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Misreading Octavia Butler

The slavery interpretation the author couldn’t escape.

Photo-Illustration: Mark Harris
Photo-Illustration: Mark Harris

In Octavia E. Butler’s novelette “Bloodchild,” a quantum of humanity fleeing Earth finds sanctuary on a distant planet—but at a price. The native Tlic, a species of intelligent, centipedelike aliens, establish the Preserve, where humans can work, marry, and raise children without interference; in return, some humans are implanted with eggs by Tlic females, whose larvae must feed on living flesh. First published in Asimov’s Science Fiction in 1984, “Bloodchild” won Butler the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus Award for Best Novelette—a sci-fi Triple Crown. Narrated by a young human host who begins to question the whole arrangement after witnessing a gruesome larval delivery, the story represents Butler at the height of her powers, patiently unfolding the consequences of an upsetting moral premise with horrific serenity. The author herself viewed “Bloodchild” as an unusual kind of love story as well as “a story about paying the rent”—that is, one that took seriously what it might cost humanity to survive on an alien planet. “It wouldn’t be the British Empire in space, and it wouldn’t be Star Trek,” Butler wrote in a 1996 afterword to the story. “Sooner or later, the humans would have to make some kind of accommodation with their um … their hosts.”

But many readers found a different kind of parable. “It amazes me that some people have seen ‘Bloodchild’ as a story of slavery,” Butler wrote. “It isn’t.” She later recalled telling this to a college student who had written a paper on the topic. “Well, the author doesn’t always know!” the young woman replied. In a sense, both of them were right: The question of what exactly to make of the disturbing relationship between Gan, the human narrator, and T’Gatoi, the Tlic politician to whom he has been promised since birth, is not only the thematic core of “Bloodchild” but also a topic of heated debate among the story’s own characters. “We were necessities, status symbols, and an independent people,” Gan says of humanity’s standing among the Tlic, even as he defends the practice of implantation after his bitter older brother accuses him of being a willing host animal. But Gan will still end up staring down T’Gatoi, pointing an illegal rifle at his own throat, demanding to be seen as more than her property. “What are we to you?” he whispers, terrified. “You know me as no other does,” the alien gently answers. “You must decide.”

Butler made her own decision, coolly telling an interviewer in 1996, “The only places I am writing about slavery is where I actually say so.” Yet she had often seemed to say so. In fact, slavery had been present in Butler’s work from the very beginning: her debut novel from 1976, Patternmaster, was the first in a hugely ambitious saga about the millennia-long breeding of a telepathic master race known as the Patternists who eventually enslave some of Earth’s population and drive the rest off-world. Three novels later, in 1979, Butler found mainstream success with Kindred, in which a present-day Black woman is mysteriously transported to the antebellum South to repeatedly save the life of her slave-owning white ancestor. That novel was followed by Wild Seed in 1980, the fourth in the Patternist series, about two sparring African immortals set against the backdrop of the Atlantic slave trade.

In this light, longtime fans could be forgiven for taking “Bloodchild” as one more of Butler’s slave stories. But there was another explanation for readers’ response. “So many critics have read this as a story about slavery, probably just because I am Black,” Butler observed. For decades, Butler was nearly the only Black woman writing science fiction in America, a position she occupied with dignity and frustration, and this kind of reading—the slavery reading—would dog her throughout her career.  But there was more to this than the racist notion that Black people have nothing better to do than pick at historical wounds. What Butler also faced was the enduring idea, not exclusive to white people, that African American literature represents one long, elaborate riff on the slave spirituals that first awakened a young Frederick Douglass to “the soul-crushing and death-dealing character of slavery,” as he wrote in 1855. In other words, if the slavery reading prevailed among Butler’s readers, this was perhaps because they were working, even in all good faith, from the simple, seductive assumption that the underlying impulse of all Black art is to get free.

Yet to make this assumption, at least in Butler’s case, is to miss one of her finest qualities as a writer of science fiction: her often ruthless commitment to writing about highly rational people who choose to give up their freedom, or their chance at going free, in exchange for something they need more. To be sure, they typically make these choices under threat of violence, enslavement, or death, and they almost universally resent being made to choose. But they do not strike their bargains simply in order to survive—a trade-off easily understood from the standpoint of classical liberalism—but rather because they ultimately judge that, in their specific situations, freedom has less value than, for instance, hope or pleasure. ​​Even Kindred, in its depiction of the protagonist’s ambivalent relationship with her slave-owning ancestor—she briefly considers becoming his lover before killing him—toys with the idea that such bargains could exist within the actual historical institution of American chattel slavery. In this sense, the true object of Butler’s interest was not slavery per se but rather the real possibilities opened up when freedom is no longer humanity’s north star.

