As a young aspiring science-fiction writer, I've always considered Octavia Butler my spirit guide. I went to sleep and woke up with Kindred, the Parables, and Wild Seed and tried to recruit everyone in all of my English classes to her following. Turns out my teachers weren't all so interested in the rich tapestries of history that she wove and their hard reckonings with the sins of racism and misogyny. My fanhood remained underground: a collection of dog-eared books, a failed book signing, and a series of unpolished blog posts wondering why science-fiction's reading lists and movie scripts never seemed to remember her.
But a pivotal moment, both in my writing life and in my fanhood of Octavia, came in college. I was taking a peer-led creative writing course at a local library. One day early on, I mentioned to a classmate that science-fiction and fantasy were my passions. Without ever knowing my adoration for the author, she suggested that I read an essay from an old copy of Essence by Butler, titled "A Few Rules for Predicting the Future." It has been my guiding light in all of my fiction writing since.
The essay describes the foundation of Butler's thought process when creating literary future-scapes and is one of the most sober (and one of the few instructional) takes on the philosophies of Afrofuturism, the pan-media movement of science-fiction and fantasy grounded deeply in blackness, of which Butler is a patron saint. In the essay, she describes her technique towards her unique brand of clairvoyance. It is skill that has gotten more right about the present-day than most would care to admit.
Her four principles for predicting the future were as follows:
- Learn from the past
- Respect the Law of Consequences
- Be aware of your perspective
- Count on the surprises
The latter three rules are important in coming up with realistic, believable scenarios that can still deal in the fantastic. The Law of Consequences creates a setting where every action indeed does have an equal and opposite reaction. It keeps the internal logic steady. Awareness of perspective keeps the author in control of runaway optimism or pessimism. Counting on surprises allows for some necessary rule-breaking on the margins of the fabric that gives science-fiction its wonder. But the most important, and first, is the principle of learning from the past.
This is the singular commandment of Afrofuturism. The Law of Remembrance. It echoes some of the foundational elements of pan-African philosophy and encourages a strong tradition of reflection in the art. The Law of Remembrance stresses that science-fiction has always served as a carnival mirror to reality. It absorbs and reflects the visions before it, often in new and amazing ways, but it is nothing without light and an image. Going even further, as many sweet-talking soothsayers, stats wizards, and street magicians can attest to, telling the future isn't very much different from telling the past.
In my view of it, the Law of Remembrance places Afrofuturism more firmly in the true tradition of science-fiction as societal critique than many mainstream sci-fi staples. The lily-white casts of most modern sci-fi and their removal of race, gender, orientation, and complex group dynamics from their simplistic two-D struggle narratives indicate a shirked duty in the way of Remembrance. This, in turn, leads to breaking the other rules, including awareness of perspective, whereupon many writers will decidedly forgo complicated issues, rendering flat and boring trope settings. Afrofuturism is figuratively more colorful—in more than one way.
Of course, it's Black History Month right now. And of course the Law of Remembrance, as it exists within black culture at-large, played a significant part in the creation of Black History Month and in the cultural narrative that we have built. In fact, it strikes me that Afrofuturism as an artistic concept is a proxy for those who dream about better lives for all of us. Just as Remembrance is important for the writer, so it is for the dreamers and the policy-makers who wish to impose their wills upon the existing landscape. Remembrance is as important for those who put oil on canvas as it is for those who would use the fabric of reality as a canvas. Black History—from the body of the Mother to her sprawling, grasping fingers spread across continents and islands—is the key to a Black Future.
Octavia Butler created landscapes of a runaway prison complex, an ever-widening inequality gap, and re-segregation, with hellish visions of climate change and environmental degradation. That's a relatively accurate view of life today. If we pay attention solely to her settings, we don't have much to hope for change. But then again, what cause does history give us to be more optimistic? The crux of Butler's writing, however, is that she used histories of positive and driven characters, often multi-layered women and marginalized people, and enclaves of well-doers that still managed to alter their worlds. In both fiction and real life, the odds have always been stacked against us. That is one of the lessons of Black History. But in Butler's work and in others', Afrofuturism helps us find a way to beat those odds. All it takes is Remembrance. Thus, Black History.
[Photo via Seattle Post-Intelligencer]