to the community, making her novels not just compelling stories but important additions to the literature of liberty.

Born on June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, California, the only child of a shoeshine man and a maid, Butler as a youth was a lonely, marginalized figure in almost every possible way: a shy, stammering, unusually tall black girl, a dyslexic, and a lesbian. Writing and speaking came to her with difficulty, yet Octavia Buffer became one of the most imaginative and respected voices in science fiction, the winner of two Nebula Awards, two Hugo Awards, the Tiptree Award, and the PEN Center West Lifetime Achievement Award. Her accolades transcended her genre: Buffer was the first, and so far the only, science-fiction author to be honored with a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.

In books such as the Patternist novels, published from 1976 to 1984, and the Xenogenesis trilogy, published from 1987 to 1989 and now collected in the omnibus volume Lilith's Brood, Butler employed the stuff of hard science--biological engineering, interspecies hybrids--to create settings and situations that are both literally and figuratively alien. But the stories are less concerned with the specific details of science than with the broader issues of what it means to be human--most specifically, how we abuse, are abused by, and experience power.

Butler's greatest achievements may be Parable of the Sower (1993) and its 1998 sequel, Parable of the Talents. The books are set in a futuristic Los Angeles violently pulling itself apart as the homeless and drug-addicted many prey on the employed, suburban few. The plot follows the young Lauren Olamina, left orphaned and destitute after her walled community is attacked.

As she travels north, as much in pilgrimage as in flight, she establishes a secular belief system she calls Earthseed, a faith that "God is Change" and "We shape God." Olamina and her fellow travelers argue that human beings need to value adaptability, diversity, and responsibility if they are to halt social entropy and make something of the ruins left to them. In the second novel, Earthseed and the community built on it come under attack from religious fanatics, who prove as brutal as the urban gangs that plagued the city streets.

Whether she was describing human beings who serve as breeders for superior aliens or telepaths who use others' bodies without their consent, Butler had no qualms about discomfiting the reader as she explored questions of liberty and servitude. In Fledgling (2005), matriarchal vampires, themselves the victims of prejudice, feed on human beings whose ability to provide or deny consent is questionable, to say the least. Although they seemingly enter the contract as "volunteers" and receive prolonged and peaceful life in payment for their blood, they surrender their autonomy, becoming addicted to a powerful narcotic in the vampires' saliva, more victims than equals. …

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