Science Fiction Studies

#70 = Volume 23, Part 3 = November 1996

Stephen W. Potts

"We Keep Playing the Same Record": A Conversation with Octavia E. Butler

For readers of this journal, Octavia E. Butler literally needs no introduction. Her exquisite, insightful works—especially the three XENOGENESIS novels, (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago) and her award-winning story "Bloodchild"— have been discussed and analyzed more than once in these pages.

One usually has to get up early in the morning to reach Ms. Butler. A private person, she prefers writing in the predawn hours and by eight AM is frequently out of the house on the day's business. She has other claims to uniqueness: she is a native of Los Angeles who does not drive; she is a woman of color working in a genre that has almost none, and she is a science-fiction author who has received a prestigious literary award, to wit, a 1995 grant from the MacArthur Foundation.

The following conversation took place by telephone early one morning in February 1996. It has been edited only to eliminate digressions, redundancies, and irrelevancies and to bridge some technical difficulties; Ms. Butler was given the opportunity to review and amend the finished version.

Stephen W. Potts: Your name has been turning up with increasing frequency in journals (such as SCIENCE-FICTION STUDIES) devoted to the serious study of science fiction. Do you read reviews or literary criticism of your work?

Octavia E. Butler: I do, but I tend to get angry. Not when I disagree with someone's interpretation, but when people clearly have not read the whole book. I'm not too upset when they are factually wrong about some incident, which can happen to anybody, but I am when they are inaccurate about something sweeping. For example, somebody writing a review of Parable of the Sower said, "Oh, the Earthseed religion is just warmed over Christianity," and I thought this person could not have been troubled to read the Earthseed verses and just drew that conclusion from the title.

SWP: I ask because a substantial part of modern literary theory dwells on relationships of power and on the human body as a site of conflict: between men and women, among classes and races, between imperial and colonial peoples. These issues intersect nicely with the subject matter of your fiction. I was wondering if you were at all familiar with cultural theory.

OEB: Ah. No, I avoid all critical theory because I worry about it feeding into my work. I mean, I don't worry about nonfiction in general feeding in—in fact, I hope it will—but I worry about criticism influencing me because it can create a vicious circle or something worse. It's just an impression of mine, but in some cases critics and authors seem to be massaging each other. It's not very good for storytelling.

SWP: The first work of yours I read was the story "Bloodchild" in its original printing in Asimov's. I remember being particularly impressed that you had taken the invading bug-eyed monster of classic science fiction and turned it into a seductively nurturing, maternal figure.

OEB: It is basically a love story. There are many different kinds of love in it: family love, physical love . . . The alien needs the boy for procreation, and she makes it easier on him by showing him affection and earning his in return. After all, she is going to have her children with him.

SWP: In fact, she will impregnate him.

OEB: Right. But so many critics have read this as a story about slavery, probably just because I am black.

SWP: I was going to ask you later about the extent to which your work addresses slavery.

OEB: The only places I am writing about slavery is where I actually say so.

SWP: As in Kindred.

OEB: And in Mind of My Mind and Wild Seed. What I was trying to do in "Bloodchild" was something different with the invasion story. So often you read novels about humans colonizing other planets and you see the story taking one of two courses. Either the aliens resist and we have to conquer them violently, or they submit and become good servants. In the latter case, I am thinking of a specific novel, but I don't want to mention it by name. I don't like either of those alternatives, and I wanted to create a new one. I mean, science fiction is supposed to be about exploring new ideas and possibilities. In the case of "Bloodchild," I was creating an alien that was different from us, though still recognizable—a centipede-like creature. But you're not supposed to regard it as evil.

SWP: Something similar is going on in the XENOGENESIS trilogy, isn't it? While teaching the books in my university classes, I have encountered disagreement over which species comes off worse, the humans or the Oankali. Humanity has this hierarchical flaw, particularly in the male, but the Oankali are the ultimate users, adapting not only the entire human genome for its own purposes but ultimately destroying the planet for all other life as well. Are we supposed to see a balance of vices here?

OEB: Both species have their strengths and weaknesses. You have small groups of violent humans, but we don't see all humans rampaging as a result of their Contradiction. For the most part, the Oankali do not force or rush humans into mating but try to bring them in gradually. In fact, in Adulthood Rites, the construct Akin convinces the Oankali that they cannot destroy the human beings who refuse to participate. The Oankali decide that humans do deserve an untouched world of their own, even if it's Mars.

