Afrofuturism is a type of cultural aesthetic that explores the intersection of African culture with technology and futurism. Modern pop culture examples include R&B musician Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer era, Black Panther in all its Marvel iterations, and the city of Numbani in the game Overwatch. But before Afrofuturism played into blockbusters and radio singles, it was largely born into existence through the work of Octavia E. Butler, today’s Google Doodle honoree.
Butler’s series, novels, short stories, essays, and speeches tended to revolve around four themes: critique of modern-day hierarchies, violence, survival, and diversity. These themes played out in imaginative landscapes shaped by fantasy and science fiction. Butler won both Nebula and Hugo awards for sci-fi literature, and she was inspired by the Black Power movement and the six-week Clarion’s Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop.
Her view of humanity was shaped by the unfairness, yet tendency toward, social hierarchy and oppression of those seen as less than. Her narratives oftentimes had a clear protagonist who could be identified by their uniqueness and fought against the tyranny of vampires, aliens, superhumans, and slave masters.
Butler experimented with gene manipulation, interbreeding, mutation, non-consensual sex, contamination, hybridity, and alien contact to shape characters built by sociobiological violence. That led to the common theme of overcoming disenfranchisement and embracing change to survive. The alternative communities she created drew from African race and culture, but included extraterrestrial and other fantasy elements to establish a strong sense of science fiction.
Some critics note that her ties to Afrofuturism, including writing the basis of what Afrofuturistic literature draws from, were actually more multi-ethnic and multi-species than what today’s definition of Afrofuturism tends to entail. The actual term was coined in the ‘90s, while the majority of Butler’s work was published in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Plus, she resisted being confined by any one genre, saying her only loyal audience was black readers and feminists.
Regardless of genre, Butler’s writing has influenced an entire cultural aesthetic of music, film, and literature. Her work has been adapted into an opera, a graphic novel, and soon, a TV show produced by Ava DuVernay. A scholarship in her name sends young aspiring sci-fi writers to the Clarion’s workshop, and her persistence to publish work reflecting the struggle of black women has made an undeniable impact on the way science fiction reimagines socioeconomic struggles.