Octavia Butler’s Oankali

Amy Deng’s Oankali for an art exer­cise “Imag­in­ing the Oankali.” A Google image search for Oankali and Ooloi does’t turn up much oth­er than a lot of rough fan art, but I liked this draw­ing a lot; as much because of its ana­lyt­i­cal approach as the rep­re­sen­ta­tion itself.

For the sec­ond year now, I’ve read an Octavia But­ler nov­el dur­ing the month of Feb­ru­ary. Feb­ru­ary, being black his­to­ry month, seemed like a good time to read her work and pay respect to one of the great­est sci­ence fic­tion authors. How­ev­er, it’s also a bit ridicu­lous to only rel­e­gate her work to one month a year and I plan to fin­ish the Xeno­gen­e­sis tril­o­gy (aka, Lilith’s Brood) this year. I espe­cial­ly love sci­ence fic­tion with tru­ly “alien” crea­tures and But­ler’s Oankali are unique in every aspect.

But if you’re not famil­iar with Octavia But­ler and her work —and I was­n’t for most of my life— take some time to learn more about her. She was by all indi­ca­tions a gen­uine­ly won­der­ful per­son who proved hav­ing diverse points of view are impor­tant to sci­ence fic­tion or any genre. I par­tic­u­lar­ly enjoyed read­ing this inter­view from In Motion Mag­a­zine, which was like­ly one of her last as well as watch­ing this inter­view with Char­lie Rose for PBS. Sci­ence fic­tion and fan­ta­sy gen­res have always had an issue with a lack of diver­si­ty and it is extra­or­di­nary what she accom­plished for women and peo­ple of color.

This final quote from an inter­view she did in Locus Mag­a­zine in 2000 makes me espe­cial­ly sad that she aban­doned her final para­ble novel:

Para­ble of the Trick­ster – if that’s what the next one ends up being called – will be the Seat­tle nov­el, because I have removed myself to a place that is dif­fer­ent from where I’ve spent most of my life. I remem­ber say­ing to Von­da McIn­tyre, ‘Part of this move is research,’ and it is – it’s just that Seat­tle is where I’ve want­ed to move since I vis­it­ed there the first time in 1976. I real­ly like the city, but it is not yet home. As they tell writ­ers to do, I’ll take any small exam­ple of some­thing and build it into a larg­er exam­ple. I’ve moved to Seat­tle; my char­ac­ters have moved to Alpha Cen­tau­ri, or what­ev­er. (That was not lit­er­al.) But they suf­fer and learn about the sit­u­a­tion there a lit­tle bit because of what I learn about from my move to Seat­tle. Writ­ers use every­thing. If it does­n’t kill you, you prob­a­bly wind up using it in your writing.

So if you’re inspired to learn more about African-Amer­i­can con­tri­bu­tions dur­ing Black His­to­ry month, then by all means start with Octavia But­ler. Just be sure to not leave her there but con­tin­ue enjoy­ing her amaz­ing writ­ing anytime.

By Jason Coleman

Structural engineer and technical content manager Bentley Systems by day. Geeky father and husband all the rest of time.

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