Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Octavia Butler Is Gone

I have just heard that one of my favorite authors, Octavia Butler, has died in an accident. She was 58 years old.

This news is simply shattering to me. As were her books.

For now, I can only clumsily testify to the impact Butler's work has had on me since I first read her novel Wild Seed (still one of my very favorites) something like fifteen years ago. I have also taught her stories and novels in many of my courses, and I have been pleased to see how passionately students have responded to her vision, how there will always be a student or two who simply drop everything and then read everything they can find by Octavia Butler once they have found her. Since I discovered Octavia Butler's work, I have read and re-read all of her books many times. It is hard to say why I have found such solace and so much of the courage of my convictions in them, since I also have found them painful to read every single time.

Her science fiction is devoted to the application of human intelligence to the problems we confront, but unlike the Efficacious Men of so much science fiction Butler's characters apply their intelligence to social struggle, sometimes on a sweeping world-historical scale, sometimes at a painfully intimate scale. Science and technology and morphological variation are themes in so much sf, and yet they almost never have the heft or heartbreak that Butler imbued into these themes. Although oiled muscles strain the shirts the boys on the sf pulp covers wear, the characters inside usually come off as brains in vats anyway, somehow, to me -- but Butler's characters really have bodies.

History and struggle and technology leave them both scarred and skilled. They are imbedded in families and in the accidental individual variations of morphology, capacity, and culture, and in mammalian dominance hierarchies that tease at our ethical pronouncements and in a clash of deep, sometimes costly, desires against which they strain and in whose poetry they remain...

My lived sense of the way power and difference play out in the politics of futures our pasts propel us into easily owes as much to Octavia Butler as it does to Michel Foucault or to Donna Haraway or to Judith Butler, and that is saying something. It's hard to convey what it means to me to know there will be no more Octavia Butler books to look forward to, each one always sure to be so much her own, never like anybody else's, in a voice I felt I understood and came to crave, attesting to a world that seemed so painfully real and familiar to me, however alien.

Read her books.

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