SWP: In the case of both humans and Oankali, you offer sociobiological arguments for behavior: humans are bent toward destroying themselves and others; the Oankali are biologically driven to co-opt the genome of other species and to literally rip off their biospheres. Do you largely accept sociobiological principles?

OEB: Some readers see me as totally sociobiological, but that is not true. I do think we need to accept that our behavior is controlled to some extent by biological forces. Sometimes a small change in the brain, for instance—just a few cells—can completely alter the way a person or animal behaves.

SWP: Are you thinking of Oliver Sacks's books, such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat?

OEB: Exactly. Or the fungus that causes tropical ants to climb trees to spread its spores, or the disease that makes a wildebeest spend its last days spinning in circles. But I don't accept what I would call classical sociobiology. Sometimes we can work around our programming if we understand it.

SWP: The exploitation of reproduction and, by extension, of family arises in a number of your works. Doro in the Patternist novels is breeding a master race and uses family ties with heroines like Anyanwu in Wild Seed and Mary in Mind of My Mind to help keep them under control. Family ties control the problematic bond between Dana and Rufus in Kindred. Reproduction and family lie at the crux of the relationship in "Bloodchild" and between the humans and Oankali in XENOGENESIS. Do you intentionally focus on reproductive and family issues as a central theme, or did this just happen?

OEB: Perhaps as a woman, I can't help dwelling on the importance of family and reproduction. I don't know how men feel about it. Even though I don't have a husband and children, I have other family, and it seems to me our most important set of relationships. It is so much of what we are. Family does not have to mean purely biological relationships either. I know families that have adopted outside individuals; I don't mean legally adopted children but other adults, friends, people who simply came into the household and stayed. Family bonds can even survive really terrible abuse.

SWP: Of course, you show the power of such bonds operating in either direction; for instance, Anyanwu in Wild Seed and Dana in Kindred both ultimately take advantage of the fact that their respective "masters" need them.

OEB: They don't recognize these men as their masters.

SWP: I was putting the word in quotation marks. Are you suggesting that people in subordinate positions should recognize and exploit what power they do have?

OEB: You do what you have to do. You make the best use of whatever power you have.

SWP: We even see that humans have more power than they realize over the Oankali. Especially with the construct ooloi in Imago: they have no identity without human mates. Aaor devolves into a slug.

OEB: The constructs are an experiment. They do not know what they are going to be, or when it is going to happen. And they do not need humans specifically, even though they prefer them; they can bond with anything. But they have to bond.

SWP: I would like to go back a bit in your literary history. Who were your authorial influences as an apprentice writer?

OEB: I read a lot of science fiction with absolutely no discrimination when I was growing up—I mean, good, bad, or awful [laughs]. It didn't matter. I remember latching onto people and reading everything I could find by them, people like John Brunner, who wrote a lot. I could pick up Ace Doubles at the used book store for a nickel or a dime, so I was always reading John Brunner. And Theodore Sturgeon—by the time I was reading adult science fiction, he had a considerable body of work. Of course, Robert A. Heinlein. I can remember my very first adult science fiction, a story called "Lorelei of the Red Mist." If I am not mistaken, it was Ray Bradbury's first published story. Leigh Brackett began it and he finished it.

SWP: Can you think of anybody outside of science fiction?

OEB: I tended to read whatever was in the house, which meant that I read a lot of odd stuff. Who was that guy that used to write about men's clubs all the time? John O'Hara. It was Mars for me. I like British between-the-wars mysteries for the same reason. They take place on Mars; they're different worlds.

SWP: Might we suggest that since John O'Hara writes about upper-class white culture, his world would be almost as alien to you as the worlds of science fiction?

OEB: Absolutely. There was a book of his stories in the house, as well as books by James Thurber and James Baldwin. I did not read any Langston Hughes until I was an adult, but I remember being carried away by him and Gwendolyn Brooks. When I was growing up, the only blacks you came across in school were slaves—who were always well treated—and later, when we got to individuals, Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. Booker T. Washington started a college, and Carver did something with peanuts; we never knew what. We did not read anything by a black writer except [James Weldon] Johnson's The Creation, and that was in high school. We managed to get through adolescence without being introduced to any black culture.

