Octavia E. Butler

Book cover

Perhaps it’s surprising that, as a life-long sci-fi/fantasy fan, I’m only reading Octavia Butler for the first time at 32. But perhaps it’s not, given the limited attention conferred on women authors and authors of color, particularly in the sci-fi/fantasy realm.

I was surprised to see a “YA” sticker on this book when I picked it up from the library, but after reading it, I think I understand the classification. The book deals with some very dark themes, so would only be appropriate for an older YA reader–I think we are more used to unvarnished portrayals of slavery in 2018, from films like “12 Years a Slave,” but my understanding is that Butler’s unflinching portrayal was quite radical in 1979, when the American public was more used to softer portrayals such as “Roots.” But anyway, I think the YA label makes sense because Butler is often quite explicit about messages of the book, for example having characters think to themselves how surprising it is that people quickly accommodate to the realities of slavery. I would have preferred her to let readers draw such conclusions on our own, but it’s not a huge deal.

In some other areas, though, Butler is more subtle in ways that I appreciated. I’m particularly thinking of the way that she draws connections between the explicit racial hierarchy of the 1800s and the implicit white supremacy and patriarchy of the 1970s. This is mostly visible in the parallel construction of the characters of Rufus and of Kevin. Although Kevin is clearly a well-meaning person–when trapped in the 1800s, he risks his life helping to free slaves–he is also not free of white and male privilege. The part about him trying to get Dana to type up his writing for him is awesome and subtly devastating.

Finally, I was struck by the jarring image of Dana losing her arm in her last time-travel return, which frames the entire book. It seems very out of place with the rest of the book, which made me wonder about why Butler put it there. It also immediately reminded me of some content from N.K. Jemisin’s “Broken Earth” series, where, on reflection, several people have their arms amputated in various ways, but in particular, the protagonist Essun does. I know Jemisin has cited Butler as a career inspiration but not a literary influence. Still, I wonder if Essun’s loss of her arm is a nod to Dana’s. (Very briefly, in the “Broken Earth” world, some people can harness extremely powerful magical energies at the cost of having parts of their bodies turn to stone. This stone is later consumed by mysterious creatures who form sort of symbiotic relationships with the magic-users.) In both cases, I would say the loss is an indicator of the person having accessed some deep and difficult knowledge, in a way that leaves them permanently changed.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars