In Memoriam Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler died last weekend. She was only 58. (Newspaper obituaries here and here, and appreciations by other SF writers here, here and here, among other places). What a bummer. I just read Fledgling, which now turns out to have been her last novel, a few weeks ago. Butler’s novels are downbeat, pessimistic, and utterly gripping. They all deal, in various ways, with issues of otherness, pain, and dependency; as well as, obviously, with race and gender, and racism and misogyny. They are never didactic, however, because they are as deeply concerned with affect as they are with cognition: the two simply can’t be separated in Butler’s world. These novels offer little hope of release, transcendence, or liberation. They sometimes flirt with religio-ethical responses in various ways, but they always also emphasize the fictiveness of such responses. They also often envision the posthuman, the transhuman, and the hybrid-no-longer-quite-human; but they never portray these in the salvific terms white technogeeks are so prone to. Above all, Butler’s novels never pretend to alleviate the pain that they so eloquently describe and evoke: in this sense, they are utterly, shockingly clear as to the forms of domination and oppression that are so often taken for granted in our (post)modern, highly technologized, supposedly enlightened world. They bear witness to the intolerable, to how much of our social life today remains intolerable. This makes them indispensable, both aesthetically and (dare I say it) politically. I think that we still have a lot to learn from Butler’s texts: about how to understand human limits and constraints without turning such an understanding into an apologia for the current ruling order; about how to construct a politics of the Other, in a way that goes well beyond today’s alternatives of insipid multiculturalism, Levinasian depoliticized ethics, or Zizek’s and Badiou’s deeply suspect universalism; about how to think the posthuman, the no-longer-merely-human. And above all, about a politics of affect (not a politics of emotions against reason, but one that rejects such binary altenatives altogether, and thus moves away from the common basis of both liberalism and fascism). I never met Butler in person (though I saw her speak or read a couple of times); but I am deeply grieved that we will never get any more novels from her.

3 Responses to “In Memoriam Octavia Butler”

  1. Carl Freedman says:

    A fine tribute to a great writer, whose place in American literature, in 50 years, may well be a good deal higher than most of us suspect right now. The one point where I somewhat disagree with Steve is the emphasis he puts on Butler’s pessimism. The downbeat elements that Steve locates in Butler’s fiction are certainly there, but are not, perhaps, the whole story. Though I have some quibbles with Tom Moylan’s terminology, I think he is essentially right to see Butler as an author of *critical* dystopias, that is, of works that maintain a rigorously bleak vision without altogether surrendering utopian hope. I think Steve actually implies much the same thing in his excellent concluding lines, where he begins the important task of teasing out a practical politics of Butler’s dark imaginings. I never met her either, but always imagined I eventually would. Apparently not.

  2. Working Blue says:

    […] Because I have been living under a rock and out of the digital loop thanks to Adelphia, I just now found out that Octavia Butler died. Steve has a nice comment on her work. She’s one of my favorite writers. Butler was a sci-fi author–a genre that doesn’t have a lot of interest for me–but she wasn’t “just” a science fiction writer. Her writing was/is amazing. The scope of biological imagination in her books just blew me away. I almost inhaled the Xenogenesis trilogy when I first read them. Her writing was too wild for words sometimes. I remember being slightly freaked out by those cat-children in Clay’s Ark. […]

  3. Octavia Butler was a friend of mine for over 30 years. The woman was brilliant, a genius and yet so very down to earth. Visit our Talk Ablout Parenting with Shirlee Smith website and view a past interview with her on March 17, 2:00 p.m pst and on Saturday, March 18th at 2:00 a.m. pst. Also check out my blog regarding “Octavia Butler Day” in Pasadena

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