The first Octavia Butler novel I ever read was Fledgling, and it was a revelation. While I had been taught by early exposure to Ursula Le Guin that genre fiction could be political, could comment on social and cultural morés, I never expected that someone would use vampires to discuss bigotry, racism, and slavery. It’s been almost a decade since I read it, but I doubt I’ll ever forget that sense of wonder.
And that, more than anything else, is why Butler ranks as one of my all-time favorites. Of course, her accomplishments are many—this is a woman who conquered both dyslexia and prejudice to become an award-winning writer and a MacArthur Fellow. Kindred alone is enough to put her in the ranks of influential sci-fi writers. But I am a lifelong genre fan and a somewhat-jaded reader, and I’ve read a lot of good books and many great ones too. So when I read, I’m looking for a return to that moment we’ve all felt, in which an author does something so original, so creative, so truly surprising, that it feels like your mind has been blown wide open. Octavia Butler’s books create that moment, time and again.
For the first U.S. World Book Night, I chose to hand out Kindred. There’s nothing simple about trying to convince strangers first, that you’re not trying to give them religious materials, and second, that they should take this sci-fi novel from you. And believe me, I dearly wanted to say, “Have you accepted Octavia Butler as your personal reading savior?” but wiser heads convinced me this was a bad idea. So instead, I often found myself babbling. “It’s not just a time travel novel,” I told people. “It’s a book that shows how you can use science fiction to talk about politics and society.” “It’s amazing. It will change the way you look at genre fiction.” “She’s the most famous female African-American sci-fi writer!”
I said all those things because they were true, but mostly because “It will astonish you,” doesn’t seem like enough of a pitch. But truthfully, that’s the highest praise I can give: Octavia Butler will astonish you.
Originally published in June 2013