Octavia Butler. The only two words you need to know when it comes to Black women breaking into sci-fi. She is the mutha, the Grand Priestess, the originator, and one of the best to ever do it when it comes to Black folk droppin’ it like it’s hot in the fantasy world.
Why do I appreciate Mutha Butler so much? Close your eyes and picture your favorite sci-fi movie. Or book. Is it Game of Thrones? Lord of the Rings? Harry Potter? Alien? Blade Runner? Ender’s Game? War of the Worlds? E.T.?
What do all of those films and books have in common? Well, the worlds in which these stories take place are almost completely, if not exclusively, white (try to count the number of Black characters in each story). I recently watched a video that spliced together every line spoken by a non-white character in the three Lord of the Rings films. These three films have a cumulative runtime of approximately 560 minutes, but the runtime of a video containing every line spoken by an actor who is not white was less than 5 minutes. As someone who generally loves science fiction, I couldn’t help wondering, as a little Black girl in America, why it was that whenever someone imagined another world, time, place, dimension, or space, they felt compelled to imagine me out of it.
Then along came Octavia Butler. She dropped a flag in the land of science fiction and claimed a spot for people who aren’t white and aren’t male. She created fantasy worlds where Black people figure into the stories just as intricately and richly as they figure into our current world. Here in the Seed to Harvest compilation of four novels, she creates the story of two entities, a female healer and shapeshifter and a male consciousness who is able to take over a new body at will. These entities meet and mate and throughout the series, as Butler explores (through the entities as well as their offspring) what it means to be human, what are the limits of human potential, and how morality figures into the human experience as we evolve. It’s so important and powerful that these entities, when they meet in the first in time novel, Wild Seed, are both African beings drenched in African traditions. Butler introduces a host of characters with a variety of backgrounds, but the point is that we are there too, and we started it all.
I found Mind of My Mind, the second in time novel in the compilation, to be the most interesting of the four in this series. The male entity introduced in the first novel has, by that time, spent centuries attempting to create a new race of beings through selective mating, and in Mind of My Mind, we see what happens when he finally succeeds. It’s well-written and engaging, I think whether or not you like sci-fi generally. I will say that by the last book in the series, Butler had gotten far away from the carefully crafted characters that compelled the first two novels, and it feels a bit more difficult to identify with and engage in the story and characters who seem to exist more to drive the plot rather than to examine how the circumstances presented affect the characters. I spent half of the third novel, Clay’s Ark, trying to figure out if this novel was included in the compilation by some sort of mistake.
Of course, this is Mutha Butler we are speaking of, so by the fourth novel, Patternmaster, it all came together and the threads that had been woven throughout the previous three books finally merged into a pattern (I know, I know). The first two novels are stellar in their own right; the last two novels are probably only interesting when considered in the context of the series as a whole. It’s good that this compilation was published with all four novels together.
Overall, I enjoyed this compilation, though I will say that it was not an effortless read. I recommend the first two novels, Wild Seed and Mind of My Mind, for any readers of good novels. I recommend the latter two for those particularly interested in sci-fi. I recommend that everyone, whether it is through this series or others (Kindred is great) introduce themselves to Mutha Butler if they haven’t already had the pleasure.
I remember when I was little and I discovered my love of science fiction through my journey to middle earth. Even then, I couldn’t quite figure out why everything that was “evil” was black. But now I know it’s the same reason why the only Black people in the LOTR films are Orcs, who are minions of the great Evil in the West. We are going to get to see Mutha Butler’s work on the screen soon, thanks to Ava DuVernay. And it’s only right — After Octavia, there was N.K. Jemisin. There was Nisi Shawl. There was Nnedi Okorafor. There was Nalo Hopkinson. There was fantasy where people of color were central and not evil. Thank you Queen Mutha Grand Priestess Octavia Estelle Butler, Lover of Myth, Purveyor of Fantasy, Seeker of Truth in Sci-Fi, Portrayer of the Imagined Black Experience, First of Her Name.