Octavia Butler’s Kindred TV show premiered last week on FX, and I’m both excited and hesitant to watch. Butler writes with such a personal touch that I know no TV adaptation could enter the minds of her characters in quite the same intimate way. But whichever way the show turns out for me, I know that after I watch, I’m going to be craving more books filled with culture clashes that are messy and mind-expanding, characters who feel fully alive, and worlds that make me see my own a bit differently. I’ll be sure to have these ones on standby while watching the show.
In an effort to accomplish my Goodreads goal for the year, I decided to pick up the Binti trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor. And not only did I knock out three books within just a few days, I also discovered my new favorite author! Okorafor writes her characters in such an endearing, raw way that I truly cared for all of them—I related to their anger, fear, anxieties, and willpower so much, that I felt like I was a character going through the story alongside them. It’s very similar to the way I feel when reading Butler’s books! But whereas Butler wrote Afrofuturism, Okorafor writes Africanfuturism, a term she actually coined herself, meaning sci-fi that’s rooted in African history and culture, rather than the Black diaspora that Afrofuturism stems from. One of my favorite Africanfuturism works by Okorafor is her standalone novel LAGOON. In LAGOON, off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria, a massive object from space has crashed, leading three people who witnessed the event on a quest to save their country. In an alternating narrative structure, we follow a marine biologist, a famous rapper, and a soldier through the story, and the city of Lagos becomes illuminated from each of their perspectives. Blending Nigerian mythology and an alien invasion, this book is a great choice for Butler fans.
It’s up to a famous rapper, a biologist, and a rogue soldier to handle humanity’s first contact with an alien ambassador—and prevent mass extinction—in this novel that blends magical realism with high-stakes action.
After word gets out on the Internet that aliens have landed in the waters outside of the world’s fifth most populous city, chaos ensues. Soon the military, religious leaders, thieves, and crackpots are trying to control the message on YouTube and on the streets. Meanwhile, the earth’s political superpowers are considering a preemptive nuclear launch to eradicate the intruders. All that stands between seventeen million anarchic residents and death is an alien ambassador, a biologist, a rapper, a soldier, and a myth that may be the size of a giant spider, or a god revealed.
One of the aspects I especially appreciate in Butler’s works is her world-building, with its incredible attention to sociological developments. Another similarly detailed world comes to life in the recently published DAWNHOUNDS. Set in a Maori-inspired world where biological technology is the primary advancement, people live in mushrooms, bio-medical achievements allow limbs to regrow, and the weaponry is something else entirely. The plot centers around a cop called Yat who’s murdered, then brought back to life, much to the chagrin of the fellow officers who murdered her. With her rebirth come new abilities, which she employs in a plot to halt a plague. Butler’s books always feel like you’ve entered your own dreamscape, and DAWNHOUNDS is similarly surreal, yet familiar in the sense that it’s set in a broken, yet continually rebuilding world.
Gideon the Ninth meets Black Sun in this queer, Māori-inspired debut fantasy about a police officer who is murdered, brought back to life with a mysterious new power, and tasked with protecting her city from an insidious evil threatening to destroy it.
The port city of Hainak is alive: its buildings, its fashion, even its weapons. But, after a devastating war and a sweeping biotech revolution, all its inhabitants want is peace, no one more so than Yat Jyn-Hok a reformed-thief-turned-cop who patrols the streets at night.
Yat has recently been demoted on the force due to “lifestyle choices” after being caught at a gay club. She’s barely holding it together, haunted by memories of a lover who vanished and voices that float in and out of her head like radio signals. When she stumbles across a dead body on her patrol, two fellow officers gruesomely murder her and dump her into the harbor. Unfortunately for them, she wakes up.
Resurrected by an ancient power, she finds herself with the new ability to manipulate life force. Quickly falling in with the pirate crew who has found her, she must race against time to stop a plague from being unleashed by the evil that has taken root in Hainak.
Another expertly built world lies in THE DEEP. This epic novella—inspired by a clipping. song from the This American Life episode on Afrofuturism “We Are in The Future”— is about an underwater society created by descendants of African slaves who can now breath underwater. The main character, Yetu, is a historian who is solely responsible for remembering the traumatic history of her people, so that everybody else in her community can live in peace. But when the burden becomes too much for her to bear, she flees to the surface to discover the world above and carve a potential new path for her people. If that plot isn’t enough to draw up stark Butler comparisons, then just know that at every turn there’s beautiful revelations and thought-provoking questions to be asked about identity, slavery, and so much more.
Octavia E. Butler meets Marvel’s Black Panther in The Deep, a story rich with Afrofuturism, folklore, and the power of memory, inspired by the Hugo Award–nominated song “The Deep” from Daveed Diggs’s rap group Clipping.
Yetu holds the memories for her people—water-dwelling descendants of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by slave owners—who live idyllic lives in the deep. Their past, too traumatic to be remembered regularly is forgotten by everyone, save one—the historian. This demanding role has been bestowed on Yetu.
