Octavia Butler, who died in 2006, was the author of such visionary science fiction novels as Kindred, The Parable of the Sower, and Dawn. Gerry Canavan, who just published a book-length study of Butler, describes her as one of the greatest writers of her era.
“I think you’d put her up there with Philip K. Dick and Le Guin and Delany and these other people who really made an impact on the way that science fiction circulates,” Canavan says in Episode 234 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Especially that mode of literary science fiction that’s somewhere in the middle between genre fiction and prize-winning novels, she has to be top two, top three in that list.”
Butler made headlines this year when fans noted that her 1998 novel The Parable of the Talents features a fascist politician who rises to power by promising to “make America great again.” The comparisons to Donald Trump are obvious, but Canavan says the character was actually inspired by Ronald Reagan.
“That we would elect Reagan and then elect him a second time seemed to her to be almost confirmation that there was something fundamentally wrong with us,” he says. “And so she thought the system was always teetering at the brink of some kind of dictatorial nightmare.”
It wasn’t unusual for public figures to inspire Butler’s imagination. Her personal notebooks, now housed at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, reveal that she also based characters on Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, and fellow science fiction writers whose politics she disliked.
“A lot of her heroic female characters start off as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, or other major figures from African-American history,” Canavan says. “And a lot of times the antagonists start out as right-wing politicians.”
Butler had a singularly dark imagination, and often had to do multiple rewrites in order to tell her stories in a way that readers would find palatable. But Canavan says that in the current political climate, Butler’s dim view of humanity is starting to seem ever more relevant.
“She often thought about how easy it would be for everything to just kind of go back to the way it was,” he says. “That the things that seemed like they were permanent progress were really just a kind of epiphenomenon of the wealth of the United States in the latter half of the 20th century, and that when that fell apart, all the bad days would come back again.”
Listen to our complete interview with Gerry Canavan in Episode 234 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Gerry Canavan on the Patternmaster series:
“The Patternmasters are bad people—they’re slavers, they don’t really care about the normals, and they do effectively take over the world, as well as murder each other without a lot of compunction. So it’s this very dark take on the superhero stories that interested her when she was a child. … She really anticipates a lot of what happened to superhero stories in the decades since she wrote and was reading them, that in some sense these stories turn toxic—they all wind up murdering each other, and you can’t tell the heroes from the bad guys anymore. And she was there much earlier, I think, than the industry wound up being.”
Gerry Canavan on race and science fiction:
“Science fiction is a little bit afraid of getting too deep into the racial question, and often tries to turn it into a metaphor rather than ever deal with it concretely. … There’s this crazy idea she keeps hearing that it ruins a story somehow to bring race into it, and so just make them purple robot men from Planet 12, and then you can talk about race in this kind of slant way, but you don’t need to include characters of color, and she just thought that was so ridiculous. … We’re still kind of wrestling with this question of just how much of our science fiction first of all doesn’t want to think about race and then second of all how it’s so structured by ideas of race, by ideas of aliens who all look alike and all think the same way.”
Gerry Canavan on the Parable series:
“She thought that the essential thinking of Christianity was not well-suited to the world that we were making, both in the moment of high capitalism but also in this apocalyptic moment that she saw coming next, and that something else would be required. And so the religion she invents is called Earthseed, which is essentially a kind of Darwinist religion, almost worshiping evolution and change and constant adaptation, and to orient oneself toward the universe with maximum flexibility. And so the story that we have in the two Parable books is essentially the story of the founding of this religion by a young black woman.”
Gerry Canavan on Butler’s shyness:
“She said she was dyslexic. It wasn’t clear to me if there was ever a formal diagnosis with that, but she seems to have had certain kinds of repetitive spelling errors and things like that. It made her very worried about reading her own work aloud, and she actually refused to do it for most of her career—she would never read at a public ‘reading.’ She would talk and give lectures, and they were incredibly well-rehearsed, to the point where she was even rehearsing and writing down small talk, in case she needed to do it. So it was kind of an incredible moment for this incredibly shy person to become so famous and become so much the center of attention.”