Book Review: Conversations With Octavia Butler
Publication Date: Mar 15, 2010
List Price: $50.00
Format: Hardcover, 288 pages
Imprint: University Press of Mississippi
Publisher: University Press of Mississippi
Parent Company: University Press of Mississippi
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Book Reviewed by Robert Fleming
As the sole major black female author of science fiction throughout her career, Octavia Butler reshaped the fictional world of fantasy and myth with her insightful books, creating alternative realities of sex, race, gender and culture. This collection of interviews from 1980 to 2006, published by the University Press of Mississippi, features an intelligent, articulate, introspective woman who understood some uncommon truths about history, society, science, and human relationships.
Born in Pasadena, California in 1947, Octavia was an only child, who read a lot of science fiction, including the classic Ace Doubles, John Brunner, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert A. Heinlein, and Ray Bradbury. Writer Harlan Ellison encouraged her to attend the Clarion workshop on Science Fiction and Fantasy writing. Shy, unassuming, brilliant, with an unfettered imagination, she wrote thirteen books, including Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977), Kindred (1979), Clay’s Ark (1984), Adulthood Rites (1988), Parable of The Sower (1993), Parable of The Talents (1998) and Fledgling (2005).
Common themes in Octavia’s work involved self-preservation, survival, transformation, and the persistence of struggle. As she said in one of her interviews, she liked to write about people who are clearly needing to do something, or be something, or reach something. In one of her most popular novels, Kindred, she spoke eloquently of the anguish of slavery, the complexity of race, and the brutal culture of oppression.
In a 1980 interview, Octavia explains the role of blackness in Western literature: “What it really means is that to be black is to be abnormal. The norm is white, apparently, in the view of people who see things in that way. For them, the only reason you would introduce a black character is to introduce this kind of abnormality. Usually, it’s because you’re telling a story about racism or at least about race.” (pg. 6)
Reading through the interviews reveals Octavia as a very capable woman intellectual, who drew upon the male Grand Masters of the sci-fi genre, but was influenced by the powerful feminism of female visionaries such as Joanna Russ, Ursula LeGuin, Kate Wilhelm, and Marion Zimmer Bradley. Although she won both the Nebula and Hugo awards and a MacArthur “genius” grant, she kept expanding her literary boundaries, culminating in a taste of horror in her last novel, Fledgling, published a year before her accidental death from a fall in 2006.
At the time with the release of Fledgling, Octavia talked about the suppression of information and the censorship of writers and artists in this society: “Beware, all too often we say what we hear others say. We think what we are told that we think. We see what we are permitted to see. Worse, we see what we are told that we see.” (pg. 225)
It’s always an honor to sample such a rich, generous mind. The University Press of Mississippi has rendered us a great service in publishing this astonishing, perceptive collection of statements from Octavia Butler, one of the accomplished royalty in the world of Science Fiction. Unpredictable, incisive, and frank, these interviews open the reader to a strikingly original, unmistakable creative process, which was uniquely Miss Butler.