Octavia Estelle Butler was a popular and much respected African American Science Fiction Author. Considered one of the great science fiction authors of all time, she is ranked up there with Andre Norton and Ursula K. Le Guin.
Science Fiction is a genre that deliberately questions not just the impact of science on society, but human relationships in general. Butler’s work critiqued existing hierarchies. It questioned what it means to be human and the bonds between different communities. As a result, her writing appealed to a diverse audience, including not just science fiction fans but also blacks and feminists. She received many honors for her writing, including receiving multiple Hugo and Nebula awards. She is also the first science fiction author to receive the MacArthur Fellowship.
Octavia Estelle Butler was born on June 22, 1947
She was the only child of Octavia Margaret Guy, a housemaid, and Laurice James Butler, a shoeshine man. After her father died, her mother and her grandmother raised her. Her mother often brought home novels that her employers were throwing out for reading material for Octavia to read.
A painfully shy child, Octavia struggled with a slight dyslexia. Un-diagnosed at the time, school was especially hard for her. She was often bullied by other students. She found an escape in reading and writing, often at the Pasadena Central Library. When she was 10, she begged for a typewriter on which to write her own stories.
At twelve years of age, watching the science fiction film Devil Girl from Mars inspired her to write her first science fiction story. Convinced that she could write a better story, she did just that. The following year, at thirteen, her aunt told her that blacks can’t be writers. Uncertainty set in. Nevertheless, she persisted in writing and submitted one of her stories to a science fiction magazine when she was junior high.
She went to college to get an Associates of arts degree, focusing on history. She actively resisted her mother’s pressure to become a secretary after graduation. Instead, she worked temporary, less demanding jobs that gave her time to write. She went on to enroll at California State University before transferring to UCLA. Rejection never stopped her. She just kept writing.
Ms. Butler participated in a couple of writing workshop early in her career that changed her life.
The first was the Open Door Workshop of the Screen Writers of America, which was intended to help Latino and African American writers. There she met the science Fiction author Harlan Ellison. Ellison encouraged her to attend the the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop. It was there that she met and became friends with Samuel R. Delany, another well known science fiction author. These workshops were a turning point for Ms. Butler.
Butler wrote about minority women frequently.
The workshops encouraged Ms. Buttler to find her own voice. The convinced her to avoid writing stories similar to the white male dominated narratives that dominated Science Fiction. Instead, she began writing protagonists like herself–particularly black women.
Her first sold story, “Childfinder”, was purchased by Ellison’s anthology The Last Dangerous Visions. Although it was never published, it was a success. Her first published story was “Crossover” which was published in the Clarion Trilogy in 1971. She published her first book, Patternmaster, the first of her Patternist series, in 1976. By 1978, she was able to quit her other jobs and focus entirely on writing.
Her novels emphasize connectivity within diverse communities. She examines what it means to be human and provides a critique of racism, sexism, and hierarchies in current society. In doing this, she explores the possibility of what humans could be in the future. Her realism and willingness to expose the human flaws earns her work great praise. And her use of them to show the possibilities of the future and address modern day issues.
Octavia’s work is often associated with Afrofuturism
Afrofuturism was a term used by Mark Dery in 1994 to describe a movement to explore African-American experiences in science fiction and other literature. It looks at the intersection between science and culture . Her work is described as this Afrofuturism, although it represented multi-ethnic communities.
While Ms. Butler remained a self-described hermit for her entire life. She encouraged other authors by regularly teaching at the t Clarion Science Fiction Workshop. Butler gave a number of interviews over the years. She spoke often of her experiences and how they shaped her writing as an adult. .
In 2005, she was inducted into Chicago State University’s International Black Writers Hall of Fame.
She died from a stroke on Feb. 24, 2006.
Octavia Butler’s Notable Achievements
- In 1995, Butler became the first science-fiction author to be awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship
- Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing from the PEN American Center (2000)
- Nebula Award for Best Novel ( 1999) – A Parable of Talents
- In 2018, The International Astronomical Union named a mountain on Charon (a moon of Pluto) Butler Mons to honor the author, after a public suggestion period and nomination by NASA
Get started with some of Octavia Butler’s Books
Parable of the Sower, the first Parable book, is a dystopian science fiction story. It’s examines the struggles and survival of Lauren Olamina after her family is killed in a fire.
Wild Seed, the first of the Patternist series. It is the story of the conflict between two demigod immortals, Doro and Anyanwu. It takes place across centuries in a fight that could change forever what it means to be human.
Kindred is a stand alone time travel book about a young African American woman, Dana. She travels back in time to the antebellum South to meet her ancestors, both white and black. It explores the complexity of slavery and the struggle for survival.
- “Octavia Estelle Butler”, by Jennifer Becker in Voices From the Gaps, University of Minnesota.