The outsider within : explorations of the science fiction of Octavia Estelle Butler
A study of Octavia Butler has long been overdue. My aim is to rectify the
paucity of critical commentary on her work, and to take into consideration the
specificity of the African American woman. Examining how Butler's fiction
interrogates the dual narratives of oppression that are an integral feature of black
women's lives, I focus on six areas of Butler's fiction. Butler uses the conventions of
science fiction to interrogate religious and secular mythologies that aim to limit and
circumscribe the black woman; I explore how she amalgamates science fiction with
other narrative modes such as fantasy, the historical novel, and the slave narrative.
Linked to a consideration of Butler's use of science fiction is an exploration of
the spaces she creates. I examine the categorisation of her work as either utopian or
dystopian suggesting that Butler complicates this enterprise by questioning and
extending its format. Her work rejects the hope and consolation offered by utopias;
instead her fiction opens onto heterotopia, revelling in contradiction, difference, and
Butler's fiction is preoccupied with the treatment of the black woman's bodily,
material existence. She uses strategies of transformation to elude white patriarchal
control, presenting us with grotesque figures and cyborg monsters that provide a
parodic reversal of the images that have been apportioned to black men and women.
Relations of self to its others are a fundamental aspect of Butler's work. However,
rather than simply dramatising hierarchical, binary thinking and its subsequent
deconstruction, her work offers alternative formations of self and other in which each
term is able to recognise its other in their full subjectivity.
Butler makes use of a linguistic heritage that is 'double-voiced'. The
polyphonic construction of her texts, her use of Signifying, and the repetition and
displacement that she enacts is indicative of much African American literature.
Butler's reliance on religion in her work suggests a fundamental interrogation of
Christianity. Her novels explore the complicated relationship that African Americans
maintain toward the Judeo-Christian tradition; devices such as the introduction of
African belief systems and the creation of an entirely new religion work to disrupt this. Articulating the view from the margins, Butler's fiction talks back to narratives
of originary identity that posit the black woman as other, as inferior, and therefore, as
subjugated to a white, male ideal.