Octavia Butler's various novels of enslavement are generally read within the critical framework of the fantastic neo-slave narrative. According to critical consensus, even as this genre disrupts realism in order to reveal continuities between past and present, it nonetheless retains a firm grip on the historical referent of American chattel slavery. Focusing on Kindred, Wild Seed, and Parable of the Sower, which engage most directly with the history of American slavery, this essay argues that Butler's narratives of enslavement significantly diverge from the genre of the fantastic neo-slave narrative insofar as they deploy fantastic modes to probe the points of rupture as much as to establish parallels between antebellum slavery and the post–civil rights present. With their multiple frames of reference (to racialized American slavery, cross-racial reproductive enslavement, or labor servitude imposed on a multiracial population), these novels thwart interpretive efforts to restrict their referents to the history of American slavery. Paradoxically, I argue, it is only by tracking the slippery referents of Butler's novels of slavery—their uneven shifts between historical and futuristic, realist and fantastic narrative registers—that we can grasp their distinctively historical exploration of the workings of race in the post–civil rights period.

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