Octavia Butler: Ideas of Utopia and Dystopia and Humanity


By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D.University of Connecticut

In her fiction, Octavia Butler is very good at challenging boundaries not only of genres but also of human identity. She loves to raise questions that are important in defining utopian futures. Is utopia always an unresolvable paradox? And if it is, does it have to be? One of the most important questions is: What does it mean to be human?

Image shows men from different races tightly holding each other's wrists.
In Octavia Butler’s utopian vision, the only way to imagine a better future is to confront the past of America, which means a real confrontation with the legacy of slavery. (Image: TheVisualsYouNeed/Shutterstock)

Ideas of Humanity

Octavia Butler investigates different ideas of humanity—both historically, and in myth and fantasy. How much can we change and still be considered human? And really, does being human even matter?

Butler’s works are neither purely utopian nor dystopian, and they suffer from neither a lack of movement nor a lack of strategies. They are, in fact, about change—about being open to not only understanding other perspectives, no matter how alienating they may seem but even to assimilating such perspectives into our own worldview.

Kindred and Slavery

In Butler’s breakthrough novel, Kindred, published in 1979, we have a slave narrative combined with time travel. Kindred tells the tale of Dana, a black woman living in L.A. in the 1970s, happily married to her white husband, Kevin. One day, as Dana is sorting through books in the new apartment the couple has just purchased, she experiences a phenomenon that is to change her forever.

She is transported to a new place, where a little white boy has fallen into a river and is calling for help. She saves the child and soon comes to realize that the people in this strange place think that, simply because of her skin color, she is a slave. When her life is threatened, she returns to her present-day existence in L.A. and her husband asks her how in the world she just disappeared from their home for a few moments.

This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of LiteratureWatch it now, on Wondrium.

Confronting Negative Aspects of Humanity

The novel never explains the mechanism for Dana’s travels, which she eventually figures out are travels through both time and space, as she goes—physically, not metaphorically—to antebellum Maryland, where she is called upon repeatedly to rescue her ancestors, a slave woman named Alice and her white master Rufus, the little drowning boy from Dana’s first journey.

Dana, then, has a literal encounter with the dynamics of master-slave relationships, giving her a deep perspective on something that is nonetheless important to all contemporary Americans, the legacy of slavery, not only as a historical institution, but as a system of power that determined—and perhaps still determines, to some degree—personal identity for its members.

Learn more about utopian hybridity.

Kindred and Utopia

Rufus is awful in many ways—he regularly assaults slave women and even attempts to rape Dana at one point, but he is not shown merely as an evil white slaveholder. Rather, he is shown as a man whose identity is just as intersectional as Dana’s, who is constructed by the cultural and economic circumstances of his birth and life. Not that he shouldn’t take responsibility for his actions, of course, but that his very sense of responsibility is structured by the institution in which he finds himself.

Kindred serves as a foundation for understanding Butler’s utopian vision. The novel’s message is that the only way to begin imagining a better future is to confront the past head-on, and in contemporary America, that means a real confrontation with the legacy of slavery.

Learn more about Octavia Butler’s fiction.

Vampires in Fledgling

 A vampiric man wearing a black hood.
Octavia Butler’s vampires in Fledgling, like many modern vampires, are not one-dimensionally evil. (Image: Kolbakova Olga/ Shutterstock)

Butler has a fantasy take on what it means to be human in Fledgling. This novel takes all of the tropes of the vampire and reshapes them to merge the vampire narrative with the narrative of the utopian planned community. The vampires in the world of Fledgling are called the Ina, and they have many vampiric qualities: they need to drink human blood to survive, they can’t go out in the sunlight, they’re very clannish, and they tend to be tall, thin, and pale.

Like many modern vampires, they’re not one-dimensionally evil, and they’re not vulnerable to religious symbols or garlic or anything like that. Also, like contemporary vampires, they are very powerful and very seductive.

The Ina and Their Society

The novel is narrated by Shori, a young Ina woman who has been left for dead in a raid on her planned community, and who has to recover her memory in a pretty typical strategy for showing the utopia to the reader; as Shori learns about the community and its cultural values, so, too, does the reader.

The Ina are similar to the humans in that they have many origin stories, and these lead to conflicts of the type we’ve often seen among humans with different religious beliefs. Theirs is a matrilineal society, since women have more powerful venom, which makes them stronger. Each Ina needs a certain number of humans—usually five or six adults—to preserve him or herself. The Ina live alongside humans but are mostly unseen by all but their symbionts. In these symbiotic relationships, the Ina gets blood and people to represent her in the daylight.

A Symbiotic Culture

The human symbionts get longevity, health, and incredible sex. The symbionts live with their Ina in small, planned communities that follow utopian blueprints, in which people are safe, comfortable, connected to the earth, connected to their communities, and have plenty of leisure for study and enjoyment. These humans have many choices about the kinds of lives they can live—urban or rural, professional, or leisurely—but they need the Ina in an addictive way, raising questions about consent and free will, about happiness, and about what it means to be human.

It also includes hybrid characters since the human symbionts are deeply changed by their relationships with Ina and the resulting 200-year-plus lifespan. And as hybrid humans—willing to change—they are also open to the potential of real utopian experience.

Through this novel, Octavia Butler successfully presents the complex analysis of cultural conflicts and utopian yearnings.

Common Questions about Octavia Butler: Ideas of Utopia and Dystopia and Humanity

Q: What happens to the protagonist in Octavia Butler’s Kindred?

In Octavia Butler’s Kindred, the protagonist Dana is constantly transported back in time and space to rescue her ancestors form dangers.

Q: In Kindred, what message does Octavia Butler give to the readers?

In Kindred, the message that Octavia Butler gives is that the only way to begin imagining a better future is to confront the past head-on, and in contemporary America, that means a real confrontation with the legacy of slavery.

Q: What kind of society is shown in Fledgling?

In Fledgling, the society is organized around the Ina who have vampiric qualities. The Ina are invisible to everyone except their symbionts—five or six adult humans whose blood the Ina use to survive; the symbionts get longevity, good health, and incredible sex.

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