"Ugliness, Empathy, and Octavia Butler"
July 10, 2014 2:18 AM   Subscribe

Estrangement and unfamiliarity, particularly in relation to ugliness and the repulsiveness of the alien body, are central to her work. And this is what gets me. The non-human creatures she imagines make me cringe and their relationships with humans in her fiction are even harder to stomach. My first reaction to the Tlic race in Butler’s 1984 short story, “Bloodchild,” was disgust, made all the more unnerving because of the great care Butler seemed to take in the description of the strange species; the serpentine movements of their long, segmented bodies resemble giant worms with rows of limbs and insect-like stingers.
For The Hooded Utilitarian's roundtable on Octavia Butler Qiana Whitted looks at how Butler uses revulsion and disgust to make the reader work to find empathy with the Other. posted by MartinWisse (23 comments total) 75 users marked this as a favorite

Great story by one of the all too often overlooked Scientifiction masters; for what it's worth, I always saw Bloodchild as a humanist response to Ridley Scott's Alien.
posted by Renoroc at 5:11 AM on July 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just had a quick look and Bloodchild is currently available on the Kindle for free on Amazon.co.uk and is part of the "buy this one and get a book of indeterminate quality for £1.39" promotion.
posted by fatfrank at 5:22 AM on July 10, 2014

Great story by one of the all too often overlooked Scientifiction masters

Octavia Butler is amazing, and the extent to which she was never fully recognized for her greatness is shameful.

I've only read the first essay so far, but will read the others this evening.
posted by Dip Flash at 5:52 AM on July 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

I just discovered Ms Butler recently and was just totally blown away by her ideas. She has the most alien aliens of any writer I've ever run into, complete real entities with honest motivation and reasoning that have nothing to do with growing up on this third planet. Just wonderfully amazing and mind blowing!

I may need to wait until I'm in the right frame of mind to read this short though...
posted by sammyo at 6:13 AM on July 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Bloodchild is also a kind of draft of the ideas in Dawn.

The more science fiction I read, the more I realize that Butler is one of the biggest influences on...well, let's say post-1990 science fiction. (Not that no one was reading her before that - one the contrary! - but I really feel like her ideas sort of built up a critical mass and became very influential at that point.

It's interesting, too, that she's suddenly become the name to drop in politically radical circles. I have a lot of mixed feelings about that, because people who basically have disdain for science fiction will read her work (now that she's safely dead, of course) while not losing their disdain, and I think that does a disservice to Butler as a writer who wanted to write science fiction, and who was enmeshed in a particular science fiction community. (Also, people often don't know a lot about science fiction and get confused by pretty obvious stuff in her work, or misread it wildly - confusion and misreading are productive, and I think it's totally legit to read Butler and no other science fiction ever, but again, this is often coupled with an aggressive disinterest in science fiction in general.)
posted by Frowner at 6:25 AM on July 10, 2014 [8 favorites]

Interesting to read so many of the essays grapple with the fact that they don't like her much, because they wish her truths weren't true.
posted by Diablevert at 6:38 AM on July 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Interesting to read so many of the essays grapple with the fact that they don't like her much, because they wish her truths weren't true.

I always loved this about her work and at the same time it was always one of those "You must be having THIS good a day to read this story..." things for me. She was always big in the radical circles that I traveled in, but for people who viewed scifi as some sort of escapist path, her writing was always the NOPE response to that.
posted by jessamyn at 7:01 AM on July 10, 2014 [11 favorites]

Bloodchild blew my mind when I first read it, then she further blew my mind by describing where the idea came from. Basically it was her pregnant man and pay the rent story, the latter which fascinated me. She was thinking about how humans could co-exist with a more powerful alien species in a peaceful manner aka what could we do for them? We'd have to 'pay rent' so to speak, in order to give them a reason to work with us as opposed to totally overrunning us for their own needs. So we'd compromises, on the species and individual level.

This was clearly someone who worked a lot of odd jobs she didn't like and managed to use that life experience in her work. Just really great stuff.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:32 AM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I hadn't read Bloodchild before, and now I have and regret not doing so earlier. I've not read much if any of Butler's work, and definitely need to rectify that posthaste.

