Butler and Beyond

Changes within the genre

Octavia Butler was the trailblazing Black science fiction writer who paved the way for Black women science fiction/speculative fiction writers to come. This site is named “Daughters of Octavia” in her honor, as if it were not for her, the world may not know the works of Nalo Hopkinson, N.K. Jemisin, Alaya Dawn Johnson, and so many others.

Butler’s science fiction depicts elements of early American slavery, as seen in Wild Seed (1980), and even more so in Kindred (1979). The institution of African slavery in the Americas provided Butler an outlet for the exploration of the African diaspora. Butler’s female characters also contend with the experience of being a woman in a man’s world. Through the vehicle of science fiction, Butler provides an analysis and critical commentary of the perspective of Black women.

Nalo Hopkinson’s work is quite different in Butler’s in setting, tone, and style, but she, too, explores the Black female experience through the medium of science fiction. N.K. Jemisin and Alaya Dawn Johnson, both writers with more recent works, also produce work that’s quite different from the speculative fiction that’s come before theirs. However, these writers all share the same format, the sci-fi novel, as a way to provide social commentary on race and gender. Butler, as their predecessor, forged the pathway for these writers to follow, and allowing them to showcase their own unique voices in fiction.

Popularity of Afrofuturism

Afrofuturism tends to find the most appeal to Black readers. Science fiction serves a format to evaluate social problems, and therefore becomes an outlet for coping and even survival. Black sci-fi writers can use the genre to criticize and explore feelings of being considered “the other” in a predominantly white society.

It seems that Afrofuturism as a subgenre of science fiction that is not very widely known outside Black writers and readers. Many white readers, while at least familiar with Octavia Butler, are unaware of Afrofuturism. Science fiction is still, as Jennings Brown of the website Vocativ phrased it, “very, very white” (Brown, 2015). An analysis of the ethnicity of Hugo Award Winners since 1953 showed that there were 295 White winners, as opposed to just 3 Black winners, 1 Chinese, and 1 Arab American (Brown, 2015). Science fiction by white male writers still seem to be the dominant narrative in American and Canadian society.

In Public Libraries

As collection development policies in public libraries dictate that award winners are to be purchased, science fiction by white writers will continue to dominate the shelves. Perhaps librarians use budgetary reasons and space issues to decide against adding science fiction by non-white authors. By reasoning that avoiding science fiction books by Black writers is merely the selection of the best of the best, librarians are participating in the same biased conventions that allow majority white writers to become award winners. Librarians owe it to their patron-base to purchase and display diverse books. Perhaps librarians can even be the instruments of change for such awards by promoting lesser-known works and writers.

Sources consulted:

Brown, J. (2015. August 21). “Science Fiction Is Really, Really White.” Retrieved from Vocativ, http://www.vocativ.com/224223/science-fiction-is-really-really-white/

The Hugo Awards. (n.d.) Hugo Awards by Year. Retrieved from The Hugo Awards, http://www.thehugoawards.org/hugo-history/