On-line Response #8: Octavia BUTLER & Kathy ACKER

Review the material below, and respond to any of the questions that follow. (The Sci-Fi handout is also available in your reader.)


Or, how a writer can go from a sociological ghetto to a literary ghetto…

For starters, consider the following definition from Dictionary.com:
"Subgenre: A subcategory within a particular genre: The academic mystery is a subgenre of the mystery novel."

The designation of subgenres can also reveal critical bias, as the following subgenres generally are not included in bookstore “literature” sections, which sometimes suggests their inferiority to “literature”: horror, mystery thrillers, westerns, romances, fantasy, and of course science fiction. As you know, some authors can be considered “horror” writers, and yet their work takes on literary significance that is subsequently canonized by the academics who compile anthologies – think, here, of one Edgar Allan Poe.

Consider, also, if Stephen King will some day move out of the “Horror” section into “Literature”, and if his works (horror, fantasy, and the lot) will end up on college literature syllabi.

Textual Connections
A. The Subgenre – SciFi’s popularity in American culture took on special significance in the post-Atomic era, especially with displaced images of conquest, technological advancement, and inter-planetary conflict. Prior to this, even English writer H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) projected a displaced fear of colonial conquest from the British experience of empire. Our fears of Atomic decimation, Soviet domination, and technology run amok find expression in many popular examples of science fiction written for mass consumption, much of it produced as pulpy hack writing. And even now, writers like Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) create stories for mass audiences based in late-20th century techno-fear.

B. Experiments with the Subgenre – William S. Burroughs demonstrates in Naked Lunch a wild imagination that takes the reader to fantastic and exotic worlds. In this, it is much like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) -- both, by the way, are satires -- or even like the fantasy quests of The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But some of Burroughs' work has been considered visionary for his science-fiction-esque settings and its influence on such renowned literary sci-fi writers as J.G. Ballard (e.g. Crash).

Consider also how Don DeLillo’s White Noise takes American trash-culture fascination (e.g. tabloids, UFO-sightings, the supernatural) as an occasion to dramatize J.A.K. Gladney’s death obsession.

C. The Subgenre Redeemed – In the ’60s and ’70s, such writers as Philip K. Dick and Harlan Ellison (see “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” from 1967) took sci-fi to new, paranoid heights by weaving elements of cultural and political conflict from the time into truly troubling, bizarre stories. Subsequently, literary academics, freshly armed with European literary theory, began to turn to science fiction not only for sexy doctoral dissertation material but also for examples of post-modern and post-structural literature. With science-fiction writers of color (e.g. Samuel Delany), these academics found further grist for their mill through 1980s and 1990s multi-culturalism, political correctness, and challenges to “classic” canonical curricula. In writer Octavia E. Butler, an African-American woman, scholars like Donna J. Haraway found further material through which to discuss theories of feminism and to critique scientific discourses, suggesting that even theories of nature, like literary stories, are constructed and gendered. (Remember that post-modernism stuff about meta-narratives and the death of the author – such critics used literature to demonstrate the drift of all language and discourses in signs that have no un-changing or un-constructed basis or metaphysical savior.)

D. The Subgenre Lives – Major league critics like Frederic Jameson found new literary juice in science fiction, mainly with writers like Philip K. Dick and, in the ’80s, the sub-sub-genre known as “cyberpunk” (e.g. William Gibson). Cyberpunk especially excited the imagination of some literary scholars, since it tends to dramatize corporate domination, genetic indistinction, and the fusion of technology with humanity, very sexy topics indeed if you want to talk about “Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act” and “The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” as Jameson does in various essays and books.

Open Questions for Discussion
How can a literary subgenre become a kind of ghetto? How might Octavia Butler have to deal with triple-ghettoization, from being a woman, African American, and sci-fi writer?

Consider her comment in the “Bloodchild” afterword: “It amazes me that some people have seen ‘Bloodchild’ as a story of slavery” (30). Why might people be tempted to read the story that way, and why might Butler find that confining, perhaps even insulting?