In the first essay, I was particularly struck by the references to "passive empathy" as being an unchallenging and enabling thing, and definitely wanted to chase down the source material there, so: "The Risks of Empathy" paper referenced here.
posted by Drastic at 8:09 AM on July 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Octavia Butler is overlooked? She has multiple Hugo and Nebula awards, she's in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, she got a MacArthur genius grant (not even Ursula Le Guin got one of those.) What's missing, a Nobel? I may be late to the game because I only started reading her stuff when Wild Seed came out in 1980, but that's 34 years.
posted by jfuller at 8:48 AM on July 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

what's most disturbing about the wild seed prequel books is that they end up as a love story between an abused but strong woman and her nightmarishly evil serial killer abusive "husband". you can read them as horror but still... and then there are the books about threesomes with creepy aliens obsessed with eugenics.

Basically, I couldn't really get into Butler because of the sexual horror aspect.
posted by ennui.bz at 9:10 AM on July 10, 2014

(and I know you can read the sexual horror themes as black feminist commentary... but they also read as the personal hangups/interests of the author)
posted by ennui.bz at 9:14 AM on July 10, 2014

The more science fiction I read, the more I realize that Butler is one of the biggest influences on...well, let's say post-1990 science fiction. (Not that no one was reading her before that - one the contrary! - but I really feel like her ideas sort of built up a critical mass and became very influential at that point.

Interesting. Which writers would you say were influenced by Butler?
posted by MartinWisse at 9:42 AM on July 10, 2014

> her nightmarishly evil serial killer abusive "husband".

for whom I have never felt a grain of empathy. So shoot me.
posted by jfuller at 9:49 AM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Interesting. Which writers would you say were influenced by Butler?

I'd actually have to go home and look at my book case to see who all I had in mind - I did a feminist SF class last year and was struck by how almost everything we read after 1990 seemed Butlerian to me, though. Off the top of my head, I can think of L Timmel DuChamp, Nisi Shawl, Aliette de Bodard....jeez, we read a lot of interfacing-with-aliens stuff and I can't remember it all. I'd be astonished if people on the New Weird end of the spectrum weren't, too - Mieville, etc. You could make a pretty strong case for Nicola Griffith's Slow River, IMO.

You just see all these body-horror, labor-horror, complex-labor-sexual-relationships themes that appear to me to derive from Butler.

I think a lot of people who don't read much SF (which I know isn't you) think that Butler wasn't especially influential, because they have not heard of her, or because they accurately perceive that her work on race wasn't actually influential on major white SF writers. But in terms of how people conceive aliens and economics?

(Also, I wish Butler were still alive to ask, because I've always wondered whether some small part of the "Earthseed" books isn't a response to Orson Scott Card's short story "The Monkeys Thought 'Twas All In Fun", which is basically "you may be a black woman hero spaceship pilot who fights like hell to get into space, but the cosmos will smash you down".)
posted by Frowner at 9:57 AM on July 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Waaa, I read Bloodchild a long time ago, during my "read every single novel and short story anthology in the SFF section of my local library" phase and am SO glad to be reminded of it, and to learn more about the author. I *still* get a sickening frisson recalling the unaccustomed body horror of that piece inspired in my fresh little eleven-year-old brain. My summer plans just changed drastically...
posted by Mooseli at 12:21 PM on July 10, 2014

Love love love Butler's work. To me the central underlying concern or motif that runs through all of her stuff is the tension between individual choice and biological and social imperatives. Sometimes choice is able to break through those boundaries but mostly it is forced to work within them, which is very reflective of the world we live in, I think. And also, of course, how power dynamics are inextricably interwoven with the previously mentioned factors. Her aliens may have wildly different biological drives, but they are just like us (thus a cause for self-reflection) in how they are driven and determined by them.
posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 6:32 PM on July 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Incidently, Two new, unpublished Octavia Butler stories will be released in a new collection.