SWP: I was in that same generation, and I remember that it wasn't really until the seventies that we started opening up the canon. Actually, the issue is still controversial, judging from the so-called "culture war" over how inclusive the canon should be or whether we should even have one.

OEB: Yes, it's too bad when . . . well, there was one person I had a lot of respect for, but he could not find a single black person to put into the canon, so I lost my respect for him rather badly.

SWP: On its surface, Parable of the Sower looks like a change in direction from your earlier work.

OEB: Not really. It is still fundamentally about social power.

SWP: But it is much more a close extrapolation from current trends: the increasing class gap, the fear of crime, the chaos of the cities spreading to the suburbs, the centrifugal forces tearing our society apart.

OEB: Yes. It really distresses me that we see these things happening now in American society when they don't have to. Some people insist that all civilizations have to rise and fall—like the British before us—but we have brought this on ourselves. What you see today has happened before: a few powerful people take over with the approval of a class below them who has nothing to gain and even much to lose as a result. It's like the Civil War: most of the men who fought to preserve slavery were actually being hurt by it. As farmers they could not compete with the plantations, and they could not even hire themselves out as labor in competition with the slaves who could be hired out more cheaply by their owners. But they supported the slave system anyway.

SWP: They probably opposed affirmative action.

OEB: [laughs] Right. I guess many people just need someone to feel superior to to make themselves feel better. You see Americans doing it now, unfortunately, while voting against their own interests. It is that kind of shortsighted behavior that is destroying us.

SWP: Are these problems somehow unique to American society?

OEB: Oh no, of course not.

SWP: I was sure you'd say that.

OEB: We are seeing a particular American form here, but look at the Soviet Union. When capitalism took over, it is amazing how quickly they developed a crime problem. Unfortunately, the most successful capitalists over there now seem to be the criminals.

SWP: Which is ironic because in classic Soviet Marxist theory the capitalist class was associated with the criminal class.

OEB: That may be the problem. We are getting into murky territory here: I heard about an old man in Russia who tried to turn his farm into a successful private enterprise, but his neighbors came over and destroyed his efforts. He was not a criminal, but to them that kind of individualistic profit-making was criminal behavior. I guess to succeed in Russia you have to be someone who (a) doesn't care what the neighbors think and (b) has a bodyguard. And if you're in that position, you probably are a criminal.

SWP: To get back to Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina is empathic—

OEB: She is not empathic. She feels herself to be. Usually in science fiction "empathic" means that you really are suffering, that you are actively interacting telepathically with another person, and she is not. She has this delusion that she cannot shake. It's kind of biologically programmed into her.

SWP: Interesting. So what is happening, say, when she feels the pain of the wounded dog she ends up killing?

OEB: Oh, even if it is not there, she feels it. In the first chapter of the book, she talks about her brother playing tricks on her—pretending to be hurt, pretending to bleed, and causing her to suffer. I have been really annoyed with people who claim Lauren is a telepath, who insist that she has this power. What she has is a rather crippling delusion.

SWP: So we should maintain some ironic distance from her?

OEB: No.

SWP: We should still identify with her.

OEB: I hope readers will identify with all my characters, at least while they're reading.

SWP: Through Earthseed, Lauren hopes to bring back a sense of communal purpose and meaning by turning people's eyes back to the stars. It made me think: the space program of the sixties really was part of the general hopefulness of the decade, part of our sense that anything was possible if we strove together as a people.

OEB: And that was the decade of my adolescence. We keep playing the same record. Earlier I was talking about it: we begin something and then we grow it to a certain point and then it destroys itself or else it is destroyed from the outside—whether it is Egypt or Rome or Greece, this country or Great Britain, you name it. I do feel that we are either going to continue to play the same record until it shatters—and I said it in the book, though not in those words—or we are going to do something else. And I think the best way to do something else is to go someplace else where the demands on us will be different. Not because we are going to go someplace else and change ourselves, but because we will go someplace else and be forced to change.

SWP: Do you think we will be better for that change?

OEB: It's possible. We could be better; we could be worse. There's no insurance policy.

SWP: I gather that we can expect another book to pick up where Parable of the Sower left off.

OEB: Parable of the Talents is the book I am working on now.

SWP: It will be interesting to see where you go with the story.

OEB: Well, in Parable of the Sower I focused on the problems—the things we have done wrong, that we appear to be doing wrong, and where those things can lead us. I made a real effort to talk about what could actually happen or is in the process of happening: the walled communities and the illiteracy and the global warming and lots of other things. In Parable of the Talents I want to give my characters the chance to work on the solutions, to say, "Here is the solution!"