Consider also her comments in the “Positive Obsession” piece: “So, then, I write science fiction and fantasy for a living. As far as I know I’m still the only Black woman who does this. … ‘What good is science fiction to Black people?’ I was usually asked this by a Black person. … [My answer:] What good is any form of literature to Black people?” (134-135) What do you think of this challenging statement in the context of contemporary American literature? Or maybe we can consider these questions in racially neutral terms: What good is science fiction to people? … What good is any form of literature to people? What are some of the assumptions about value, subgenre, and literature itself loaded into these questions?

Questions for On-line Response
Think about the following idea from late French philosopher Michel Foucault: Power is not just repressive but productive. How might the stories of Kathy Acker and Octavia Butler demonstrate this dictum, that power doesn't just punish us but also produces our very pleasures?


Both Acker and Butler dramatize power reversals and gender blurring. Explain how and analyze the overall signficance of reversal/blurring for these stories.


Bring the following quote from Acker into dialogue with Butler: "Literature is that which denounces and slashes apart the repressing machine at the level of the signified."

[Kathy Acker]

Posted by Benjamin at April 18, 2005 05:02 PM

Acker says, "Literature is that which denounces and slashes apart the repressing machine at the level of the signified."
It is understandable that Butler, in her words is amazed that, “some people have seen ‘Bloodchild’ as a story of slavery.” Being a writer in a male dominated genre, let alone a white male dominated genre, it is easy for me to interpret that a direct parallel to slavery helps to undermine the legitimacy of her work, or rather undermine her ability to use her imagination and create a different world. Would the parallel been made had it not been known that the author was black, or better yet a black woman. That being said however there had to be some connection made between the story and her real life encounters. I don’t know if her story had anything to do with slavery in the sense that we know it, however, I do believe that there is an obvious connection between her work and her life as a writer in her specific genre. This all leads to the name that you titled this section, “Octavia Estelle Butler and the sub genre of science fiction or, how a writer can go from a social ghetto to a literary ghetto…” She is essentially an outcast in a genre that is outcast. The story Bloodchild, at least to me is about role reversals as it pertains to her place in the genre science fiction. Maybe I’m reaching, but I don’t think that it is a coincidence that Butler had written a story where the female is the dominant figure in society. This goes against the genre in which she is involved as well as the perception of the literary world in a whole.

Posted by: Eli argamaso at May 26, 2005 05:08 PM

Octavia Butler in her sub genre of science fiction openly condemns societies repressing machine in her writing. She creates a world where human beings, the most powerful species on earth are now nothing more than birthing stations. She strips away our idea of the male/female roles. T’Gatoi a woman is the head of the household. Next to her is Tlic’s mother. Xuan Hoa, Tli’c sister is the brave sibling willing to give birth to keep the world order going. While Tlic’s brother would do anything to escape the inevitable. Butler mocks societies ideas of being self-reliant but showing us a world where alien and human cannot survive without the other. In Butler’s world there’s no mention of financial gain, where in ours money determines almost everything. Butler clearly uses species instead of race or religion to determine who’s powerful. Instead of addressing interracial dating, she presented inter-species mixing to show an abnormal love affair. Tlic struggles with feelings of not wanting to give birth, wanting to be free to chose but because of uncertainty beyond the reserve decides to please T’Gatoi. This reminds me of the slaves that were freed but because of an uncertain future decided to stay on the master’s plantation. Which brings me to my question: In Bloodchild there is obviously some sort of slave/master relationship here. The Humans are not free to make their own choices, it’s illegal to have firearms and they can’t even drive. Why do you think Butler so argues against this story being slave story on some level?

Posted by: nicole mcclean at May 26, 2005 11:04 AM

Revenge of the Cyberpunk Genre

Imagine the very sight of it, “a literary ghetto” where all the displaced genres of fiction go to live and die. Butler claims she came from a “social ghetto” to a “literary ghetto,” because she is an African-American woman writing science fiction. But I think she must have known that she was supporting the underdog by deciding to write in such a format. Science fiction is like drinking soymilk, it is an acquired taste, and not for everyone. But wasn’t that her goal, to write about the alienation in the male dominated world. She put the topic in an arena and on a platform that takes prejudice out of context. A “literary sub-genre” can be pushed into “a literary ghetto” just like any other minority group, through social injustice, economical and political pressures. A sub-genre book that lacks the popularity and sales of a new dramatic fiction can be ostracized and put in the back of the store. Placed on shelves away from the highly populated areas, the “New Releases” and “Top 10” shelves.

