Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler edited by Alexandra Pierce & Mimi Mondal
Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler, Alexandra Pierce & Mimi Mondal, eds. (Twelfth Planet 978-1-922-10144-0, $19.99, 434pp, tp) August 2017.
Next to Philip K. Dick, Octavia Butler seems to have developed the most impressive posthumous career of any late 20th century SF writer. Kindred has become a staple of classrooms and community reading projects; the Carl Brandon Society has named both a scholarship and an award in her honor; her Parable novels have popped up in post-Trump discussions almost as often as Atwood and Orwell; Gerry Canavan’s Octavia E. Butler is one of the most popular titles in the University of Illinois Press’s “Modern Masters of Science Fiction” series; an entire collection of interviews with her, Conversations with Octavia Butler, edited by the late Conseula Francis, was published by the University Press of Mississippi; a number of journals and magazines devoted special issues after her death in 2006; and director Ava DuVernay has announced an adaptation of Dawn for TV. Now Twelfth Planet Press, which enjoyed success and a bagful of awards with Letters to Tiptree in 2015, has collected more than 50 memoirs, tributes, letters, and essays, along with one interview, in Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia E. Butler, edited by Alexandra Pierce & Mimi Mondal (the title comes from Patternmaster, when the young Teray first perceives the Pattern). It’s a lovely tribute, and the fact that it’s also something of a gallimaufry may be what makes it the most appropriate way of documenting Butler’s importance, in both personal and literary terms, to whole generations of writers, and especially to women and writers of color.
The book is organized into seven parts (plus the interview by Stephen Potts, which is also in the Francis collection), although there’s considerable overlap among the sections: Butler as simple inspiration, political and social issues, discussions of individual works, statements from Octavia Butler Scholars at Clarion, discussions of how Butler specifically influenced the writer, what editor Pierce describes as “love letters,” and essays that appeared in a 2010 memorial issue of Science Fiction Studies. There are a few reprints in addition to the Science Fiction Studies pieces, and a couple of these date back as far as 1984, when Butler only had a handful of books in print. These essays, by Ruth Salvaggio and Sandra Govan, are a bit dated, but it’s fascinating, in the context of such a celebration of Butler’s massive influence, to see scholars just discovering her Patternmaster series – including discussions of Survivor, the novel which Butler famously later disowned. Luminescent Threads isn’t primarily a collection of critical approaches to Butler, though there’s a clear academic strain in pieces by Rebecca Holden, Andrea Hairston, Raffaella Baccolini, Joan Slonczewski, and Valjeanne Jeffers, in addition to those mentioned above.
Not surprisingly, several contributors point out the spooky prescience of Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents – many of the essays seem to have been written shortly before or after the Trump election, and Hoda Zaki does the most convincing job of pointing out the disturbing parallels. There are also a couple of fascinating pieces on teaching Butler’s work, by Brenda Tyrell & Jeffrey Allen Tucker, and Gerry Canavan – one of the first scholars to make use of the Butler collection at the Huntington Library – makes a persuasive if problematical case for publishing not only Butler’s disavowed Survivor, but other unpublished stories and fragments, including an early thriller and the many false starts to Parable of the Trickster – problematical because Butler specifically instructed that such works not be made public. There are also pieces by those who knew or corresponded with Butler, such as Nisi Shawl, Nnedi Okorafor, L. Timmel Duchamp, and Vonda McIntyre (who roomed next to her at the 1970 Clarion). But by far the most moving section consists of contributions by recipients of the Octavia Butler Scholarships to Clarion, not only because some of them have begun auspicious careers of their own (such as Rachel Swirsky and Indra Das), but because their own accounts are often powerful tales of self-discovery, even when they repeat the same points: no one expected to get in, no one certainly expected a scholarship, no one thinks Octavia would remember them. Maybe not, but the point now is that they remember her, and they do it beautifully. She’d be cool with that, if a little embarrassed.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the December 2017 issue of Locus.