With one of those coming straight out of Last Deadloss Visions.
posted by MartinWisse at 1:58 AM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

So I first discovered "Bloodchild" in a Hugo anthology when I was around 12. And I was instantly hooked on Butler.

Then Parable of the Sower came out. And I just about cried, because this wasn't just a beautifully written story, this was my L.A. - this was how I could see the world becoming, this was how I could see my life being, because I was living in a suburban North Long Beach street with cinderblock walls and metal screen doors and cactus protecting the windows.

When I was in high school, we read Kindred as a school-wide project (we're only talking 300 or so kids, so it wasn't that impressive a feat, honestly). She came and spoke at our school, and I was so delighted, and she was there and my biggest regret was that the teachers wouldn't let students talk to her, except to ask questions after she spoke. I asked a good question (about "Speech Sounds"), but I wanted to talk to her more, I wanted to know what it was like to be such a writer.

When I was at Tulane, I worked in the women's center, and we had an annual writer-in-residence week. And when they were trying to find someone new, I recommended her. And she agreed.

She was there a week, and I got to talk to her. I utterly fangirled myself when I first met her, all stumbling and ridiculous, but then I got to really talk to her.

I had dinner with her, an English professor, and an English major who was really the epitome of your classic white male literary author, who laughed at my research into fanfiction culture on the Internet, but went on and on about his play about a senator. But she listened, and she told fantastic stories about writing and about fandom.

I walked with her through the university, pointing out things that were pretty cool. I told her about how I survived Hurricane Georges in a dorm hall, recovering from dental surgery with vicodin, antibiotics, and a collected version of Lilith's Brood. I told her about the bougainvillea and cactus that grew outside my dad's house back in L.A., and how Lauren Olamina's world was my world.

At the end of the week, I asked her to sign one of the writer-in-residence posters. She did, and in the signature, she mentioned something I didn't even realise she had seen.

I was tech support for the women's centre, and there was a broken mouse. I replaced it, and because I didn't have a pocket big enough for the dead mouse, I just wrapped it around my neck, like a thin scarf with a weight attached. I ended up spending the rest of the hour like that, not realising until I was walking down to the stairs to go to my next class. I realised, and ran into the centre's library, going to the front desk.

"Take this," I said, unwrapping the cord and holding out the mouse to the other student worker there. "It's dead, and I forgot I had it around my neck."

"You forgot?"

"Shut up. Yeah. I forgot. Take the mouse, I'm going to be late for class."

He took the mouse, and I left, noticing her sitting with another student, talking, but too busy trying to make my way across the campus for my next class.

She signed the poster, and it said "Queen of the Mice" on it.

In a school where I was regularly ignored for being too female, for not being female enough, for liking the wrong things, for not liking other things, for being a nerdy fat girl who loved computers and ancient religion and internet fandom and didn't see a contradiction between the three, it was a rare thing to be listened to. And I thank her forever for doing so.

I cried when I heard she had died. And I'm still forever grateful to her.
posted by Katemonkey at 2:48 AM on July 11, 2014 [28 favorites]

I have bookmarked all of this to read later, so can't comment on the post specifically. But damn, it's been too long since I've picked up a Butler book. I'd never heard of her until a friend passed on Patternmaster and it got me back into sci-fi after I'd been put off by too many 'hard' stories that didn't inspire me with all their gleaming technology. Butler's stories were messy and weird and engrossing, there's nothing quite like them.
posted by harriet vane at 5:08 AM on July 12, 2014

Katemonkey, that is an amazing story.

(Also, "Speech Sounds" -- oof. I just read the Wikipedia article to make sure it was the one I thought it was, and just the summary gave me full-body chills again.)
posted by librarina at 5:36 PM on July 12, 2014

Thanks again for posting this. I've never read any Butler and now I've just finished Dawn (after reading Bloodchild) and I'm seriously squicked out. It's the same sort of horror of humans as prey that we get from the movie Alien, but instead of the silly slasher horror fic it's a thoughtful human drama with interesting characters. Nicely done.
posted by Nelson at 1:33 PM on July 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

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