Note that this was an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.
I consider this book to be a worthy read, especially for those who are already fans of science fiction author Octavia E. Butler, but I have to confess some slight disappointments in it. Let it be said up front that I have never read anything by Butler! I was interested in this book because I thought it was a biography initially. Since so few women and so few people of any color other than white are active in the sci-fi genre, I thought it would be an education to read of someone who was both female and African American, and it certainly was. I have no complaints there at all.
What I had hoped for though, was more about Butler herself - her youth, her method of working, and so on. As a hopeful author myself, I must confess to selfish reasons for reading about other authors! Maybe I can learn something about how they work, where their ideas come from, how they get through the writing process of growing an embryonic idea into the finished novel - or why they fail to do so. In many ways this book did not disappoint, which is why I favor it. If you want to learn about Butler's books and her triumphs and failures, then this will reveal a lot because of the very approach which was employed, but I felt myself hungry for more about Butler herself, about what was in her mind, and how she went through the creative process. She wrote on a typewriter, and not even an electric one, which sounds primitive and frankly boggles my mind, but it was all she had in the seventies and eighties.
She was lucky to even have that, growing up as impoverished as she did. It makes a heart break to think of how many other such children there are out there who could be enriching our world with their creativity, yet who will never do so because they will not get even the sparse yet good breaks Butler had to somewhat offset the bad. This is a real tragedy. Butler had four older brothers who all died before she was born, and her father also died when she was a child. Please don't ever limit your child's imagination and creativity. Never block their horizon. Butler refused to let her own horizon be dimmed and we're better off for it, but it's sad that she's one of few instead of one of the many that there could be.
The irony of Butler's life is that it was her mother, who didn't even rate her as an author and wasn't supportive, thinking her dream was nothing but frivolous, who was the one who got that typewriter for her. She was also the one who destroyed her comic book collection when Butler was away from home on a writing course. That really struck a resonant chord with me, because my own parents did the same thing with my school books when I was out of the country for an extended period. I never forgave them for that. They did it without warning and without asking, deeming those things to be junk to be disposed of, and I lost a piece of my childhood that I would have liked to have shared with my own children, but now cannot. It was barbaric and cruel. Fortunately, life goes on in other ways.
As far as this book is concerned, in some ways I felt like I lost sight of Butler behind her novels, in a case of 'can't see the author for the trees' (in the form of print books!). So this felt more like it was a biography or an exegesis of her novels than it was of Butler herself. While looking at her through the lens of her books was a...dare I pun and say novel approach?!...I confess to a little disappointment that this method seemed to camouflage her as much as it revealed her.
That said, I found myself oft fascinated by this examination and apart from a piece here and there that I skipped, I was much more often interested in reading through and learning a bit about her thought processes, influences, and setbacks. The author of this book knows his stuff and has researched extensively. The book is packed with insights and observations. He was the very first researcher to dig into some of this material and has some very interesting things to say about it. The book also has an index, a glossary, and extensive reference end notes.
If I had a serious disappointment, it would be that the book seemed very much aimed at academics, especially judged by the language employed here. As such I feel it did a disservice to girls who are growing up in the same circumstances as Butler did: young African Americans who might have been inspired to follow in Butler's footsteps were the book written in a tone more accessible to them, but who may well be put off by the language employed here. Maybe that book still has to be written. Until then, this is what we have, and I recommend it for its worthy and needed exploration of an important author and her work.