Octavia E. Butler By Gerry Canavan
Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2016, 224 pp., $22.00, paperback
Reviewed by Nisi Shawl
Octavia Estelle Butler walked the Earth. Gerry Canavan’s meticulously researched, beautifully constructed, and wrenchingly felt biography tells us how.
A legend in her own time, Octavia E. Butler (1947 – 2006) remains notable more than a decade after her death. She was both the first African American woman to become a major force in the field of science fiction and, in 1995, the first science fiction author to receive one of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowships (colloquially known as Genius Grants). Though not prolific in terms of her published oeuvre, Butler won literary awards left and right, including, all in one year, the Hugo, Nebula, Locus, and Science Fiction Chronicle awards for her short story “Bloodchild” (1985). The MacArthur, as well as her 2000 PEN American Center Lifetime Achievement Award, bear witness to her importance outside the sometimes parochial speculative fiction community.
Canavan takes up the Octavia Butler legend and simultaneously interrogates and validates it. An assistant professor at Marquette University who teaches contemporary fiction and popular culture, he has long been a student of science fiction’s impact on society. He has read, and read deeply, the relevant texts: not only Butler’s fiction and essays but also works in conversation with her own, such as those by her Clarion Writers Workshop instructor, the Afrofuturist Samuel R. Delany; and classics such as Tom Godwin’s “The Cold Equations” (1954), with its set-up of non-negotiable limits to human survival. Canavan is thus fully prepared to disassemble, examine, polish, and reassemble the elements of Butler’s career and life as if they were the parts of a familiar firearm.
Approaching his subject chronologically, Canavan begins with a chapter covering the period from Butler’s birth in 1947 to the appearance of her story “Crossover,” in 1971. Here, he recounts Butler’s working-class origins, describes her juvenilia, and highlights her attendance at the 1970 Clarion workshop for writers of science fiction and fantasy, taught by Joanna Russ, Damon Knight, Samuel R. Delany, and Fritz Leiber.
This chapter, “Childfinder,” is named after a story Butler wrote in the early 1970s that was published only posthumously. Discovered in Butler’s archives at the Huntington Library, it was issued in the e-book Unexpected Stories (2014), together with another newly discovered work, “A Necessary Being.” Throughout the book, Canavan references pieces of information like this, the fruits of his research in the Butler archives, which deepen the book’s impact immeasurably in comparison with other Butler-focused work. It’s one thing to read essays and interviews mentioning that Butler entertained herself by imagining and writing stories of unaided human flight, animal communication, and mind control. It’s another to read about these fantasies together with notes on the personal events connected to them and analyses of how they relate to her more mature work.
Famously shy, the Butler revealed in this and subsequent chapters withdrew into her imagination to escape a world at odds with her on many fronts. Physically, she was larger than the accepted norm for females at almost every age; socially, she was the daughter of menial workers; intellectually, she struggled to keep up with classmates due to what she later self-diagnosed as dyslexia. Though her first stories were written for her own pleasure, she soon determined that they’d be her life’s work. In her teenage years she began submitting what she called “terrible pieces of fiction” to magazines she categorized as “innocent.” Canavan skillfully connects the lacks Butler saw in herself with compensatory attributes in her characters, via journal entries in which she exhorts herself to remember the lessons those characters have learned. He ties her fondness for self-affirmations such as “You will write a great book” with classes she took on self-hypnosis and her fascination with telepathy, telekinesis, and other pseudo-scientific powers of the mind.
Closing this first chapter with a detailed account of the Clarion workshop and two of the stories Butler wrote there, Canavan moves on to the years 1971 through 1976, the period in which Butler established her career as a professional writer. From letters to fellow Clarion graduates he gleans her concern with her lack of sales. From her correspondence with her publisher, Doubleday, he unearths a bargain she struck: accepting a smaller advance in exchange for the inclusion of some obscenity-laden dialogue. (Doubleday was concerned about being banned from libraries; Butler wanted authenticity and was willing to sacrifice immediate monetary gain for it.) Examining Butler’s original manuscripts, he charts the events that form the background for her five Patternist novels. Delving into her journals, he links her depression to her pessimistic take on humanity’s long-term viability, as revealed in specific stories and their characters’ attitudes and actions. He links her portrait of Utopia and the violent, anti-Utopian tendencies of the supermen of the Patternist books to her love for comics. (In one exchange, she waxes philosophical about the ultimate disposition of her beloved comics collection.)
