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Octavia Butler

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Octavia Butler

Octavia E. Butler
Butler signs a copy of Fledgling in October 2005.
Born Octavia Estelle Butler
(1947-06-22)June 22, 1947
Pasadena, California, U.S.
Died February 24, 2006(2006-02-24) (aged 58)
Lake Forest Park, Washington, U.S.
Occupation Writer
Nationality American
Period 1970–2006
Genres Science fiction

Octavia Estelle Butler (June 22, 1947 – February 24, 2006) was an American science fiction writer. A recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, Butler was one of the best-known women in the field. In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, nicknamed the Genius Grant.[1]

Early life and education

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.[2] According to the Norton Anthology of African American Literature she was "an introspective only child in a strict Baptist household" who 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."[3]

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" and was 12 when she began a lifelong interest in science fiction.[4] "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."[5]

After getting an associate's degree from UCLA extension.

Butler would later credit two writing workshops for giving her "the most valuable help I received with my writing" SFWA:

She remained, throughout her career, a self-identified science fiction fan, an insider who rose from within the ranks of the field.[7]

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."[8] Themes of both racial and sexual ambiguity are apparent throughout her work. Her writing has influenced a number of prominent authors. When asked if he could be any author in the world, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Junot Diaz replied that he would be Octavia Butler, who he claimed has written 9 perfect novels.[9]

She died outside of her home in Lake Forest Park, Washington, on February 24, 2006, at the age of 58.[10] 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.


Butler's first story published was "Crossover" in the 1971 Clarion Workshop anthology.[11] She sold another early short story, "Childfinder", to Harlan Ellison for the anthology The Last Dangerous Visions, which remains unpublished although Locus published its contents in June 1979.[11] "I thought I was on my way as a writer", Butler recalled in her 2005 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."[12] ISFDB places her second published speculative fiction story in 1979.

Patternist series

Main article: Patternist series

In 1974, she started the novel Patternmaster, reportedly related to the story she started after watching Devil Girl from Mars. It became her first book in print (Doubleday, July 1976), although it is the last of five Patternist novels in narrative sequence (and placed at the end of one omnibus edition). Three prequels followed by 1980 and one in 1984.[11]

Wild Seed, first in the Patternist story line, 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 Kindred (Doubleday, 1979), Dana, an African American woman, is 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.

Kindred is often shelved with African American literature by bookstores, instead of in science fiction—Butler herself categorized the novel not as science fiction but rather as a grim fantasy, as she did not use any science to explain the time travel.[13] (no scientific explanation of the book's time travel is ever given[14]) Kindred became the most popular of all her books, with more than 450,000 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 about the novel.[15]

Lilith's Brood

The Xenogenesis trilogy (Warner Books, 1987–89), or Lilith's Brood in its omnibus editions (from 2000)[11] features one Lilith and her genetically altered children. She and 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.

Parable series

In 1994, her dystopian novel Parable of the Sower was nominated for the "best novel" Nebula Award, which she won in 1999 for a sequel, Parable of the Talents.[16] 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.

Short stories

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."[17] 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,[16] 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.[18] She also states that writing it was her way of overcoming a fear of bot flies.[18]

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. Her work has been more specifically associated with the genre of Afrofuturism, a theme in contemporary black works in various media (music, art, writing, film). Afrofuturism employs speculative fiction and the trope of space and/or abduction in order to draw parallels with a marginalized, black experience. In "Further Considerations on Afrofuturism, Eshun writes, “Most science fiction tales dramatically deal with how the individual is going to contend with these alienating, dislocating societies and circumstances that pretty much sums up the mass experiences of black people in the postslavery twentieth century” (298) [19] Thus, Butler's exploration of the themes of isolation and power struggles in futuristic settings, often with black protagonists, allows her work to fall under this critical category.


Charlie Rose interviewed Octavia Butler in 2000 soon after the award of MacArthur Fellowship. The highlights are probing questions that arise out of Butler's personal life narrative and her interest in becoming not only a writer, but a writer of science fiction. Rose asked the following question: "What then is central to what you want to say about race?" Butler's response was, "Do I want to say something central about race? Aside from, 'Hey we're here!'?" This points to an essential claim for Butler that the world of science fiction is a world of possibilities, and although race is an innate element, it is embedded in the narrative, not forced upon it.[20]




Scholarship fund

The Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship was established in Butler's memory in 2006 by the Carl Brandon Society. Its goal is to provide an annual scholarship to enable writers of color to attend the Clarion Writers' Workshop where Butler got her start. The first scholarships were awarded in 2007.[24]



Standalone novels

Short stories


  • "Seed To Harvest - Ode to Octavia".
  • "A Few Rules For Predicting The Future"
  • , May 2002.

