Octavia Butler is one of the greatest sci-fi authors of all time, if not the greatest sci-fi author of all time. This is what makes her best books great:
- they are tense, compelling thrillers usually starring kickass women of colour;
- they are written is a style that’s clear, direct, and to the point–you aim to read a couple of paragraphs before bed, but the reading feels so effortless that, before you realise it, you’ve devoured three chapters;
- they double as philosophical treaties on racial and sexual power dynamics, as well as, often, the ethics of genetic tinkering: when reading her books, I often have a sense of Butler arguing and counter-arguing with herself, through her characters, the ins and outs of a series of fiendish moral puzzles, some of which ultimately have no answer, and/or resist the author’s attempt at figuring them out through logic.
Problem is, Butler wrote loads of books, and they vary in terms of content and quality, and some of them are stand-alone and some of them form series. If you haven’t read any of her work and you’re like me, then you’ll want to do a bit of research before picking your very first Octavia Butler. This post is meant to help you with that–I’ll provide a short summary of the setting and premise of each of my recommendations, followed by the reasons why I think they’d make good starting points.
Full disclosure: I haven’t read every single one of Butler’s books—I’m still missing four. My local library only stocks Kindred, which means that, every time I’ve felt like reading one of her books, I’ve had to buy it. This has slowed me down. But I’ve read all her standalone novels (Kindred and Fledgling), her short story anthology (Bloodchild and Other Stories), the whole Lilith’s Brood/Xenogenesis trilogy (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago), the first book in the Patternmaster series (Wild Seed), and quite a bit of Parable of the Sower before giving up (I tried again in preparation for this post, but it’s too grim for me right now). The missing books are the last three Patternmaster books and one and a half of the Parable books. This means I’ll update this post each time I read a new one, but, in the meantime, I think I’ve read enough of her stuff that I can start giving some advice to novices.
So, I having said all that: I’d start with either Dawn or Kindred—or, if you like the sound of it, Wild Seed.
Setting: A massive spaceship orbiting the Earth, then somewhere in the Amazon jungle.
Premise: A woman wakes up on an alien spaceship. Humans were on the very brink of total self-annihilation, when a bunch of aliens whizzed by on their spaceship and decided to save a sample of Earth’s population. The aliens gradually get the humans used to them, then reveal that Earth is habitable again, and that the humans can go back if they want. The catch: the aliens need to mate with other species in other to evolve, and humans are next on their list. But they think swapping genetic material would benefit humans too.
Why you should read it: This was my first Butler book, and it made me into a fan. In fact, it was the first proper book I’d managed to read after a few weeks of general malaise resulting from certain political events of 2016. Though Butler, and the novel’s protagonist, are clearly conflicted about the idea of saving the human race by altering it permanently, at the time it seemed to me like a no-brainer—of course humans are garbage, of course this is the best-case scenario—aliens mating with us until we’re a different, more enlightened species. So for me it worked really well as wishful, escapist sci-fi. It’s a great story, with a good main character, complex conundrums, freaky aliens, and a fair quantity of freaky alien sex. You may not want to read it because it’s the first book in a series—but it’s a pretty quick series, made up of only three books, each less than 300 pages long, and each very good. Also, the action in Dawn is self-contained enough that it could be read as a standalone, though I’d advise reading the whole trilogy.
Setting: The Antebellum South, and, briefly and intermittently, 1970s California.
Premise: A black woman living in 1970s California keeps getting suddenly and unpredictably whisked back in time to the Antebellum South—far from the best time and place to be if you’re a black woman. Quickly she realises that every time she’s whisked backwards in time, it’s because her ancestor is in danger of his life—the white son and heir to the owner of a slave plantation. And once she’s in the past, she can only go back to the present when she’s in mortal danger herself.
Why you should read it: This is Butler’s best book. The plot is like clockwork, the characters face impossible decisions, the way Butler plays with the central premise is ingenious. And she displays a lightness of touch that belies the weighty subject matter. Also, because it’s a standalone novel, the ideas are all concentrated in this single book, rather than diluted among many.
WILD SEED (1980)
Setting: Africa and North America between the seventeenth and the nineteenth centuries.
Premise: Some people are born with superhuman abilities. These include super-strength, shapeshifting, and mind-control. A particularly powerful mutant, named Doro, travels around the world finding other mutants and persuading them to move to a number of small settlements he’s set up in North America. So far, so X-Men. Here’s the twist: Doro is obsessed with breeding the mutants with one another, in order to create a race of super-super-powerful creatures. Standing in his way is Anyanwu, the most extraordinary mutant Doro has ever met—she can take whatever shape she pleases, and she can heal any wound or illness, both in her body and in others’. Anyanwu is at first attracted to Doro, and joins him on his project, but eventually rebels.
Why you should read it: I hesitate a little to recommend this book—mostly because the second half is pretty grim. But it’s vintage Butler, and this may actually be a particularly good year to read it. If you’ve seen Logan or Legion and you want more weird and exciting and sometimes sad stories where people with superpowers fight over some very serious topics instead of flying around in tights, then Wild Seed may be the Butler book for you. For the first two-thirds of this book, I was so excited by all of Butler’s cool ideas that it almost detracted from the experience, as I kept getting distracted trying to think how best to persuade other people to read this book, or imagining that I lived in a parallel universe where Butler had invented the X-Men instead of Stan Lee (I have no idea if she was directly inspired or even knew about the X-Men when she wrote this book).
Finally—why not Fledgling and Bloodchild? Bloodchild contains a few great stories, and a couple of interesting essays, but, other than that, it’s a bit of a mixed bag. And Fledgling is problematic (it features a vampire who looks like a pre-teen girl but has the sexual appetites of an adult woman), and its prose is uncharacteristically stiff and clumsy, with a lot of almost comically clunky dialogue.
Readers–please leave a comment if you are Butler fans already, and would give different advice, or if you have any advice on which of her books I should read next!