Friday, June 18, 2010

A Hypothetical Letter to Octavia Butler

Once while I was struggling through the obstacle course required of those hapless mortals compelled to write a Master's thesis in English Literature, one of my professors asked me about the author I had chosen for my topic, Octavia Butler. I explained that she was a groundbreaking science fiction writer, a pioneer for black women in the field where they are almost non-existent.  When I explained that she lived somewhere on the East coast of the United States, he suggested I write to her as I was living in Miami at the time.  He thought she would be glad to hear from someone interested in her work. I thought it was a good idea though I wasn't sure how I would get the letter to her. Eventually the task shrivelled away, overwhelmed by the presence of other, more looming, tasks, though I hung on to the concept.  Someday I would do it.
In my head, I planned what I would say.  Ms. Butler's books are among the most disturbing I have ever read. Sometimes I've had to put them aside to give myself some relief from the images they’ve created in my mind. They are not at all typical horrors or science fiction with clear cut figures of good and evil, but curiously vivid situations where flawed human beings had to make terrible choices which could leave them changed and broken whatever the choice. Nothing is ever simple.

For example, in her Xenogenesis saga, Butler's main character Lilith must work with the aliens who have basically taken over the future of human beings. They wish to bond with mankind to help it survive, but this means changing the way humans live, breed and exist. Lilith is seen as a traitor by many humans, but how can she openly resist them without destroying them all? In Kindred a young woman is mysteriously transported to an antebellum plantation in the old South and discovers that to ensure her family's survival she has to condone the possible rape of one of her ancestors.
Butler was interested in looking at the difficult options humanity has to face.  There's no doubt that her works suggested a boundless imagination. As a writer myself, I was intrigued by her original ideas nurtured by her interests in medicine, cloning and what makes us human. While she sometimes horrified me, she compelled me with her juggling of possibilities and with her amazing ideas.
I was fascinated by her herself: reportedly shy, quiet and introspective, she found the creativity and courage to write and succeed in a field populated by white males.  At the age of ten, she started writing her own science fiction, unfazed and unconscious of the trail she was breaking.  She never stopped writing after that. I have to remember that.
The content of that hypothetical letter to her dwelled in my mind even as I procrastinated. I believe I would have thanked Ms. Butler for her single minded determination to do what she wanted to do.  I would have thanked her for opening the eyes of people of many ethnicities to the fact that science fiction and fantasy wasn't just for Them. Somehow I would have tried to express my gratitude for the way she has terrified, inspired and challenged me ever since I got to know her. I would have also thanked her for exposing me to the worlds in her stories, and to the whole experience of immersing myself in that world as I trudged through my thesis.
I would have enjoyed writing that letter. Octavia Butler died far too early at the age of fifty-eight.  That was four years ago. The solitary woman was alone when she died.  As her birthday approaches (June 22), I think of her and again I am glad that her astonishing work was acknowledged and admired during her lifetime.   She won every major award in science fiction, and she generated a large fanbase which spans age, race and ethnicity. Hopefully, she knew that her worth was recognized.  Perhaps my one simple letter would have not had much impact upon her. Or perhaps she would have been pleased to hear from yet another person she had inspired.  Mentioning as much to my sister, she observed, "At least she knowns now." Perhaps she does

Octavia Butler - Bibliography

Friday, June 4, 2010

Sci Fi Heroines Who Are Way Better Than Megan Fox

While watching Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen some months ago, I was moved by various emotions. Not strong ones mind you – I did not feel any strong pathos or excitement or delight while watching this movie. In fact at one point I actually zoned out for a while. Sorry Transformers fans!

What I did feel was a mild annoyance with Megan Fox. Understand me I don’t know Megan Fox. She could be a very nice person. I have never seen her in anything else but Transformers movies, so she may be Academy award calibre in all her other roles (thought I doubt it). I also feel sorry for her because she’s one of the people some of the media don’t like, and when the media don’t like you whoa ho ho! However I don’t have any fond memories of Megan Fox in the first movie, and I wasn’t too pleased with Miss Fox in the second one. Again I didn’t have any strong feelings for her – it just wasn’t that kind of movie – but Megan was so obviously supposed to be eye candy and nothing else it got tiresome. She worked in a garage dressed in skimpy clothes which no self respecting mechanic would wear for fear of severe burns, cuts and other damage. Her makeup and body language was terribly obvious and pinup style, prompting one reviewer to comment that she never seemed to close her mouth. The heroes dragged her around by her hand or arm whenever they were dashing from place to place. In short, she seemed to have been designed to mildly annoy me.

I’m glad that in general the critics seemed to feel the same as I do. I would be worried that people would try to hold her up as a candidate for the Sci Fi Woman Hall of Fame. That would have brought on some strong emotion from me! Despite the fact that science fiction can be a bit of a boy’s club, there are some great female science fiction characters out there, and thankfully no one is making any concerted efforts to try to elevate Megan Fox up there with the sci fi female greats who have gone before her.

However, I am afraid for the rabid fans who think Megan Fox scored in that movie because she was just so hot and – ugh – kick ass. To this I would reply, huh?! Surely those who think this have forgotten (or never knew) that there have been female characters in the past who have been strong, well acted, admirable, feminine and have made you feel for them and actually care what happened to them. At the same time, they didn’t need their attractiveness to be hyped up to obnoxious proportions, their characters shone through and enlivened their appearance or at least that’s not all you remembered about them. Just in case some of these excitable people have forgotten the true stars of the female sci fi universe, I have put inordinate amounts of time into compiling a list of the ladies I have admired in sci fi movie and television over the years. Just in case you weren’t paying attention.