The publication of one of Butler’s most popular novels, Kindred, in 1979, was a turning point. In a chapter spanning 1976 through 1980, Canavan examines the version of Kindred we know, plus manuscript fragments of explicitly science fictional versions of the book and alternative endings. Canavan shares the familiar anecdote about how the novel’s time-travel narrative derived from Butler’s dissatisfaction with contemporary African Americans who disparaged the courage their ancestors needed to survive chattel slavery. But he follows that up by describing an alternative, Patternist-oriented manuscript, which uses the impending return of Doro, the villain of Wildseed (1980), to the plantation where the heroine is trapped to ratchet up the story’s tension. In doing so he once again furnishes the bare attic of literary biography with possibilities that will excite both serious students of Butler and newer readers, passionate about what they’ve just discovered.
In an afterword-like conclusion, Canavan discusses Butler’s posthumous legacy. The Carl Brandon Society, an organization founded in 1997 to promote “the representation of people of color in fantastical genres,” established a scholarship fund in Butler’s name that sends writers of color to the annual Clarion workshops. Butler’s works have inspired many conferences and anthologies (one of which, Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler , I co-edited)—as well as individual authors (myself included). Despite the size of this inventory, though, the primary message of this section of the book is a wish for more. As many others have done, Canavan feelingly laments the sequels and stories Butler anticipated creating, which will now go unwritten. Referring to the home of Butler’s extensive archive, Canavan writes, “The Huntington Library makes possible an entirely new era in Butler scholarship,” and he calls for scholars and authors to make use of its materials. He also cherishes the hope that some of Butler’s unpublished stories and variant manuscripts, withheld from the public during her life due to “the spirit of brutal perfectionism that drove her,” will now be offered to the world at large. The majority of the manuscripts in the archive, he says, are “not discarded scraps or abandoned, embarrassing mistakes…just more.”
As a sample of the sorts of pieces he’d like to see become more widely available Canavan includes as an appendix Butler’s long out-of-circulation 1980 essay, “Lost Races of Science Fiction.” A manifesto about the erroneousness of excluding black characters from SF because of the “messiness” involved in depicting nonwhites, “Lost Races” ends with a half-jubilant, half-deploring assessment of science fiction’s attitudes toward inclusivity and prejudice. “Times have changed,” Butler decrees. In the next sentence, though, she admonishes the field that “it still has a long way to go.” That her pronouncements on this matter hold true nearly forty years after they were first published speaks volumes about the slow rate of social change and Butler’s continuing centrality to our understanding of the fantastic genres.
Canavan substantiates his insightful discussion of Butler with references to other scholarship and multiple primary sources. The book’s Introduction grounds his numerous citations of Butler’s papers in a brief but helpful note on the Huntington Library’s archive-retrieval system and 500-page finding aid.
In a way, that Introduction sums up Canavan’s hologrammatic approach to his subject. In addition to giving an overview of his book and methodology, it delves into the ethics of what he has done. His sense of a deeply personal relationship with Butler—which, he points out, is far from unusual for Butler fans—exacerbates his unease over the essentially voyeuristic nature of the biographer’s work. This uneasiness is in truth quite appropriate to Canavan’s subject: by all accounts, including his, Butler disturbed her audiences with the ambiguous dilemmas her stories posed and her courageous attacks on taboos as often as she entranced them with her plausible characters and her spare, evocative prose.
In his Introduction, Canavan also explores Butler’s consciousness of her effect on readers and her attempts to manipulate it. Her early drafts are consistently more pessimistic than their final, published versions. She frequently cut and revised scenes to transform her books, which fit the category she privately termed “NO-BOOKS,” into “YES-BOOKS”; she believed that only “YES-BOOKS” became bestsellers. However, her efforts to transform her writings were only partially successful: though the results of her revisions read more optimistically, Canavan notes that according to Butler’s reflections on the matter, “NO-BOOKS sold, alas, the way her actual books did.”
Canavan introduces his long list of acknowledgments by saying, “Like some supercharged Oankali mating ritual this book has many parents.” Oankali are the three-sexed alien saviors of the humans in Butler’s three Lilith’s Brood novels, and Canavan’s evocation of them alerts his readers to the primacy of Butler’s works in Canavan’s world. Butler told her story in two ways that sometimes became one: by writing and by living her life. Canavan leads readers gently through this story’s pertinent plot points, stopping occasionally to measure the depth of a footprint or the width of a stride. Octavia E. Butler is a walk well worth taking, with Canavan as an excellent and trustworthy guide.
Nisi Shawl is the James Tiptree Jr. Award-winning author of the collection Filter House (2008). Her steampunk alternative history of Leopold II’s Congo, Everfair, was published in September 2016. Shawl is a founder of the prodiversity nonprofit the Carl Brandon Society, and a graduate and board member of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She has spoken as a uest lecturer at Smith and Spelman Colleges, and at Princeton, Stanford, and Duke Universities.