SWP: Parable of the Sower was published by a small press (Four Walls Eight Windows), as was your collection Bloodchild and Other Stories. Kindred was republished by a small press (Beacon). As a successful science-fiction author, what made you turn to less commercial publishers?

OEB: I had probably reached some kind of plateau in science fiction, and I couldn't seem to get off it. I knew I had three audiences at least, but I couldn't get my science-fiction publisher to pay any attention. I could tell them all day and all night, but they would answer, "Yes, that's right," and then go off and do something else. You know, the best way to defeat an argument is to agree with it and then forget about it. I had wanted to try one of the big publishers not normally associated with science fiction, and then my agent came up with this small publisher. I thought I would take the chance.

SWP: Would you like to break down some of the walls between generic marketing categories?

OEB: Oh, that's not possible. You know how we are; if we kill off some, we will invent others.

SWP: I ask in part because I noticed that Beacon Press published Kindred as a book in its "Black Women Writers" series.

OEB: Yes, I mentioned having three audiences: the science-fiction audience, the black audience, and the feminist audience.

SWP: And being marketed through such categories doesn't trouble you.

OEB: Well, they're there, as I was just saying, and there's nothing you can do about it.

SWP: I remember that during the New Wave of the Sixties—

OEB: Oh, where is it now?

SWP: —I was among those who believed that science fiction was moving to the forefront of literature.

OEB: Well, parts of it did move into the mainstream. In other cases, people simply did not call what they were doing "science fiction." I mean, Robin Cook did not announce that he was doing medical science fiction, and Dean Koontz does not publish his work as science fiction. And there are a lot of people who write science fiction although the word does not appear anywhere on the cover or inside. It doesn't mean they don't like science fiction; it means they want to make a good living.

SWP: As I pointed out initially, your treatments of power, gender, and race coincide with many of the interests of current literary theory, and your own race and gender inevitably come into literary critiques of your work. Has being an African-American woman influenced your choice of theme and approach?

OEB: I don't think it could do otherwise. All writers are influenced by who they are. If you are white, you could write about being Chinese, but you would bring in a lot of what you are as well.

SWP: I cannot help noting—as you yourself observe in your essay—"Positive Obsession"—that you are unique in the science-fiction community. While there are more women working in the field than there were thirty years ago, there are few African Americans, and I still cannot think of another African-American woman.

OEB: I have heard of some who have published stories. The ones who are actually writing books are not calling themselves science-fiction authors, which is right because they are actually writing horror or fantasy. For instance, the woman who wrote the lesbian vampire stories, the Gilda stories, Jewelle Gomez—she's not science fiction but she is fantasy, and that's in the family. But I don't think she even presented her work as that.

SWP: Do you think many people are still under the impression that science fiction is primarily a white male genre?

OEB: Yes. In fact, sometimes when I speak to general audiences they are surprised there are a lot of women in science fiction. Because people do have a rather fixed notion of what science fiction is; it either comes from television or they pick it up somehow from the air, the ambience.

SWP: Any last words to the science-fiction critical community about how to approach your work?

OEB: Oh, good heavens, no!

SWP: [laughs]

OEB: As far as criticism goes, what a reader brings to the work is as important as what I put into it, so I don't get upset when I am misinterpreted. Except when I say what I really meant was so-and-so, and I am told, "Oh, but subconsciously you must have meant this." I mean—leave me alone! [laughs] I don't mind attempts to interpret my fiction, but I am not willing to have critics interpret my subconscious. I doubt they are qualified.


Butler, Octavia E. Adulthood Rites. NY: Warner Books, 1988.

-----. "Bloodchild." Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine (June 1984): 34-54.

-----. Bloodchild and Other Stories. NY: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995.

-----. Dawn. NY: Warner Books, 1987.

-----. Kindred. 1979. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988.

-----. Imago. NY: Warner Books, 1989.

-----. Mind of My Mind. 1977. NY: Warner Books, 1994.

-----. Parable of the Sower. NY: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993.

-----. "Positive Obsession," Bloodchild and Other Stories, 125-135.

-----. Wild Seed. 1980. NY: Warner Books, 1988.

Sacks, Oliver. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. NY: Summit Books, 1985.

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