Authors: Octavia E. Butler

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2017

Author

June 22, 1947

Pasadena, California

February 24, 2006

Lake Forest Park, Washington

Identity: African American

Biography

Octavia Estelle Butler could be categorized as a black feminist science-fiction writer, but although those labels partially describe her, her work goes beyond narrow categorization. After Butler’s father died when she was a baby, she was raised by her mother and grandmother. Growing up without a father or siblings early gave a solitary focus to her life, which was somewhat alleviated by the bedtime stories her mother read to her until the age of six. At that point she began to read on her own. Childhood reading included castaway books her mother rescued while working as a maid, as well as the books she found in the children’s section of the Pasadena library. At the age of twelve, when she learned that she could not enter the adult section of the library, she discovered science-fiction magazines and was instantly taken with the genre. One of her favorite authors was Zenna Henderson, who used young women’s viewpoints to write about telepathy.

In 1959 Butler saw the 1954 film Devil Girl from Mars, which inspired her to begin writing what later became her Patternist series. Painfully shy during her childhood and adolescence, Butler found solace in writing in a notebook. During these early years, however, she despaired of writing well enough to have her work accepted for publication, a fear that was heightened by her aunt’s telling her that a black person could not earn a living as a writer. Having never seen a printed work she knew to have been written by a black writer, Butler thought her aunt might be right.

Octavia Estelle Butler signing a copy of Fledgling after speaking and answering questions from the audience. The event was part of a promotional tour for the book.

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By Nikolas Coukouma [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Her first money for writing was the prize she won during her first year at Pasadena City College. Several years followed with no further success, but a breakthrough occurred when she attended the Clarion Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop at the age of twenty-three. Here she sold two stories to writer-editors who were teaching there, one of which, “Crossover,” was subsequently published.

During the next five years she continued to write. She supported herself with menial jobs, getting up at three in the morning to write. In late 1974 Butler decided to try longer fiction. By working on each chapter as a short story and using her earliest stories for inspiration, she produced Patternmaster in just a few months. Though Patternmaster is the first book in the Patternist series, it was only with the second, Mind of My Mind, that Butler established Patternist society. Here she established the reason why patternists are arranged into houses and, in describing the tendencies of so-called immature latents to inadvertently kill or maim inferiors, anticipates her later creation of “mutes,” or nontelepaths, as servants and of the code preventing their mistreatment. Rachel’s faith healing in Mind of My Mind presages Amber’s regenerative abilities in Patternmaster. References interweave throughout the Patternist books in a nonlinear fashion. The disease mentioned in Patternmaster that mutated humans into Clayarks is explained in Clay’s Ark, for example, and the groundwork for Survivor’s Alanna to seek freedom from Patternists and Clayarks is developed in both Patternmaster and Mind of My Mind. The Patternmaster series is, in fact, most appropriately viewed as one extended novel instead of a series of books on a linear time line. An omnibus of the series, titled Seed to Harvest, was published posthumously in 2007; it excluded Survivor, which Butler repudiated after its publication.

With the exception of Kindred, a more traditional novel about a black woman who is transported from the 1970s to the antebellum South to experience slavery on the plantation of the man who is her ancestor, all Butler’s novels through 1984 were Patternist tales. One of her two short stories during this period, “Speech Sounds,” extended her range on the subject of muteness and won a Hugo Award. The other story, “Bloodchild,” a compelling combination of love story and coming-of-age tale, also won a Hugo Award as well as a Nebula Award, which is decided by a vote from the active members of the Science Fiction Writers of America. Butler called “Bloodchild” her “pregnant man story.”

With Dawn Butler began her Xenogenesis trilogy, the story of a postholocaust Earth where surviving human beings are given the possibility of altering their genetic structure through interbreeding with aliens, the Oankali. Butler provides interesting, multidimensional characterizations for these aliens in Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. Some readers find similarities between the Patternist series and Theodore Sturgeon’s More than Human (1953), and many consider Butler to compare favorably with other writers, among them Poul Anderson, David Brin, and C. J. Cherryh, who include alien characterization in their fiction. The books of the Xenogenesis trilogy were published together in 2000 under the title Lilith’s Brood.

In Parable of the Sower Butler pursues her interest in telepathy. Here her protagonist is Lauren, an empath leading a group on a twenty-first century odyssey precipitated by urban decay. This book was a Nebula finalist, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and one of the New York Public Library’s “Top Seventy-Five Books of the Year.” Parable of the Talents continues Lauren’s story as her utopian community falls victim to fundamentalist zealots. Her 2005 novel, Fledgling, reimagines the vampire genre and received widespread acclaim. In mid-1995 Butler won a MacArthur Foundation grant, becoming the first science-fiction writer to do so. Butler died after a fall at her home in Lake Forest Park, Washington, on February 24, 2006, at the age of fifty-eight.