Yetu remembers for everyone, and the memories, painful and wonderful, traumatic and terrible and miraculous, are destroying her. And so, she flees to the surface escaping the memories, the expectations, and the responsibilities—and discovers a world her people left behind long ago.
Yetu will learn more than she ever expected about her own past—and about the future of her people. If they are all to survive, they’ll need to reclaim the memories, reclaim their identity—and own who they really are.
The Deep is “a tour de force reorientation of the storytelling gaze…a superb, multilayered work,” (Publishers Weekly, starred review) and a vividly original and uniquely affecting story inspired by a song produced by the rap group Clipping.
WILD SEED was the second book I read by Octavia Butler (KINDRED being the first), and its epic sensibility and the way the supernatural characters and their communities progressed through time was something to behold! TREAD OF ANGELS by Rebecca Roanhorse is reminiscent to me of WILD SEED. This new novella is set in a Western-inspired fantasy world with a stark divide between those of the Fallen class (descendants of demons) and the ruling, privileged class of the Elect (descendants of angels). In the mining town of Goetia, only the Fallen have the ability to mine the precious elements, so they’re given more rights than the Fallen of other communities. Our main story follows sisters Celeste and Mariel, who share an Elect father and Fallen mother, marking them as half-breeds. When Mariel is captured for murdering a member of the Elect, Celeste must prove Mariel’s innocence with the help of her ex-lover before her sister is sentenced to Hell. There’s so much packed into this novella that I’m hoping for a sequel!
Celeste, a card sharp with a need for justice, takes on the role of advocatus diaboli, to defend her sister Mariel, accused of murdering a Virtue, a member of the ruling class of this mining town, in a new world of dark fantasy from the New York Times bestselling author of Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse.
The year is 1883 and the mining town of Goetia is booming as prospectors from near and far come to mine the powerful new element Divinity from the high mountains of Colorado with the help of the pariahs of society known as the Fallen. The Fallen are the descendants of demonkind living amongst the Virtues, the winners in an ancient war, with the descendants of both sides choosing to live alongside Abaddon’s mountain in this tale of the mythological West from the bestselling mastermind Rebecca Roanhorse.
With so many comparisons between the two authors, I had to throw an Ursula Le Guin on this list. What’d you expect? In one of her most mind-boggling classics, THE LATHE OF HEAVEN, when George Orr dreams, he alters realities. Fearful and philosophical of his abilities, he enlists the help of sleep psychiatrist Dr. William Haber, but the doctor’s ambition and curiosity lead him toward malice. First, he begins manipulating George’s dreams and then he attempts to acquire the same power for himself. With a high-concept premise that takes a deep look into psyches of control and moral quandaries, this book is a wonderful comp to Butler. Plus, Scribner is releasing a gorgeous new edition at the end of January 2023, which you’re going to want to add to your personal classics’ library.
The Locus Award-winning science fiction novel by legendary author Ursula K. Le Guin, set in a world where one man’s dreams rewrite the future.
During a time racked by war and environmental catastrophe, George Orr discovers his dreams alter reality. George is compelled to receive treatment from Dr. William Haber, an ambitious sleep psychiatrist who quickly grasps the immense power George holds. After becoming adept at manipulating George’s dreams to reshape the world, Haber seeks the same power for himself. George—with some surprising help—must resist Haber’s attempts, which threaten to destroy reality itself.
A classic of the science fiction genre, The Lathe of Heaven is prescient in its exploration of the moral risks when overwhelming power is coupled with techno-utopianism.
The last book on this list isn’t coming out until next spring, but I just had to include it because it is THAT good and apt for comparison to Butler’s work. Similar to the post-apocalyptic feel of Butler’s DAWN, and the impressive way she wrote great literature paired with a fast pace, Sterling’s debut has everything you want in a dystopian story. Climate change has ravaged the world, forcing many to enter isolated “camps” in northern cities. Rose heads to one such mysterious camp in northern Canada—she’s been promised housing there if she spies on its creator—where she meets another newcomer and climate-displaced person, Grant. As they get to know each other and delve into the mysteries of the camp and nearby research stations, the story contemplates layers of class, gender, and more. With characters and events that are by turns somber and hopeful, and a well-built world, Butler fans will love this one.
In a near-future northern settlement, a handful of climate change survivors find their fates intertwined in this mesmerizing and transportive novel in the vein of Station Eleven and The Power.
In the far north of Canada sits Camp Zero, an American building project hiding many secrets.
Desperate to help her climate-displaced Korean immigrant mother, Rose agrees to travel to Camp Zero and spy on its architect in exchange for housing. She arrives at the same time as another newcomer, a college professor named Grant who is determined to flee his wealthy family’s dark legacy. Gradually, they realize that there is more to the architect than previously thought, and a disturbing mystery lurks beneath the surface of the camp. At the same time, rumors abound of an elite group of women soldiers living and working at a nearby Cold War-era climate research station. What are they doing there? And who is leading them?
An electrifying page-turner where nothing is as it seems, Camp Zero cleverly explores how the intersection of gender, class, and migration will impact who and what will survive in a warming world.
Photo credit: iStock / Grandfailure