See also


Further reading


  • Smalls, F. Romall, Arnold Markoe, (editor). "Octavia Estelle Butler". The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Volume 8. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons/Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010: 65–66
  • Gates, Henry Louis Jr (ed.) "Octavia Butler". The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 2nd Edition. New York: W.W. Norton and Co, 2004: 2515.
  • Geyh, Paula, Fred G. Leebron and Andrew Levy. "Octavia Butler". Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998: 554–55.


  • Baccolini, Raffaella. "Gender and Genre in the Feminist Critical Dystopias of Katharine Burdekin, Margaret Atwood, and Octavia Butler". Future Females, the Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism, Marleen S. Barr (ed.). New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000: 13–34.
  • Haraway, Donna. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century" and "The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies: Constitutions of Self in Immune System Discourse". Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991: 149–81, 203–30.
  • Holden, Rebecca J., "The High Costs of Cyborg Survival: Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis Trilogy". Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 72 (1998): 49–56.
  • Lennard, John. Octavia Butler: Xenogenesis / Lilith's Brood. Tirril: Humanities-Ebooks, 2007. ISBN 978-1-84760-036-3
  • — "Of Organelles: The Strange Determination of Octavia Butler". Of Modern Dragons and other essays on Genre Fiction. Tirril: Humanities-Ebooks, 2007: 163–90. ISBN 978-1-84760-038-7
  • Levecq, Christine, "Power and Repetition: Philosophies of (Literary) History in Octavia E. Butler's Kindred". Contemporary Literature 41.1 (2000 Spring): 525–53.
  • Luckhurst, Roger, "'Horror and Beauty in Rare Combination': The Miscegenate Fictions of Octavia Butler". Women: A Cultural Review 7.1 (1996): 28–38.
  • Melzer, Patricia, Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-292-71307-9
  • Omry, Keren, "A Cyborg Performance: Gender and Genre in Octavia Butler". Phoebe:Journal of Gender and Cultural Critiques. 17.2 (2005 Fall): 45–60.
  • Ramirez, Catherine S. "Cyborg Feminism: The Science Fiction of Octavia Butler and Gloria Anzaldua". Reload: Rethinking Women and Cyberculture, Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth (eds.). Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002: 374–402.
  • Ryan, Tim A. "You Shall See How a Slave Was Made a Woman: The Development of the Contemporary Novel of Slavery, 1976–1987". Calls and Responses: The American Novel of Slavery since Gone with the Wind. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2008: 114–48.
  • Schwab, Gabriele. "Ethnographies of the Future: Personhood, Agency and Power in Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis". Accelerating Possession, William Maurer and Gabriele Schwab (eds.). New York: Columbia UP, 2006: 204–28.
  • Scott, Johnathan. "Octavia Butler and the Base for American Socialism". Socialism and Democracy 20.3 November 2006, 105–26
  • [1]

Zaki, Hoda. "Utopia, Dystopia, and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler". Science-Fiction Studies 17 (1990): 239–51.

External links

  • Octavia E. Butler home page at Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America

Biography and criticism

  • Template:Sfhof
  • Voices from the Gaps: Octavia Estelle Butler
  • OUP Blog
  • Strange Bedfellows: Eugenics, Attraction, and Aversion in the Works of Octavia E. Butler

Bibliography and works

  • Internet Speculative Fiction Database
  • Bibliography from Feminist Sci Fi Utopia
  • Octavia Butler Collection at The Huntington Library; includes manuscripts, correspondence, school papers, notebooks, photographs, and other materials.
  • "Devil Girl From Mars": Why I Write Science Fiction, MIT Media in Transition Project, October 4, 1998


  • Carl Brandon Society
  •; a fansite which includes rare content by and about Octavia Butler.


  • "Interview with Octavia Butler", Addicted to Race, February 6, 2006.
  • "Interview with Octavia Butler", The Indypendent, January 2006
  • "Science Fiction Writer Octavia Butler on Race, Global Warming, and Religion", Democracy Now!, November 11, 2005.
  • Interview with Octavia Butler by Joshunda Sanders,In Motion Magazine (2004)
  • "The Interplay of Science and Science Fiction" Panel Discussion, on NPR, Talk of the Nation, June 18, 2004 (audio)
  • "Interview: Octavia Butler", scifidimensions, June 2004; on the 25th anniversary of Kindred.
  • Kindred Reader’s Guide: A Conversation with Octavia Butler, Writers & Books, 2003
  • "Essay on Racism: A Science-Fiction Writer Shares Her View of Intolerance", Weekend Edition Saturday, September 1, 2001 (audio)
  • Interview with Octavia Butler, Locus magazine, June 2000
  • Ask the Experts: Octavia Butler, PBS (video)
  • 1996 Science Fiction Studies interview
  • "Charlie Rose: A conversation with Octavia Butler", 2000

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