Bloodchild is a story about a young human male coming of age, during his “last night of childhood.” He is coming to terms with his role as the host of an alien species’ eggs. Essentially, the idea of “male pregnancy” and the unfamiliarity with role reversal may be disconcerting. The setting in sci-fi stories takes place some time in the future. Readers already know that they must suspend their disbeliefs and read the story in its truest form, as fiction. Both Butler and Acker explore the perverse sexual roles of power and control, from a feminist point of view. The female characters in Bloodchild represent an alliance in gender, forming bonds and friendships that take power and control away from the male dominators of the past. Gender lines are blurred and both species must rely on each other to survive. Together they get together and help each other out in a certain female utopia.

Acker also twists gender roles in Empire of the Senseless. Abhor is the female half-robot, half-black character, who tells her story “Rape by the Father” as a strong and resilient female. She is made from a man, with a tough exterior lacking emotional ties to people. She never had a mother. She exhibits sexual stereotypical male characteristics like having frequent sex with random partners without any ramifications and emotional attachments. She doesn’t care what people think of her, except for her father who was the core center of her being. And he is the man who rapes her all over town. She takes pleasure in pain and self inflects the discomfort. Abhor violates all female stereotypes. On the other hand, her male counterpart, Thivai tells his story in “Raise us from the Dead.” Thivai plays a more submissive, sensitive role, exhibiting female like characteristics. She blurs the gender lines so that her readers can become more aware of their social programming.

Both stories are categorized in the sci-fi genre because of their futuristic setting and alien/robot like characters. Their stories are metaphoric explanations of contemporary social issues. They speak on the issues of different cultural groups being forced to live with each other in a civilized society. Giving us yet another way to look at modern society and how different social groups continue to control other less popular groups. Which is definitely ghetto.

Q: Do you think Kathy Acker was William Burroughs muse?

Posted by: Fran Crenshaw at April 24, 2005 11:33 PM

The inversion of gender and age in butler’s story are important tools in connecting with the reader on topics they may be alienated by. So many of the worlds crimes are perpetrated on the powerless, which in many cases tend to be children and women. The power of literature lies in its ability to allow someone who isn’t female or a child to understand the crimes being committed against those groups. The conventional way to do this is by writing from the perspective of a female or a child in a real world setting. Butler uses a different approach. She tells the same story of suffering but tells it from the perspective of those who usually have power, men. The alien in the story that impregnates the young boy is female. The gender roles are reversed in this science fiction setting.
Science-fiction isn’t usually considered to be the genre in which social commentary is explored, but the idea of menacing aliens captures an element of fear present in real world situations, that men can easily relate to. The impregnation that the alien carries out on the young boy is akin to rape. Asking men to imagine the idea of being raped would probably draw blank stares, but the alien as a literary device captures the same feeling of violation in a new way. Science fiction doesn’t have the same kind of social stigmas that other stories do, which makes it more accessible to more readers from more diverse backgrounds. The idea of menacing aliens that harvest humans resonants on some level with everyone, regardless of their gender or sex.