Octavia Butler, as understood by

Her spectacular life.


Her most misunderstood work.

Her writing style.

Her famous journal entry.

It’s not hard to see why Butler might have been skeptical of slavery as a theme. Issues of colonization, enslavement, and empire had after all been the bread and butter of science fiction since Asimov; the colonized Fremen people of Frank Herbert’s 1965 classic Dune, one of Butler’s favorite novels, were originally envisioned as transported penal laborers called “freedmen.” At the same time, the genre had all but sealed itself off to nonwhite characters during Butler’s time. Early in her career, she participated in a panel alongside an editor who cheekily suggested that Black characters were superfluous in science fiction since “you could always make any racial statement you needed to make by way of extraterrestrials.” (The experience would inspire her 1980 essay “Lost Races of Science Fiction.”) Even now, science fiction remains the preferred genre of white slavery narratives; a Black science-fiction writer wishing to write about slavery may achieve little more than redundancy in a genre whose appeal has long consisted in ethical carte blanche to rehearse historical wrongs like the Atlantic slave trade, the British Empire, the Holocaust, or the dropping of the atom bomb so long as half of the people involved are blue.

But what Butler may not have anticipated was a latter generation of admiring readers who would actively want her stories to be about slavery. It is increasingly difficult to separate Butler the author from the hagiography that has sprung up around her since her untimely death in 2006; this is especially the case in academic and activist circles, where she is hailed as a prophetic voice, a public intellectual, and an Afrofuturist visionary. Her work is sometimes called utopian, even as Butler herself was a political pessimist with a lifelong aversion to utopian thinking, and scholars have praised her novels for being “queer,” staring past her relentless focus on sexual dimorphism and biological reproduction. (The unusual male pregnancy of “Bloodchild” also happened to spare Butler, who had weathered homophobic insults growing up, the prospect of a phallic female impregnating another female.) In 2015, the editors of the fiction anthology Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements went so far as to draw a straight line from Butler’s legacy as a Black science-fiction writer all the way back to “our ancestors in chains dreaming about a day when their children’s children’s children would be free.” Indeed, it is no great mystery why the neo–slave narrative Kindred—a good novel, but not a great one, and one that Butler never considered a work of science fiction—remains her most widely read and taught book today.

Butler, who in 2000 would tell Charlie Rose that she had no interest in saying anything about race other than “Hey, we’re here,” made it a point to avoid critical theory of all kinds. “It’s just an impression of mine, but in some cases critics and authors seem to be massaging each other,” she remarked. “It’s not very good for storytelling.” She regarded herself first and foremost as a writer; her biographer Gerry Canavan would call writing “a holy thing for Butler, a constant and daily devotion.” Yet her novels are rarely afforded the full privileges of literary criticism, perhaps because this would puncture the apotheosis to which she is sometimes subjected. Her prose, sometimes called spare, is just as often lackluster. Her heroines—most of them idealized versions of Butler herself (tall, androgynous, highly driven)—tend to occupy the vantage point of lucid species-consciousness at the expense of their interior lives. “They rarely notice anything that doesn’t pertain to their emergency, as though the world were a fluorescent-lit escape room,” observed Julian Lucas in The New Yorker last year. None of this is to say that Butler is undeserving of remembrance or critical evaluation; on the contrary, it is to say that, like many writers, she was often good, sometimes bad, occasionally brilliant, and rarely satisfied with her own work.

Butler would go so far as to disavow her 1978 novel, Survivor, which she blocked from being reprinted in perpetuity. (A used copy can run you hundreds of dollars online.) In fact, as a decent execution of a derivative premise, Survivor is no worse than Butler’s first novel, Patternmaster, to which it serves as an oblique prequel, describing the fate of a group of human colonists called “Missionaries”—quasi-Christian religious refugees who have fled the Patternist telepaths on Earth and hope to reestablish humanity among the stars. On a faraway planet they name Canaan, the Missionaries enjoy a cautious peace with the Garkohn, a tribe of bioluminescent aliens whose social roles are determined by their fur coloration. When the Missionary heroine, Alanna, is captured by the rival Tehkohn clan, she learns that the Garkohn have been quietly enslaving her fellow humans with a highly addictive drug, and she persuades the Tehkohn chieftain, with whom she has begun (unwillingly, at first) a sexual relationship, to help liberate them.

