Review: Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler
Octavia Butler was born African American and poor in 1947. This maiden sentence in Valjeanne Jeffers’ essay ‘Themes of Power, Family and Change in Octavia Butler’s Wild Seed’ contextualises the sentiment of awe in Twelfth Planet Press' Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler.
The book is nearly scholarly with its citations, reflexivity and dissertations by writers and academics, where editors Alexandra Pierce and Mimi Mondal pay special attention to the topography of the work with its themed sections and unquestionable impact on readers.
It is a mammoth collection (434 pages) of original work and reprints, a 2018 Hugo nominee that accomplishes what it sets out to do: celebrate Butler in stirring tributes by a universal readership. The assemblage is a positive obsession that comprises epistles and monographs by largely pro-feminists, many of whom are speculative fiction writers of colour who also identify as female. It also features male votaries, equally fervent in their paeans where the dominant motif is inspiration: Butler as pioneer — a woman of her time. Butler as soothsayer, seer, Oracle…
‘Did you know that my first brave act as a professional writer was to decide to publish with my very feminine name and that I did that because of you?’ — Jennifer Marie Brissett
The work offers an intimate gaze at Butler from the eyes of diverse writers and academics enamoured with her, readers who see themselves in Butler’s characters and plots. Butler’s humanity comes to fore in each individual yet aligned reminiscence of her stories, her victims, her villains. Approaching the text, anyone new to Butler quickly collects an understanding that this commanding literary artist who wrote science fiction to see herself in the world, who ‘wrote herself in’ because novels and short stories of the time did not feature an ‘other’ like her, has moved lives. Her speculative fiction of change, sexism, power and politics, with its black heroines like Lauren Olamina in Parable of the Sower (1993), continues to challenge traditional paradigms in a world of male dominated genre fiction.
‘Kindred is more than a slave story. It is a woman’s story. It is a Black woman’s story.’ — Tiara Janté
The essays unveil the author’s impact to real people and how it moulds their lives with new hope. We encounter the writer as an agent of change, where both the inscribed word in novels, short stories or email exchanges and the physical encounter with an extraordinary visionary offer redemption, if not a lifeline, with such luminosity.
‘In your Parable novels, I saw myself again. I saw my home, my blues and river city, Memphis writ in the present and in a frightening future that could come to pass.’ — Sheree Renée Thomas
Luminescent Threads closes with an interview originally published in Science Fiction Studies (November 1996): ‘We keep playing the same record’: A conversation with Octavia E. Butler. It allows a deeper perception of the writer’s unique mind, her authorial influences and positionings on critical theory, socio-biological principles, and her choice of theme and approach in her writings as an African-American woman. Herein Butler openly proclaims the three main reader groups she targeted: the science fiction audience, the black audience and the feminist audience.
In criticism, a good editor generally does not inject themselves into the text. The two (!) introductions snatch their own space and impose upon the reader each editor’s reflections rather than allow the text its own voice. A sole, succinct preface would have sufficed, with the editors perhaps choosing to also partake as authors with their own letters or essays in the spirit of the compilation.
‘You have demonstrated that we have the gift of writing the world into being, reprogramming our reality and becoming the heroes of our own narrative.’ — Karen Lord
The work is also very pro feminist, which might alienate some readers — but Butler wouldn’t target them anyway! There are also individual threads of political and socio environmental biases: climate change; nuclear war; racial tension (and a celebration of Black Lives Matter); anti-Trump sentiment — fare-the-well Obama dear. Ben H. Winters laments about the Trump presidency, ‘We could have used you this year, Octavia Butler.’ As does Tara Betts: ‘We need your stories to get through these challenging times.’ Discounting potential for estrangement, the book offers valuable insight to the work of a most celebrated African-American science fiction writer who thrived in a genre with few female writers of colour.
The melange is a moving writ. It is a profound testimonial that leaves you with a hunger to read Kindred (1974), a time travel slave narrative, or Fledgling (2005), a speculative fiction novel starring a young black vampire girl, or some other if not all of Butler’s 12 published novels, and a longing for her literary estate to offer up Butler’s remaining unpublished work.
The anthology achieves what it set out to be: a written shrine for a growing community of Butler enthusiasts, and an invitation to new open-minded readers to fall in love with a Hugo and Nebula award-winning black diamond.
‘May I call you Octavia? I apologise. I do not know you as well as I should.’ — Karen Lord