Posted by: Richard Ewan at April 21, 2005 05:23 PM

Both power and gender reversals play a particularly significant role in Octavia Butler’s story “Bloodchild”, represented in the dynamics between individual characters and the two societies. The relationship between T’Gatoi and Gan portrays the most obvious gender reversal in the story. Gan, a male, takes on the traditional female role of giving birth. T’Gatoi assumes the traditionally masculine role, becoming not only the impregnator of Gan, but the caregiver and protector of Gan and his family. She is the one that keeps Gan’s family from becoming breeding hosts for random Tlic citizens. According to Gan “it was a little frightening to know that only she stood between us and that desperation that could so easily swallow us” (Butler 5). However, this protection comes at a price, and it is Gan that must eventually pay this debt to T’Gatoi. However, again T’Gatoi plays the role of the protector, this time protecting Gan from the horrible pain that could accompany his lot in life. After witnessing the torture that the N’Tlic Lomas suffered as a Tlic host, Gan is justifiably uneasy to accept his fate. T’Gatoi assures him, stating “’I’m healthy and young … I won’t leave you as Lomas was left – alone, N’Tlic. I’ll take care of you”’ (Butler 29). Ironically, it is Gan who ultimately takes care of T’Gatoi, by providing her with a host for her children. This symbiotic relationship between Gan and T’Gatoi mirrors the overall power relationship between the Tlic and the Terran. Although the Terran must sacrifice their bodies to the Tlic in exchange for life on their planet, the Terran are ultimately the most powerful link in the lifecyle of the Tlic. The Tlic play the role of the captor, yet they depend on the captive Terran for their very existence. T’Gatoi realizes this; her protection of Gan, his family, and the Terran in general stem from self-preservation.

Although Kathy Acker’s novel “Empire of the Senseless” also deals with gender and power reversals, she uses these reversals to illustrate a “cyberpunk” theme. Abhor and Thivai’s relationship is a gender reversal of sorts. Abhor represents the traditional male warrior, the independent objectivist. She has no real mother and is constructed from the essence of her father: “I looked like him. I smelled like him. I learned like him. My father had propagated” (Acker 9). She is part machine, part human, with a lack of empathy and no morals. Even her relationship with her father is an Oedipal reversal: “Part of me wanted him and part of me wanted to kill him” (Acker 12). Thivai, on the contrary, lives a life filled with need and remorse for his intrinsic hate. He mentions his subconscious childhood desire to burn up his Nanny, but feels guilty over this desire, stating “I knew I shouldn’t think like this. I knew my whole mind was twisted and perverted. If becoming an adult equals the process of acquiring self-consciousness, my first recognition of my adult self was my perception of my desire to torture and kill. I hated.” (Acker 29). Ultimately, however, the reversals in “Empire of the Senseless” deal with the economic and socio-political implications of power in a capitalistic society. Evil is inherent in human nature; Abhor seems to accept this, while Thivai struggles with it. There is no Good to battle the Evil. Therefore, in a reversal of the traditional Good verses Evil scenario, Acker pits two types of evil against each other: Terrorists verses Corporations. In “Empire”, modern Terrorists are akin to “the hoboes of the 1930s USA” (35), and are concerned with the abolishment of corporate oppression through whatever means necessary.

Butler states that “Bloodchild” is not about slavery, but instead about Gan’s choice to “make a decision that will affect the rest of his life” (30). However, Gan’s “choice” seems to be, at least partially based on protecting his sister from having to become T’Gatoi’s host. Is a choice really valid when both alternatives truly suck? This applies to the Acker piece as well, in terms of having to choose sides between Capitalism and Terrorism. Is a lack of viable alternatives when forced to make a choice a form of slavery?

Posted by: Claire Fitzpatrick at April 21, 2005 05:10 PM

What Good is Literature to Egg-Sucking Terrans?