Butler would disparage Survivor as her “Star Trek novel”—her childhood crush on Captain Kirk notwithstanding—on account of what she saw as the book’s scientific absurdities and simplistic picture of interstellar exploration. She was deeply embarrassed by the fact that the novel’s aliens just so happen to have reproductive organs compatible with human ones, such that Alanna ends up giving birth to a Tehkohn daughter; Butler’s later Xenogenesis trilogy, in which a postnuclear humanity is forced to reproduce with a species of extraterrestrial gene traders, may be read as one long, fastidious atonement for Survivor’s sex scenes. But worse than this for Butler, who rarely wrote hard science fiction anyway, was the fact that she had naïvely repeated the old colonial encounter that had characterized so much of the stories she had read in her youth, in which the colonists must conquer the natives or risk being subjugated themselves. When the Garkohn leader learns of humanity’s designs to escape, he confidently offers them a familiar bargain: Be fruitful and multiply in the south in exchange for submitting to Garkohn customs and rule. “You Missionaries find it very easy to say you would rather die than do this or that,” he says, trying to call their bluff. “You will realize that there is no shame in your submission.” But the colonists successfully escape anyway, resettling in harsh but conveniently uninhabited territory in (of all places) the north.

This was Butler’s biggest issue with Survivor: Humanity goes free. It was a mistake she endeavored never to repeat. Originally, she had planned for Survivor to be the first of several Missionary stories, each set on a different planet, and in her journals she privately acknowledged that “Bloodchild,” with its vague allusions to the flight of Gan’s ancestors, could have easily been another. Yet in its published form, “Bloodchild” presents a very different scene of negotiation from that in Survivor. What Gan demands, loaded rifle under his chin, is that T’Gatoi allow him to give up his freedom on his own terms. “No one ever asks us,” he tells the alien, but when she offers to take his sister instead, he stops her. “Do it to me,” he says, letting T’Gatoi lead him to bed and slide her ovipositor into him: “The puncture was painless, easy. So easy going in. She undulated slowly against me, her muscles forcing the egg from her body into mine.” T’Gatoi hesitantly asks Gan if he has offered himself in order to spare his sister. “And to keep you for myself,” he answers, nuzzling into her. The question is not whether this qualifies as lovemaking but what kind of love is being made. Pressing his naked flesh against T’Gatoi’s velvety body, Gan accepts the risks of being unfree; in return, he wins fidelity, purpose, and a deeply compromised version of love—overclose, carnivorous—that may nonetheless form the basis of a good life.

To return to “Bloodchild” today is to be confronted with the prospect of a Black writer for whom freedom was rarely, if ever, the highest good. That this may appear paradoxical says less about Butler than it does about a contemporary tendency to compensate for the underrepresentation of minority artists by inflating their art until it reflects the experience of not being represented. This is to respond to pigeonholing by overstating the value of being a pigeon. Undoubtedly, Butler’s fiction was informed by her personal experiences of racism and misogyny; but we must never assert the obvious fact that Butler managed to be both a Black woman and a fiction writer as if this were a specifically literary accomplishment instead of a social one. What recommends Butler’s work today, warts and all, is not her status as one of the few Black science-fiction writers of her time but rather the fact that, despite this overwhelming professional isolation, she never gave in to what the critic Ismail Muhammad recently called “the pressures of easy legibility that Black writers have always faced in America.” For Butler, nothing was harder, or more important, than the act of writing. If we do owe her a debt, as devotees sometimes claim, we may pay it by having a harder time reading her.

For what do we think that literature actually does? In the ’80s, Butler’s speaking gigs would inevitably result in a Black person asking her about the value of science fiction for Black people—a question to which she never found a satisfying answer. “I resented the question,” she wrote in a 1989 article for Essence. “Still I’m asked, what good is science fiction to Black people?” Her answers there were brief and predictable—imagination, creativity, thinking outside the status quo—and Butler seems to have known they were unsatisfying. “What good is all this to Black people?” she asked again in the essay’s final line. It’s as if Butler was the alien now, legs akimbo, staring down at the reader from her yellow, unblinking eyes: “You must decide.”

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