Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Octavia Butler (1947-2006) and the Parables (part 1)

Octavia Butler (1947-2006)

The author Octavia Butler wrote two science fiction works that incorporated Jesus's parables into their titles and stories: Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). Butler also started a third book in the series (Parable of the Trickster) but abandoned that project. 

I am grateful to my friend and colleague Adriane Ivey for suggesting that I include these two works in my book. The first draft about them is almost 8000 words, so only 25% of that will make it into the final manuscript. That means that most of what I include here will not be incorporated into the book.


First, some background about Butler, most of which is found in Butler's own words (from pieces collected in Conseula Francis, Conversations with Octavia Butler). 

At the young age of twelve, Octavia Butler saw the science fiction film, Devil Girl from Mars, thought it to be a “silly movie,” and was convinced that she could write a better story (Francis 2010: 82). The film inspired her to embark on what would become a prolific writing career before her untimely death in 2006: her books and short stories won numerous awards, including two Hugo awards and two Nebula awards—science fiction’s most prestigious prizes—as well as a James Tiptree award. She also won a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1995.

Butler’s father, who shined shoes for a living, died when she was a baby, and Butler and her mother survived on what her mother earned as a maid. Painfully shy, Butler coped with her difficult childhood by daydreaming, reading, and writing. As she noted in a 1993 interview: “I’m black. I’m solitary. I’ve always been an outsider” (Francis 2010: 38). She read her way through the children’s section of the Pasadena Public Library and, since she could not be admitted to the adult section of the library before the age of fourteen, started reading science fiction magazines. It was love at first sight. She started sending stories to publishers at age 13, and, in 1969, Butler was admitted to the Screen Writers Guild Open Door program, where she studied with the science fiction writer, Harlan Ellison. He suggested that she enroll in the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop. This six-week program was in effect a “science fiction boot camp” for aspiring writers. Butler actually sold two stories while attending the workshop, but she did not have another piece accepted for publication for the next five years. While she worked at various jobs to support herself, such as sweeping floors and washing dishes, she arose at two or three in the morning to write. Finally, her novel, Patternmaster, was published by Doubleday in 1976, the first of her ten novels and the first of five novels in her Patternmaster series (Francis 2010: 40).

Butler’s works include the challenges involved with issues of the use and abuse of power, the care and destruction of the earth’s resources and environment, and different ways of being human and humane, including gender, race, ethnicity, and class differences. In addition, in a 1995 autobiographical essay, Butler defended both the importance of science fiction writing in general and in particular its efficacy for representing the type of struggles associated with African American history. The specific question she addressed was, “What Good is Science Fiction to Black People?” Some of the points she makes could also apply to parables:


What good is any form of literature to Black people? What good is science fiction’s thinking about the present, the future, and the past? What good is its tendency to warn or to consider alternative ways of thinking of doing? What good is its examination of the possible effects of science and technology, or social organization and political direction? At its best, science fiction stimulates imagination and creativity. It gets reader and writer off the beaten track, off the narrow, narrow footpath of what “everyone” is saying, doing, thinking—whoever “everyone” happens to be this year. And what good is all this to Black people? (Francis 2010: 99).


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