Michael Foucalt’s idea that power is not just repressive but productive is omnipresent in Octavia Butler’s “Bloodchild”. The erotic, interplanetary relationship between alien politician T’Gatoi and the adolescent human (or terrans as they’re referred as) Gan, is a dense, gender-blurring example. Given the humans situation: galactic asylum from Earth landing them amongst the planet of the T’Lics, (eat your heart out Charlton Heston) a major compromise has taken place, and not in a traditional slave/master light. To quote T’Gatoi’s positive take on the symbiosis, “The animals we once used began killing most of our eggs after implantation long before your ancestors arrived, adding, “You know these things Gan. Because after your people arrived, we are relearning what it means to be a healthy, thriving people. And your ancestors, fleeing from their home world, from their own kind who would have killed or enslaved them––they survived because of us. We saw them as people and gave them the Preserve when they still tried to kill us as worms.”
T’Gatoi’s testimony on the Terran/T’Lic relationship not only exhibits the two parties to remain in stasis, but to enjoy a yet-unseen level of prosperity. Emotionally, this partnership is more complex than the equation of need. T’Gatoi and her host family of Gan’s interaction has evolved to downright domestication. Gan the chosen one, or T’Nlic, who’ll receive T’Gatoi’s seed is neither repulsed nor estranged from his alien prom date. We catch Gan at home in the beginning of the story home as he, “lay against T’Gatoi’s long, velvet underside…” The symbolism of the sterile eggs: T’Lic byproducts that give Terrans a euphoric, opiate-like high with additive effects of prolonged life and vigor, reflects Foucalt’s idea on the human perspective in the story. Eggs––meant to hatch––representing life/birth is parallel to what the Terrans experience in insight and longer existence. Gan explains his late, egg-addicted father more than doubling his mother’s age; starting a family of four children on what should have been his downslide. Even Gan’s brother Qui, who disagreed with the Terran/T’Lic predicament, always demanded his share of egg when the time came. These eggs, this “high” does come at cost for each Terran family, and Gan is carrying that burden. With this I correlate the question of “What good is literature to black people…to all people?” If the T’Lic’s eggs, sterile and fertile, were an allegory to literature, then us as readers are subjecting ourselves to a new world on a conditional level. The condition/cost could be the compromise of one’s beliefs/values, or the enlightenment and expansion of one’s own consciousness. Then, like Gan, there are literary load carriers: Octavia Butler. People like Butler subject themselves to their own implantation of worms, those being a barrage of questions asking her to justify her profession, so others can go on enjoying the ever-growing world of literature. Butler’s Gan-like bravery to pioneer the sci-fi genre for African-American women hitting hardest after a young black woman tells her, “I always wanted to do science-fiction, but I didn’t think there were any black women doing it.”

QUESTION: Was Gan’s mother worried about his welfare with T’Gatoi? Or was she jealous of her usurping her role as mother/primary female caretaker? Does this happen indirectly with some mothers and their new daughter-in-laws?

Posted by: Michael Simon at April 21, 2005 04:50 PM

The dramatized power reversals and gender bluring in these two stories are evident but also more obsure by nature. Bultler dramatizes power reversals in the story, because the whole story is told from a stand piont, which the T'Gatio's happen to play a dominant role over the families, they became apart of. "When I was little and at home more, my mother used to try to tell me how to behave with T'Gatio-how to be respectful and always obedient because T'Gatio was the Tlic government official in charge of the Preserve, and thus the most important of her kind to deal directly with Terrans." (p 3) The power of the T'Gatio was made clear because, they also had extreme strenght, size, and the ablility to live longer and stay younger then the terran people. Plus the T'Gatio had the power to cage the people and subdue them at will. Although Tlic did live with the families, some of the family members were opposed to their way of breeding through human host child birth. But in some cases this birth was painful sometimes it would leave the host diseased ans dead. "I felt if I were helping her torture him, helping her consume him." (p 15) "He was in so much pain, he told her to kill him. He begged her to kill him . Finally she did. She cut his throat. One swipe of one claw." (p 20) So in this section of the story the authos makes it clear these proceders were not fool proof when things go wrong it could become painful. And the fact the Tlic taught the young terran this birth breeding rite was normal and raised them to believe there was nothing wrong with it was a nasty trick. "He wouldn't let me get away." "Longer legged, he swung ahead of me and made me feel as though I were following him." (p 21) "I'm sorry," "He said. I strode on, sick and furious. Look, it probably won't be that bad with you. T'Gatio likes you. She'll be careful." (p 22)"I see," she said quielty. "Would you really rather die than bear my young, Gan?" (p 25) But the biggerst reversal in this story was when Gan had the rifle making demands from T'Gatio. "She grasped the rifle barrel, but I wouldn't let go. I was pulled into a standing position over her." "Leave it here!" "I repeated." "If we're not your animals, if these are adult things, accept the risk. There is risk, Gatio, in dealing with a partner." Lastly the gender bluring in this story occured. because the men were the ones gining birth. "They dont take women," "he said with contempt." "They do sometimes." "I glanced at him." "Actually they prefer women. You should be around them when they talk amoung themselves. They say women have more body fat to protect the grubs. But they usually take men to leave the women free to bear their own young." "To provide the next generation of host animals," "he said, switching from contempt to bitterness." These reversal of roles was interesting to see how things can be manipulated, from men giving birth to gaining controll over the ones with the power.
On the opposite side, the dramatized power reversals and gender bluring was not as upfront in Ackers story. But the reversal of power in this story happened when the father was imprisoned for shooting a man or dark shadow of one, and released to search for his "lover" or daughter relentlessly only to vanish for ever, while is wife committed suiside and the daughter was finally free to live her own life away from the controll of her parents. But the gender bluring started with the father fucking her and eventually when she fucked more than half the people she encountered men and women. This lead to the confusion ain the story. It also occured, I think when she wanted to become a sailor and they were raping the one victum they still had and screwing each other in the asshole. This is were I got confused I could not tell if some of the sailors were women men or transvestoids. One of the sailors did not to become pregnant, so the other one convinced him, "he'll do it in the but." Then some how, some way he rape the young girl, who was the victum tied to the post. "You tell me why I should trust you who can't get pregnant." "Don't you believe I can fuck you and not make babies? Used to protecting his virginity like a gir, the youngest of the pirates capitulated." (p 21)

