Writing about one's favorite writer, especially when that writer has without any notice up and died on you, should be short and to the point, because this exercise can lead into a long, drawn-out self-therapy session. I could use to talk about what Octavia Butler has meant to me, how she saved me more than a few times from cynicism, and more importantly how she has constantly enlivened my classrooms for the last sixteen years. But that would be for me, not for her. To her, I'd like to say three simple things.
Thank you for weathering the storm of American irrationalism. The degradation of thinking and writing over the last twenty years in this society is hardly believable. If visited by another solar species-a storyline you made famous in your Xenogenesis trilogy (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago)-the conclusion they are compelled to draw is that the human species is unusually cute and often cuddly, and it continues to produce a lot of cute and cuddly art and literature, but its lethal and highly toxic fatal flaw has never been dealt with rationally, honestly, openly and systematically, and as a consequence we are now closer than ever to doing ourselves in, albeit in a really cute, cutting-edge, fashionable way.
You called this fatal flaw our "hierarchical tendencies," a pattern of species-specific behavior that is completely transparent to anyone who takes a moment to observe humans from outside their pre-programmed pro-corporate consciousness. How else can we keep missing it? All the genocidal wars of conquest and mass extermination, almost always for higher profit margins and therefore higher placement on the planet's human-made, market-driven totem pole; the everyday assaults on each other's vulnerable humanity; the unspeakable vengeance and spite. The frightening lack of historical consciousness and the idiotic denials of the root of the real chaos causing all the weak denials in the first place. The incessant and seemingly inexplicable exact repetitions of past blunders. A blind following of leaders who are absolutely not fit to rule, and the odd religious conservativeness in a species secular and often revolutionary in its actual possibilities; the familiar preference for easy comforts and solutions, for instant gratification over long-range planning, self-criticism, self-sacrifice, and rational experimentation with forethought and care.
The second thing is that your books have encouraged the best feature of humanity, intellectual curiosity. Your books never close the door; instead they broaden current horizons and open up new ones. They make people want to go to the library and search out for themselves rational and scientific explanations for the opaque world in which we live. You have showed people that the thickness of reality can be penetrated through focused and persistent intellectual effort. You termed this type of mental labor a "positive obsession," this trying to survive whole.
The third thing is you have unsettled the minds of a lot of people who otherwise might have gone on thinking their shit don't stink, people who think of themselves as morally-sound, broad-minded, liberal, and tolerant. You have in every book of yours flipped the script on them by showing they are very tolerant indeed, of racism and stupidity, illiteracy, hunger, preventable and treatable disease, the scapegoating, bullying, and persecution of the poor and the politically defenseless, legal theft and official lying, the wholesale deforestation of the planet and the capitalist single-minded pillaging of what remains of our earthly paradise, megalomania and self-seeking, and a lock-step obedience to irrational and discredited authority.
In one of your last interviews, you put it tersely and profoundly as was your style. This style led many people to call you an oracle, a label that always made you chuckle. The interviewer had asked you if you're pessimistic or optimistic about the future of the United States.
"At the present," you answered, "I feel so unhopeful. I recognize we will pay more attention when we have different leadership. I'm not exactly sure where that leadership will come from. But that doesn't mean I think we're all going down the toilet, I just don't see where that hope will come from. I think we need people with stronger ideals than John Kerry or Bill Clinton. I think we need people with more courage and vision. It's a shame we have had people who are so damn weak."
Your own strengths as a writer and an intellectual, expressed always with a determined humility and without any fear of what those in power might say about it, will remain in all your novels. So we mourn not the loss of your words but of your future words and how they could have straightened out our thinking by focusing it on the root causes of all the purposefully fabricated and contrived confusions and controversies. It seems to me this is the whole lesson of your Parable books. Lauren created this new communist community you called Earthseed to save herself, but her great intention was for us readers to keep planting it deep in the ground of every place we live, work, and educate.
Jonathan Scott is Assistant Professor of English at the City University of New York, Borough of Manhattan Community College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.