Don’t forget, despite my aspirations to geekdom, I’m not versed in every sci fi show out there, so of course I won’t mention every great female out there. That’s what my comment section is for. As usual my blog is slanted to my preferences. These are the ladies that inspired me, and I’ll try to make you see why as best I can. Feel free to disagree.

Nyota Uhura

If you read my blog posts, you may have noticed that I am a leetle obsessed with the new Star Trek movie. (No you haven’t noticed? Really?) My love for the newest movie rekindled my interest in the character, but I’ve always liked Uhura. Culturally, the character is a role model for many. At the time of the Star Trek original series, it was unusual seeing a black woman playing a character like this.

Ironically (though not suprisinginly) Uhura did not get a lot of chances to shine, but in retrospect the character has many admirable qualities which have been explored in books and later movies. Uhura is intelligent! There is no question. She has an unmatched mastery of many complicated languages. In one of my Star Trek books, she takes some time off to serve on another ship because they need someone with her level of expertise. She is one of the few female officers serving on the bridge. In the new movie, her determination and ambition is made very clear.

There is no doubt that Uhura has evolved over the years. She even moves up through the ranks in the series timeline, going from Lieutenant to Commander! Whether she is Nichelle Nichols or Zoe Saldana, we now know her as a formidable member of the Enterprise bridge crew and the character has bypassed any notion of her being a mere prop...unlike some people we know....

Leia Organa
Much is made of how in Star Wars: A New Hope Princess Leia basically took over her own rescue, and I too applaud her resourcefulness. The importance of her role in the movies was vital I think. Her courage was amazing. I liked how she was so clearly a member of the specialized squad which comprised of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Lando Calrissian. Particularly in the final movie, she goes into Jabba’s Palace alone. Later she is part of the plan to infiltrate the Empire on Endor. They cannot do without Leia.

Luke cannot do without her. One of the strongest draws of the series to me is the bond that grows and exists between the twins. She quickly becomes a steadying core in the hearts of those she is closest too. I imagine if Han Solo had any conscious thoughts while trapped for all that time in carbonite, it was thoughts of Leia that kept him from going mad. When Luke was at his lowest moment, he thought of Leia and knew she would save him. She steadied him when he was conflicted later about what he should do about the threat of their father. Not surprisingly when he thought he would lose her later, it was what made him snap.

I cannot imagine Megan Fox playing such a regal, resilient, powerful person. Not at all.

Queen Amidala/Padme Naberrie

No wonder Anakin Skywalker is fascinated and entranced by the Queen of Naboo. Padme Naberrie is the youngest elected official on her planet and we can see why. She is poised. She is regal. She is determined. She is smart. She works tirelessly to save her people. You can see where the Skywalker twins have inherited resilience and honour and nobility.

I have to say that I feel George Lucas did Amidala a disservice in the final episode when her leadership and strength is diluted and overshadowed by Anakin’s story and her own pregnancy! However, I feel even during these problematic plot twists, her nobility shines through, and her potential doesn’t waver in my mind. Lucas had created such a strong character she could not be extinguished in my mind. There are books to be written about this character if need be to explore all of her intricacies. I’d like to see Ms Fox manage to breath any life into such a character.

Ellen Ripley

I’ve only watched one “Alien” movie and that was Aliens. That was all I needed to know that Ellen Ripley is a great sci fi warrior. Sigourney Weaver is a leading player in the sci fi genre, and this movie showcases it well. For me, it’s because as Ripley, she can be fierce and determined, but at the same time vulnerable in her manner that hurts your heart a little. You know she may be wounded. You know she feels strong emotions and can be afraid. By this, she surpasses a lot of heroines I see these days who are so steelly, they’re unbelieveable. Some of the suspense is lost at once. They’re practically invulnerable right? So who cares?

In Aliens, you can fear for Ripley, but you have faith in her because she has the strength at her core that can help her get the job done. And of course she rewards our trust in her, and shows that she cannot be brought down. All the elements I love come to the fore in the classic scene when she faces the Mother Alien. That one moment is unforgettable kind of like the time when Megan Fox

See what I mean in the link below.

Eowyn, Shield Maiden of Rohan

No matter what incarnation you find her in, you have to be fascinated by J.R.R. Tolkien’s shieldmaiden of Rohan. While Arwen Evenstar is a princess in an ivory tower, Eowyn is a princess of the trenches. When her people are called to war, she sets to work. When she finds she cannot bear to be left behind, she goes into battle.

I don’t mean that you can’t feel for Arwen, but I feel that many people feel more connected to Eowyn. Her feelings of pain when it comes to unrequited love are something we have all experienced. Her hopelessness is real. Her troubles are real. And we see her desperately take her fate into her own hands to try to do something.

In Peter Jackson's superior movie Mirando Otto does a wonderful job as Eowyn, and like many of the other ladies I have mentioned, her scenes are memorable. Just take a look at one of her greatest scenes here.

So as I have mentioned, I do not want to deprive Megan Fox of a paycheck. (I admit I could not help smiling rather evilly when I heard she was dropped from Transformers 3 recently, but she's in Jonah Hex soon, so you see... don't worry about her.)I just want to be sure that anyone who thinks she may be a superior science fiction heroine thinks carefully before they make that distinction. The standards in this category are very high, and I really don't think Ms. Fox will ever attain them. Though I could be wrong! Feel free to agree or disagree in my comments and let me know who I've missed from my list!