Butler, Octavia

Nobody should be surprised at how few black SF writers there are.

Certainly no one who looks at the world depicted in SF writing before about 1960 could have any doubt that the genre was simply not designed to be written or read by the dispossessed.

There is no secret here: American SF, the dominant form of the genre for many decades, was about the people who owned the world, or who were about to.

Here is a vision: a bright young inventor hero lands on a planet, dazzles the huddles, dark-skinned native villagers with his science and wisdom, and plants his flag on the world, now entitled to join the Galactic Confederacy. It is a vision, one can be certain, that was not aimed at black readers – not that there were many, for SF conspicuously lacked black readers for many decades; and they are still comparatively rare, if attendance at conventions is any sign.

Nor was it a vision directed to readers – there have always been some – in the Third World. No, SF was not written for the underdogs; it was written for the inheritors of the Earth.

But (of course) the underdog is all of us and the inheritors of the Earth are all of us.

By the 1960’s it had become apparent that SF, if it wished to address the human race, was going to have to stop propagandizing for one small interest group: the affluent whites.

It is, perhaps, a sign of the inherent strength of the genre that writers like Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler were able, given all this background, to write SF that did not constantly refer to the fact that both were black, while at the same time composing work that radically subverted some of the old SF conventions; for the good of the story and for the good of us all.

The Patternmaster sequence, Butler’s first series, begins with her first novel, Patternmaster (1976).

Against a genre conceit – two immortals wrestle with each other for centuries about how to shape the human race into a fitting pattern – gender and race issues surface subtly, and much more of the conflict turns on a contrast between ridged patriarchal conservatism and the giving and communal pattern advocated by the strong women who dominate most of the sequence.

Kindred (1979), which stands alone, is a timeslip fantasy: a black woman of the 20th century finds herself in 1820 Maryland. The horror of such a fate is alleviated by superb storytelling.

In the Xenogenesis series of the 1980’s, the alien Onankali visit a devasted near-future Earth to try to salvage some useful genes. A black woman is chosen to liaise between the aliens and the frazzled remnants of humanity. Eventually, the Onankali create a transformed society.We would not be comfortable in that society: but it does not destroy the planet again.


(Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia, JC)