Octavia Butler sees all, knows all: Black speculative fiction, afrofuturism and new classics

Napoleon Wells
Feb 20 · 5 min read

I am reluctant to call any work by Octavia Butler “speculative”, as I suspect that she was in fact scrying the near and distant futures, and drawing inspiration from the lives of her ancestors, in her present, and sending us messages here, waiting for us, in our present, our future. Octavia Butler was a messenger, one of many, inspired, inspiring, and certainly gone from us far too soon. Two hundred years of her guidance and griot work would have been too little. Yet, she gave us much, and left road maps, and motivation.

I wonder what to think of our very American way of thinking over and to a thing, and to call it discovery, as it has always been there, and consider how this colors our childlike enthusiasm around Afrofuturism and Black speculative fiction. I think back to my time spent with Octavia’s Patternmaster, and Wild Seed, and Dawn, and both Parables, and I see her speaking directly to me, to us, in present and future tense. Watch yourself now, watch yourself as you are becoming.

And now, our joy, and discovery. This path was already charted, even before Octavia, but she took the machete to the path, just so. That path was worn well by her, and so many others who toiled to keep the path clear, but she, Octavia, she carved, and lit, and burned, bright. We should spend a moment with her, a moment that she left for us, for this moment, among ever so many, is an important one.

I have worked my way to what we popularly call Afrofuturism in very jagged steps. My Western trained mind and sensibilities first wanted to narrowly define and cage my understanding of the concept of Afrofuturism, and speculative fiction. I demanded categories and borders. The more time I spent with the arts, and the artists, and meditating on the vastness, the less frustrated i became. Octavia, and her works, soothed me as I was cast adrift. I simply needed to swim out into these works, knowing I would find my way back. I could forsake my sense of what is and isn’t and treat these works as living things. I felt the joy so many experienced when they lived with that film last February, but so many times over.

In my walk with, and curiosity about, Afrofuturism, what impacted me most was the complete absence of rules around identity. In Octavia’s work, there were very few ideological heroes and villains. There were very few clean antiheroes and pure causes. Even after the many tragedies and traumas faced by her characters, there were very few survivors, as my experience with fiction came to teach me to understand survivors. She created a very real diversity in purpose and psychology in her characters. They are creatures living in their moments, reflective, rich, and frustratingly complicated.

In one instant, I was made to assume the point of view of a body and soul snatching immortal who craved companionship, and struggled with having to learn love and the meaning of family. Complicated rites of passage, the meaning of being, extinction, responsibilities of station and status, so much more. In every work. Octavia would sail me out, toss me off of the ship, and order me to go and find the story being told. I would never return until I did.

What was, is, will be, so remarkably powerful about her work, about much of the focus of Afrofuturism and Black speculative fiction, is the telling and making of the world and galaxies and gods, in the image of Black people.

Not only in the physical image of all of those in the diaspora, but the full, three dimensional, fully realized, human image. She gave us all powerful rulers, beings remaking the world, prophets, all Black. Worlds and ways, all Black. She was a raucous part of this essential conversation, a gifted runner in this necessary marathon. Octavia scribbled a way forward before leaving us.

She gave me, us, those coming, both Lilith and Lauren. Deeply rich and evolved sisters, and both unlike much of what we came to know of Black women in fiction. They were, are, beings of immense potential, and purpose, and those were their powers. Taking circumstances, making change, leading their tribes through what appeared to be hopeless circumstances, making difficult choices and carving out solutions. Thanos would have stood no chance would he have crossed either.

And so, the question for me now, was, will be, what of the works going forward. There is Hopkinson and Okorafor and so many others confidently setting foot on the literary path of Afrofuturism, and they are setting down permanent stakes, well lit, for us to follow, but what of the messages and stories and lives?

With afrofuturism so readily shattering and bending and piercing these typical notions of identity, I would love to see so much more, and frequently, and shared without reservation.

I am ready for the great genius villain in the tale to be an elderly Black woman. And for her apprentice to be a confused Black boy. And for the hero to Black and Queer, and a gamer, and lover of candles, and….I want to see so many of our lives poured out and painted on these canvases in wide and messy and real patches.

I am seeing the films, often after an apocalypse, where our community saves the planet, and we are gods, and children, and create new civilizations. I am seeing the art, the images of heroes and demons, and our eternal souls, and I can’t wait for the cosplay to emerge from these images and manga, and films and stories. I am here for all of it.

And I thank Octavia for finding me, and pulling me in, and casting me out, and I thank all of those who swim in these waters, and refuse to be tethered, and show me how to live in the moments of us creating for an with ourselves, and I am preparing my part, my piece of the story, as Octavia guided me to do.

I ask you to head out, well past that experience you had last February, start with Octavia, but find all of those she birthed and taught who are still telling the story, and leaving the strands of clue for us to follow. Go, find them.

Our newer and best selves are in those arts and minds. Support, live with, and know them.

Napoleon Wells

Written by

I am a Clinical Psychologist, husband and father, Professor, lover of all things Star Wars, Wakandan refugee, TEDx performer, and believer in human potential

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