Link: Washington Post: Octavia Butler, A Lonely, Bright Star Of the Sci-Fi Universe.
I've been obsessively following all the Octavia Butler obituaries and kicking myself up and down the street for not having found more of her work when she was alive. The more I read and learn about her and her unique sensibilities, I keep wishing I'd have had a chance to meet her. But it is unlikely that I would have, because she was an intensely shy and private woman. Yet the impact of her words ripples across the Internet and the blogosphere while it barely causes a brief blink in the world of mainstream media or even the walking-around life of a lot of people.
Why is this? I hear all the time assumptions about "all people" or "most people" or about how much "people" don't read or think about anything except what they're told to read or think about, and even then, "they" just to respond deterministically, as buttons to be pushed, automatons to be easily manipulated. Folks I work with tell me that such people rule the world. Some mass media types I know even truly believe that sonambulistic masses are all that exist, and in that world view, I guess they are, because the fewer number of people who choose to live their lives in different ways are so marginalized into irrelevancy.
And I think, "Oh, 'those people' must be the kind who never get around to reading the works of Octavia Butler."
Don't think I'm about to go into a "Philistines at the gate" rant, because that's not what I'm drawing a bead on at all.
Rather, I want to simply highlight a peculiar divide, one that may be obvious to many people, so much as to beg the question, but I think it's a divide that we do need to make explicit, make visible, make conspicuous, even if it is obvious.
The divide isn't the so-called "Great Divide" between literacy and illiteracy. I don't believe in that as some kind of magical cognitive shift. It isn't the growing divide between the technology-haves and have-nots either. This is a self-selected divide, but even so, it exerts social force. Power? Maybe, or maybe not. (I do like reading stuff about something called "The Long Tail")
Those on the side of the divide who choose to read and think and do so actively, pro-actively, and interactively seem to be migrating away from passive media, advertising inundation, and rhetoric that insults their intelligence, and TOWARD the Internet, blogs, TiVo, and podcasting, not that they are more intelligent spaces (generally,those spaces are as mixed in intelligence as our general society is mixed, among the ideas that get published and spread around), but rather because the mix of stuff out there yields results for those who do think and actively search and pursue their own research questions or ornery and contrarian questions, or burning personal questions. These people know how to analyze and sort through a mixed bag of information and ideas.
Those who are frustrated in the wild and woolly spaces of the Internet may not have good sorting or analysis skills, or may prefer a passive style of media that rewards a lack of independent curiosity ("push"), or I just frankly don't know what, because I confess I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the motivations of such folks, the idea is so far away from my own experiences. But that is the divide I see self-sorting itself into our society.
Except that I perceive that the active and interactive thinkers, writers, and searchers are more marginalized and disempowered in U.S. culture right now, and the manipulators of the passive masses appear to be strongly pushing for dominant hegemony. This feels counter-intuitive to me, since cleverness ought to trump dullness, to my mind. I rarely see that happening, so perhaps I am wrong. Somehow people with a greater dullness of thought are being allowed to oppress people who are involved with more active thought.
One friend of mine likes to compare the (hermetic?) insider codes of the active online groups to other subcultures that have to move through and remain largely invisible inside a more dominant and restrictive mainstream culture, like the gay subculture, for instance.
This has happened in history, so I shouldn't be too surprised by it, I guess, with the rise of fascism and totalitarianism in the 1930s, with the Inquisition, the medieval period, various so-called "dark ages" when those who want to know less become righteous and demand that all people be like them, while seekers and thinkers are oppressed.
Are Internetties the "freemasons" of our growing dark ages, passing on hermetic secrets in traditions designed to preserve certain kinds of knowledge and skills that are being forgotten in our society as a whole?
I turn to Octavia Butler, just as I would Ursula Le Guin, as in "The Dispossessed." And I see all around me online people turning to Octavia Butler as well. This is a hopeful sign, except when I look outside our closed world of the Internet and the blogosphere fans of Octavia Butler. Where beyond here is her influence felt?
And so the divide widens.
Link: Washington Post: Octavia Butler, A Lonely, Bright Star Of the Sci-Fi Universe.
Octavia Butler, A Lonely, Bright Star Of the Sci-Fi Universe
By Marcia Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 28, 2006; C01
What must it have been like to be Octavia Butler?
There she was, this woman of great intellect, of immense talent, of tremendous passion, and, it seems, so very much alone. Her death on Friday after falling and hitting her head outside her home in Seattle has rattled those who loved her work. She was 58.
There she was, a tall, awkward and shy black girl thinking that she wanted to write science fiction, of all things. A young woman who believed the genre could deal with more than ray guns and transporters, and that she had a right to create fiction that tackled race and class and what it meant to be human in worlds where humanness had all but been obliterated. Publisher after publisher must have been puzzled. How could science fiction be set on a plantation?
Octavia Butler showed them how.
She was an African American woman claiming her space in a literary universe dominated by white men. After years of rejection, she eventually won science fiction's most prestigious awards, the Nebula and the Hugo. She picked up other honors along the way, too, including a PEN West Lifetime Achievement Award and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.
Her following was loving and loyal -- protective even -- for they seemed to know instinctively how precious and powerful and simultaneously tender and fragile a spirit like hers had to be.
"That's terrible, terrible, terrible news," my mother kept saying over and over at word of Butler's death. A die-hard science fiction fan, she is one of those people who gobbled up many of Butler's 11 novels. I was proud of myself for having turned her on to Butler's first work, "Kindred." Soon she was devouring the other works, among them "Dawn" and the highly regarded "Parable of the Sower."
The public and private lives of Butler, Due says, were remarkable to watch. "It's almost as if she lived in two worlds."
"I'm very happy alone," Butler once told Post writer David Streitfeld. "If I had to change myself into something else, I'd probably be unhappy."
She grew up poor in Southern California, where her father shined shoes before he died when she was a young girl, and her mother cleaned houses. Butler was a young black woman coming of age at a time when black women were mainly invisible. And when she was noticed, it was with unkind eyes. She was six feet tall by the time she was in her teens, a girl with deep brown skin and short hair. She was sometimes mistaken for a man, she would say. Early as a child, she cocooned herself in a world of books and nurtured audacious ambitions.
"She obviously had spent a tremendous amount of her early life feeling very, very alone," Barnes said. "She had no tribe. She didn't fit in any place. Her own family thought she was nuts . . . because of what she wanted to do with her life."
At one time Barnes lived just six blocks from Butler and they would spend time together, having dinner or just talking. One of the questions she seemed to care greatly about was, "Why is it that we are so cruel to each other?" Barnes says.
"The fact that she was so concerned with that made me think she had faced a lot of that" cruelty in her life, he adds.
She explored the question in a field that was forced, whether it wanted to or not, to acknowledge her talents.
"Women in general were rare in the science fiction field, and black women, ha," Barnes says.
She had to cloak her ideas thickly in metaphor, he says. "She was forced to speak through layers of obsfucation." Those challenges may have ultimately made her a better writer but must have taken their toll.
"It was like trying to drive in the Indy 500 with your brakes on," Barnes says. "You burn up."
God, I love that metaphor!
They worried about her, up there alone and probably pushing herself far too much, both in her writing and her travels. But she was drawn to the Pacific Northwest, they say, with its natural beauty and its opportunities for true solitude. Due wanted to call, but worried about interrupting her writing, the words that seemed so hard to come by lately.
I wonder if in all that aloneness, in all her solitude, she knew just how beautiful she was and that she was loved.