Author Works Long Fiction Patternmaster, 1976 Mind of My Mind, 1977 Survivor, 1978 Kindred, 1979 Wild Seed, 1980 Clay’s Ark, 1984 Dawn, 1987 Adulthood Rites, 1988 Imago, 1989 Parable of the Sower, 1993 Parable of the Talents, 1998 Lilith’s Brood, 2000 Fledgling, 2005 Seed to Harvest, 2007 Short Fiction “Crossover,” 1971 “Near of Kin,” 1979 “Speech Sounds,” 1983 “Bloodchild,” 1984 “The Evening and the Morning and the Night,” 1987 Nonfiction “Birth of a Writer,” 1989 (later renamed “Positive Obsession”) “Furor Scribendi,” 1993 Miscellaneous Bloodchild, and Other Stories, 1995 (collected short stories and essays) Bibliography Ackerman, Erin M. Pryor. “Becoming and Belonging: The Productivity of Pleasures and Desires in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy.” Extrapolation 49, no. 1 (2008): 24-43. Presents an analysis of the trilogy in terms of its relevance to the theme of the likely inevitability of intolerance. Agustí, Clara Escoda. “The Relationship Between Community and Subjectivity in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower.” Extrapolation 46, no. 3 (2005): 351-359. Discusses Butler’s novel as portraying a “critical utopia.” Part of a special issue devoted to the theme of “multiculturalism and race in science fiction.” Anderson, Crystal S. “’The Girl Isn’t White’: New Racial Dimensions in Octavia Butler’s Survivor.” Extrapolation 47, no. 1 (2006): 35-50. Provides a detailed analysis of the theme of race in Butler’s first-written and least-studied novel. Barr, Marleen S. “Octavia Butler and James Tiptree Jr. Do Not Write About Zap Guns.” In Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993. Discusses the relationship of Butler’s work to the evolution of feminist science fiction. Barr, Marleen S. Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993. Places Butler’s themes within feminist fiction. Barr, Marleen S., ed. Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New-Wave Trajectory. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008. Hybrid critical anthology and short-story collection examines Butler’s works as well as those of Samuel R. Delany and Steven Barnes. Dubey, Madhu. “Folk and Urban Communities in African American Women’s Fiction: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.” Studies in American Fiction 27, no. 1 (1999): 103-128. Explores Butler’s representation of the dilemmas and crises of urban life in her fiction. Foster, Frances Smith. “Octavia Butler’s Black Female Future Fiction.” Extrapolation 23 (Spring, 1982): 37-49. A very early article, published before Butler had completed the Patternmaster series. The article outlines the way “Butler consciously explores the impact of race and sex on future society.” Unfettered by the pretentious writing common to much later Butler criticism, Foster illuminates the early texts and remains among the best Butler criticism. Francis, Consuela, editor. Conversations with Octavia Butler. U of Mississippi P, 2009. This book complies interviews with Butler dating from 1980 until early 2006. Govan, Sandra Y. “Connections, Links, and Extended Networks: Patterns in Octavia Butler’s Science Fiction.” Black American Literature Forum 18 (1984): 82-87. Examines Butler’s use of elements of slave narratives and historical novels to produce a new kind of science fiction featuring black characters, especially black women, as major heroic figures. Jacobs, Naomi. “Posthuman Bodies and Agency in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis.” In Dark Horizons: Science Fiction and the Dystopian Imagination, edited by Raffaella Baccolini and Tom Moylan. New York: Routledge, 2003. Examines the transformations in the trilogy as analogues of political change and ominous possibility. Jesser, Nancy. “Blood, Genes, and Gender in Octavia Butler’s Kindred and Dawn.” Extrapolation 43, no. 1 (2002): 36-61. Analyzes Butler’s heroines Lilith and Dana in terms of Butler’s “biological essentialism as it relates to the human body” and its influence on her feminism. Kümbet, Pelin. “A Posthuman Vampire-Human Intra-Action in Octavia Butler’s Fledgling.” Interactions, vol. 25, no. 1/2, 2016, pp. 105–12. Literary Reference Center Plus, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lkh&AN=112945241&site=lrc-plus. Accessed 28 Apr. 2017. This critical essay examines Butler's novel Fledgling and its treatment of race, sexuality, and subjectivity. McCaffery, Larry. “Interview with Octavia E. Butler.” In Across the Wounded Galaxies. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990. Among the best of numerous Butler interviews. Meltzer, Pauline. Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006. Includes as a central topic of discussion Butler’s relevance to feminist science fiction. Her work is the subject of both the long essays comprising part 1 and the concluding essay that is the second in part 3. Mitchell, Angelyn. “Not Enough of the Past: Feminist Revisions of Slavery in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” MELUS 26, no. 3 (2001): 51-75. Explores the way in which Butler uses the device of time travel to bridge nineteenth and twentieth century attitudes about slavery. Roberts, Robin. A New Species: Gender and Science in Science Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. Explores Butler’s role in the maturation of feminist science fiction. Scott, Johnathan. “Octavia Butler and the Base for American Socialism.” Socialism and Democracy 20, no. 3 (2006): 105-126. Focuses on the political themes in Butler’s work, with particular reference to Parable of the Sower. Shinn, Thelma. “The Wise Witches: Black Woman Mentors in the Fiction of Octavia E. Butler.” In Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. An interesting discussion of some of Butler’s early heroines. Shinn draws on Annis Pratt’s work, which defines archetypal patterns in women’s fiction. She then demonstrates convincingly how Butler employs wise witches in her fiction. Zaki, Hoda M. “Utopia, Dystopia and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler.” Science-Fiction Studies 17 (1990): 239-251. Presents a scrupulous examination of the political themes implicit in Butler’s early works.

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