Octavia Estelle Butler (June 22, 1947 – February 24, 2006) was an American science fiction writer, one of the best-known among the few African-American women in the field. She won both Hugo and Nebula awards. In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant.
Butler was born and raised in Pasadena, California. Since her father Laurice, a shoeshiner, died when she was a baby, Butler was raised by her grandmother and her mother (Octavia M. Butler), who worked as a maid in order to support the family. Butler grew up in a struggling, racially mixed neighborhood. According to the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Butler was “an introspective, only child in a strict Baptist household” and “was drawn early to [science fiction] magazines such as Amazing, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Galaxy and soon began reading all the science fiction classics.”
Octavia Jr., nicknamed Junie, was paralytically shy and a daydreamer, and was later diagnosed as being dyslexic. She began writing at the age of 10 “to escape loneliness and boredom”; she was 12 when she began a lifelong interest in science fiction. “I was writing my own little stories and when I was 12, I was watching a bad science fiction movie called Devil Girl from Mars,” she told the journal Black Scholar, “and decided that I could write a better story than that. And I turned off the TV and proceeded to try, and I've been writing science fiction ever since.”
Education and personal life
After getting an associate's degree from Pasadena City College in 1968, she next enrolled at California State University, Los Angeles. She eventually left CalState and took writing classes through UCLA extension.
Butler would later credit two writing workshops for giving her “the most valuable help I received with my writing”:
* 1969–1970: The Open Door Workshop of the Screenwriters' Guild of America, West, a program designed to mentor Latino and African American writers. Through Open Door she met the noted science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. * 1970: The Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop, (introduced to her by Ellison), where she first met Samuel R. Delany.
She remained, throughout her career, a self-identified science fiction fan, an insider who rose from within the ranks of the field.
Butler moved to Seattle, Washington, in November 1999. She described herself as “comfortably asocial—a hermit in the middle of Seattle—a pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.” Themes of both racial and sexual ambiguity are apparent throughout her work.
She died outside of her home in Lake Forest Park, Washington, on February 24, 2006, at the age of 58. Contemporary news accounts were inconsistent as to the cause of her death, with some reporting that she suffered a fatal stroke, while others indicated that she died of head injuries after falling and striking her head on her walkway. Another suggestion, backed by Locus magazine (issue 543; Vol.56 No.4), is that a stroke caused the fall and hence the head injuries.
Her first published story, “Crossover,” appeared in Clarion's 1971 anthology; another short story, “Childfinder,” was bought by Harlan Ellison for the never-published collection The Last Dangerous Visions. (Like other stories purchased for that volume, it has yet to appear anywhere.) “I thought I was on my way as a writer…” Butler wrote in her short fiction collection Bloodchild and Other Stories. “In fact, I had five more years of rejection slips and horrible little jobs ahead of me before I sold another word.”
In 1974, she started the novel Patternmaster (reportedly related to the story she started after watching Devil Girl from Mars), which became her first published book in 1976 (though it would become the fifth in the Patternist series). Over the next eight years, she would publish four more novels in the same story line, though the publication dates of the novels do not match the internal order of the series (see Works below).
Wild Seed, the first book in the Patternist series, was published in 1980. In Wild Seed, Butler contrasts how two potentially immortal characters go about building families. The male character, Doro, engages in a breeding program to create people with stronger psychic powers both as food, and as potential companions. The female character, Anyanwu, creates villages. Yet Doro and Anyanwu, in spite of their differences grow to need each other, as the only immortal/extremely long-lived beings in the world. This book also explores the psychodynamics of power and enslavement.
In 1979, she published Kindred, a novel that uses the science-fiction staple of time travel to explore slavery in the United States. In this story, Dana, an African American woman, is inexplicably transported from 1976 Los Angeles to early nineteenth century Maryland. She meets her ancestors: Rufus, a white slave holder, and Alice, an African-American woman who was born free but forced into slavery later in life.
This novel is often shelved in the literature or African-American literature sections of bookstores instead of science fiction—Butler herself categorized the novel not as science fiction but rather as a grim fantasy, as there was absolutely no science in it. (no scientific explanation of the book's time travel is ever given) Kindred became the most popular of all her books, with 250,000 copies currently in print. “I think people really need to think what it's like to have all of society arrayed against you,” she said of the novel.
Lilith's Brood (formerly the Xenogenesis trilogy) refers to a collection of three novels. The central characters are Lilith and her genetically altered children. Lilith, along with the few other surviving humans, are saved by extraterrestrials, the Oankali, after a “handful of people [a military group] tried to commit humanicide,” leading to a missile war that destroyed much of Earth. The Oankali have a third gender, the ooloi, who have the ability to manipulate genetics, plus the ability of sexually seductive neural-stimulating and consciousness-sharing powers. All of these abilities allow them to unify the other two genders in their species, as well as unifying their species with others that they encounter. The Oankali are biological traders, driven to share genes with other intelligent species, changing both parties.
The Parable series
In 1994, her dystopian novel Parable of the Sower was nominated for a Nebula for best novel, an award she received in 1999 for a sequel, Parable of the Talents. The two novels provide the origin of the fictional religion Earthseed.
Butler had originally planned to write a third Parable novel, tentatively titled Parable of the Trickster, mentioning her work on it in a number of interviews.
She eventually shifted her creative attention, resulting in the 2005 novel Fledgling, a vampire novel with a science-fiction context. Although Butler herself passed Fledgling off as a lark, the novel is connected to her other works through its exploration of race, sexuality, and what it means to be a member of a community. Moreover, the novel continues the theme, raised explicitly in Parable of the Sower, that diversity is a biological imperative.
Butler published one collection of her shorter writings, Bloodchild and Other Stories, in 1996. She states in the preface that she “hate[s] short-story writing” and that she is “essentially a novelist. The ideas that most interest me tend to be big.” The collection includes five short stories spanning Butler's career, the first finished in 1971 and the last in 1993. “Bloodchild”, the Hugo and Nebula award-winning title story, concerns humans who live on a reservation on an alien planet ruled by insect-like creatures. The aliens breed by implanting eggs in the humans, with whom they share a symbiotic existence. In Butler's afterword to the story, she writes that it is not about slavery as some have suggested, but rather about love and coming-of-age—as well as male pregnancy and the “unusual accommodation[s]” that a group of interstellar colonists might have to make with their adopted planet's prior inhabitants. She also states that writing it was her way of overcoming a fear of bot flies.
In 2005, Seven Stories Press released an expanded edition.
Butler is well known for her Patternist series, Lilith's Brood (formerly the Xenogenesis trilogy), and the Parable series. The first book that she wrote for the Patternist series, Patternmaster (1976), is actually the last in the internal chronology of the series. In fact, most of the Patternmaster novels were written and published out of sequence. The four novels in Butler's Patternist series other than Survivor were released in 2006 as the single volume Seed to Harvest.
Themes of Social Criticism
Butler used the hyperbolic reach of speculative fiction to explore modern and ancient social issues. She often represented concepts like race, sexuality, gender, religion, social progress, and social class in metaphoric language. However, these issues were not relegated only to metaphor. For instance, class struggle is an overt topic in the Parable of the Sower series.