Questioned: Has anyone ever read a stranger story then these two? And if so what is it because I want to know?

Posted by: Tommy Toth at April 21, 2005 04:17 PM

Bring the following quote from Acker into dialogue with Butler: "Literature is that which denounces and slashes apart the repressing machine at the level of the signified."

Butler examines an interesting concept. A planet inhabited by alien life forms is also known as home to a human species. These two species, of human and alien, learn to co-exist and depend on each other for survival. The aliens protect the humans and in return the humans are used by the aliens to aid in the production of a future alien generations.

What is being signified here is a basic way of life. One where there is a dominant and a submissive force. The boy represents the force that is submissive to the will of the more dominant character. Yet here it is shown quite differently. The gender roles switch here and the male takes the submissive qualities while the female take on the dominant male qualities. The co-existence of different species is similar to the existence of different races on earth. Where the majority is in charge over the minority.

She tells a story about love, devotion and responsibility, but with a twist. This story seems to be simply one of humans and aliens sharing a planet. In making the reader look deeper to see the meaning of a story she has artfully achieved what Acker speaks of.

In her storytelling, Butler creates an entirely different reality while at the same time expressing basic ideas of the present day. She shows a basic need of all living creatures and that is one of procreation. But here the two species must work together to allow for alien reproduction and this is sometimes at the risk of the human life.

Posted by: Kennyetta Dillon at April 21, 2005 03:59 PM

Both writers, Kathy Ackner and Octavia Butler demostrate a very powerful and concentrated ideas. Their stories are dynamic, repulsive, yet moralistic and interesting. It takes a strong reader to be able to read through these texts, and appreciate them. As I mentioned these texts are powerful, and late French philosopher Michel Foucault: ``Power is not just repressive but productive.`` and this statement is applicable to both of the writers. They created work that has emerged from the surface of literature, they are not just literature, they are distinguished. Both writers added a spice into literature, for their writings belong to the literature with science-fiction label on it. Science fiction literature is a literature from the future, it is not going to give you an image of a nice calm ocean, nor two lovers sitting on the bench at a sundown. Science fiction has a different purpose to be served. In my opinion this type of subgenre of literature is there to thrill us, move us, to make us see things clearer, yest the texts are eventually very abstract and futuristic. The characters are usually repulsive, and there is not too much of a human type live inserted. Science fiction may teach, for it’s longing to the unknown, to the world, or worlds that we can only try to imagine. And very often we can’t imagine. The living introduced to us by both of these writers does not compare to the world we live in. Butler talks about a insect like creatures using human for the hosts for their babies, and Acker talks about pirates and half robots. In both cases the world of insects and pirates living and mixing with humans seems impossible, yet when we look closer who we are, and who arevthe people around us, we might associate them with such creatures, as those mentioned in the two books.
Science fiction brings us the ability to imagine and create things that are not existing in this universe most likely. Sci-fi lets us play on our emotions, with our morals, our fears, and fantasies, dreams, and desires. That is why I agree with Foucault that power is productive. The power of writing in general is productive. It can be repressive too. Life is repressive, but doesn’t it produce some other, new solutions to the problems we thought are not to overcome? In the case of literature and the genre and the subgenre I clearly see the structure where at first the writers did not write about emotions, for example. As the time progressed they started to express emotions, then dreams, then desires, then fantasies, then urges, then perversion, brutality, rage, etc. Today we can write about anything. Today’s literature does not sound like the one 400 years ago, or even 80 years ago. Didn’t repression give us a totally different outcome?It produced things that maybe would never be produced if there was no such a thing as repression, a literary repression.
QUESTION: It is more like a presumption of mine, that Science Fiction in the near future will no longer be a subgenre of literature. Scince Fiction my become the leading style of writing. I think more and more people get inspired by what is unknown and imaginative, than what is out there at the reach of a palm. Do you think that Science Fiction will ever replace the so called Literature, and become the new literary current? If of course it can be called a current.

