I just found out that Octavia Butler died on Saturday.
I enjoyed almost all of her work but her Xenogenesis series was an especially remarkable achivement.
It’s no secret that a lot of science fiction is built on top of ethnographic or colonial frameworks, that those structure the deep languages of representation in the genre, especially the relationship between human protagonists and aliens. I don’t say this as some kind of political admonishment: this is one of the things that makes science fiction rich and engaging. (Arguably in many cases it even redeems or complicates older Western conceptualizations of the Other by moving them off into other representational frames, but that’s a discussion for another day.)
Butler was both conceptually imaginative and a great storyteller, and with Xenogenesis she grasped that there was a major opening in this aspect of science fiction. In some SF, humans were the aggressors, in others they were the victims. In still others, humans and aliens were put alongside each other in some kind of pluralistic or open-ended “frontier” relationship. But very few works prior to Butler had really explored human beings as the subjects of a process comparable to real-world colonialism. When humans were the victims, it was often a much more straightforward kind of narrative: fighting bug-eyed monsters in a defensive war of some kind, or living under alien occupation. Even a book like Childhood’s End didn’t really get into this terrain, given that the imperial overlords in that book were essentially benevolent and justified in their exercise of dominion.
In Xenogenesis, a dominated humanity is incorporated into an alien world which is not so much more “advanced” than humanity as it is fundamentally different. And rather as in the case of real-world colonialism, the choice of whether or how to work with the colonizers, and the ways in which the colonizers’ lifeways infiltrate the lives of humans, were established to be morally textured, personally ambivalent matters.
As with the rest of Butler’s work, this was a major imaginative leap, a perspectival shift that completely changed what was possible within the genre. She was only 58. I will really miss her ability to move the terrain of speculative fiction to places and perspectives that it had rarely explored before she came along.