Science fiction writer Octavia Butler created new realities. Some of Butler’s realities are populated with aliens, such as the short story “Bloodchild” and the Lilith’s Brood series (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago). In other cases, there are telepaths, immortals, and a variety characters some may expect to see in science fiction. However, what is most important is that her visions and examinations of the future (and past) portray realities with African-American men and women at the center. She offers nihilistic realities where black people are redefining and rebuilding humanity.
Butler published work from 1977 to shortly before her sudden death in 2006. However, she had several major milestones during the 1990s; she published the award-winning Parable Series–Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998)—and the story and essay collection Bloodchild and Other Stories. In 1995, she was also awarded a $295,000 MacArthur “Genius Grant”; Butler was the first science fiction writer to receive this prestigious fellowship.
The Parable series follows young black female Lauren Olamina. She is 15 at the beginning of the first novel, which follows her journey during the years 2024 through 2027; the sequel takes place in the time period 2032 to 2090. Extreme poverty, violence, and (especially in the sequel) tolerated persecution of many non-Christians is often seen and too often encouraged. Lauren creates a new religion Earthseed, but she repeatedly faces sacrifice, violence, and loss on a long and difficult rode to her faith finding a following. Olamina is a complex character who arguably sacrifices her family and personal happiness (as well as the happiness of her child) led by a greater sense of duty to help build a social, spiritual, physically decaying version of the United States. Olamina is not perfect, she provides black people with a readable complex character making difficult decisions and in a dark and scary society; she is an actor and not acted upon. A young black woman is an agent of power and change.
In an interview following the main text in Parable of the Talents (Grand Central Publishing edition), Butler offers insight into her choice for the title of the novel. She explains, “the parable of talents is one of the harsher parables of the Bible, but then life can be harsh…We will use our talents or we will lose them. We will use our talents to save ourselves or we’ll do what other animal species do sooner or later.”[i] Many of Butler’s realties are dark, violent, and just plain scary; they are warnings of Western society’s and general human failings. She forces the reader to consider and examine different possibilities for saving humanity and (even more deeply) the individual soul. Butler does not ignore or minimize the complexity of the future. She offers a reality that puts black people in the center of negotiating it. —Ebony Gibson
[i] Butler, page 409.