Posted by: Angelika Pamieta at April 21, 2005 02:18 PM

Science fiction may become a kind of literary ghetto based on a popular opinion of many renowned scholars and academics who either don't consider it serious literature or don't refer to it as literature at all. Taking into account that science fiction is not for everybody, and that it requires peculiar kind of imagination to be drawn towards, this subgenre is mostly singled out and estranged.
I think that Octavia Butler's triple-ghettoization is quite apparent and self-explanatory. First of all, she is a woman, and most writers, especially sci-fi writers, at that time were men. Additionally, science and technology were (and to some degree still are) considered typical "male" subjects for their exact, methodical, and analytical content; if women attempted to write, their main areas of expertise were stereotyped to be feminine, nurturing, and perhaps romantic in nature. Secondly, since Octavia Butler is an African American, her socio-demographic status is that of a minority. She experienced her alienation in the most raw and direct way not only as a Black writer, but also simply because she was not a part of privileged majority. Thirdly, as a sci-fi writer, she was placed out of the mainstream literary genre makers. As I mentioned earlier, this type of creative expression, except for being a work of fiction, is quite different than other literary forms; the author presents us with self-created worlds that are much more disassociated from our reality than even those of horror stories. The latter ones play out on human superstition and folklore that have been present in our civilization for centuries, whereas science-fiction is much younger and displays less similartiy to the objects of common human perception.
I think that Butler didn't want readers to see the story as a symbolic representation of slavery for several reasons. To begin with, the author perceived sci-fi writting as an opportunity to open up people's minds to the universal problems and broader questions that humanity is facing (or might be confronting in a future) as a whole, not as a fragmented body of races and ethnicities. Sci-fi in her own words is an "examination of the possible effects of science and technology" that "stimulates imagination and creativity". Secondly, Butler may find people's misreading of the "Bloodchild" as a sign of disrespect due to either the lack of close reading (that caused false reasoning) or short-sighted approach and analysis. For instance, one is omiting the fact that harvest of the slave labor was one-sidedly collected by the slave owners; the reciprocity or cooperation virtually didn't exist. However, in the "Bloodchild" Terrans and Tlics are much more united to carry out the common objective; among other factors, despite that Tlics are predatory creatures, they make an effort not only to preserve human life (as hosts or future donors) but also to ease their pain during the complex procedure of the alien childbirth. Thirdly, such narrow interpretation of the book might be insulting because it implies that African Americans are not real artists who create for the sake of art alone, but rather to achieve some socio-political goals; it can be deprecatory to a writer to be considered more of a social activist than a full blown artist. Finally, I can see how decoding the "Bloodchild" with the historical elements of forced servitude can be construed as a peculiar form of slavery for the writer herself. The artist is told that she cannot be creative in her own individual way, and is not appreciated in such manner. Instead, she is evaluated in terms of her race and socio-economic status, and is expected to confine herself to those topics alone.
Considering the reasons I outlined above, I find no surprise in the fact that Octavia Butler felt as alienated as an artist and a person as the very objects of her literary creations.

Posted by: Miguel Gosiewski at April 21, 2005 09:29 AM