Throughout this column on science fiction history, we’ve explored how authors have built upon the works of one another to create a grand conversation of speculative fiction. Throughout the early 20th century, it was a popular and growing field in literature, and as its popularity grew, so too did the importance of female authors. Despite this, a major section of American society had largely been unrepresented on bookshelves and in magazines: African-American authors. One such author, Octavia E. Butler, helped to break into the field with stunning works that directly addressed issues such as racism and sexism, becoming one of the most influential authors to emerge in the mid- to late-20th century.
Octavia Estelle Butler was born on June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, California, to Laurice and Octavia M. Butler. Shortly after she was born, her father, a shoeshiner, passed away, leaving Butler in the care of her mother and grandmother. Throughout her childhood, her grandmother told her stories of her life and work in Louisiana, stories which certainly influenced Butler’s outlook on the world.
Shy and withdrawn as a child due to her mother’s strict Baptist upbringing, Butler enjoyed reading and science fiction from an early age, despite a diagnosis of dyslexia. Her mother, working as a maid, couldn’t afford books, but often brought home discarded novels from the houses she cleaned, and as a child, Butler visited her local library, although she would be discouraged as a teenager when she was restricted to the children’s section.
Despite a diagnosis of dyslexia, she read widely: In her interview in the book Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers, Butler said that "before I got into SF I read a lot of horse stories, and before that, fairy tales." She then moved on to science fiction, picking up books by Robert Heinlein and books from the Winston Science Fiction juvenile series, but it wasn't long before she discovered science fiction magazines at the grocery store: pulps such as Amazing, Fantastic, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Galaxy Science Fiction. Her appetite for science fiction became an unstoppable flood, and she devoured stories by authors such as Arthur C. Clarke, Harlan Ellison, John Wyndham, A.E. Van Vogt, Frank Herbert, John Brunner and Theodore Sturgeon, among many others. Later, she became an avid comic book reader, snatching up back issues whenever she could find them. While she was a fan of the genre, she found herself alienated from the characters in the stories she read: “I wasn’t in any of this stuff I read. The only black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn’t manage anything, anyway.”
In 1959, she came across a television movie called Devil Girl from Mars, and had an epiphany: she could write a better story than the one playing out on the screen before her. "I turned off the TV and started writing what was actually an early version of one of my Patternist stories." She began to write her own stories, submitting them for publication at the age of 13: "I wrote the kind of thing I saw being published—stories about thirty-year-old white men who drank and smoked too much. They were pretty awful." She later noted that the types of stories that she was largely reading weren't speaking to her. Her own stories wore a maturity to them, and she described her writing as grim, enough so that her teachers assumed that she had been copying stories from adult authors.
Science fiction up to this point was largely dominated by a narrow demographic profile: predominantly white men and even fewer women. African-American authors were largely absent from the genre, even as there were a number of authors writing since the 1870s producing speculative works. Butler, along with other non-white sci-fi fans, found themselves outsiders looking in, an experience which helped shape her fiction. Growing up around the Civil Rights movement and its aftermath, Butler helped to bring issues of race and sexuality to the science fiction genre.
Butler received her Associate of Arts degree in 1968 from Pasadena City College, before moving on to California State University, Los Angeles, and the University of California, Los Angeles. In 1969, Butler joined the Open Door Program of the Screen Writers Guild of America, a program which she would credit as one of the more influential experiences of her writing career. There, she met science fiction author Harlan Ellison. She would later note that the program would help shape her writing skills.
Ellison encouraged her to attend another influential educational experience: The Clarion Writer's Workshop, which she attended in 1970 at State College, Pennsylvania. Her instructors were an impressive group: Joanna Russ, Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison, Fritz Leiber, Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight. Butler described the experience as "my only preparation specifically for writing science fiction... It's the best writing class experience I've ever had, and I recommend it to anyone who is serious about writing science fiction." Delany noted on her shyness, but that she “spoke only when she had something to say, but someone who obviously had great talent.”
Butler’s first short story, “Crossover,” was published in Clarion, an anthology of stories from the Clarion Workshop, published in 1971. Mike Ashley notes in his history Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980 that Butler joined part of a growing movement in magazine science fiction that had begun to explore feminist themes and topics, along with newer authors such as Sonya Dorman and Suzette Harden Elgrin, and established pros such as Russ and James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon).
In the interceding years, Butler worked a variety of jobs as she attempted to write. Steven Barnes, a close friend, noted that her writing process was composed of “vast amounts of research and cogitation followed by a writing process often like pulling her nails out with pliers.” And that she was a perfectionist with her work, often struggling with writer’s block.
At the same time, she faced the challenges of breaking into a genre populated with people writing about people who didn’t look like her. One editor told her that “he didn’t think blacks should be included in science fiction stories because they changed the character of the stories; that if you put in a black, all of a sudden, the focus is on this person.” Attitudes such as this helped to reinforce a belief that African-American readers simply didn’t read science fiction, and thus didn’t write it either. Science fiction was essentially a gated community. Butler, and others throughout the 1970s, helped to change that perception.
Butler broke through with her first novel, Patternmaster. Published in 1976 by Doubleday, the novel takes place in a far future in which humanity is ruled by a sect of telepaths. The following year, a new entry in the series, Mind of My Mind, was published. This sequel preceded Patternmaster as it explored the roots of the telepathic society and efforts to control it. A third novel in the series, Survivor, was published in 1978, and followed humanity after contact with an alien race, the Kohn. Butler later disowned this novel (her first completed, even as it was her third published), noting that its background was clichéd and troublesome: “When I was young, a lot of people wrote about going to another world and finding either little green men or little brown men, and they were always less in some way. They were a little sly, or a little like "the natives" in a very bad, old movie. And I thought, ‘No way. Apart from all these human beings populating the galaxy, this is really offensive garbage.’ People ask me why I don't like Survivor, my third novel. And it's because it feels a little bit like that. Some humans go up to another world, and immediately begin mating with the aliens and having children with them. I think of it as my Star Trek novel.” The book continues to remain out of print.
In February 1979, Butler published the short story “Near of Kin” in Chrysalis 4, edited by Roy Torgeson. At the same time, she shifted gears and published a new novel outside of her Patternist series. Kindred has remained one of her best known works to date. The novel follows Dana, an African-American woman who finds herself drawn back in time to slave-era Maryland, where she encounters several of her ancestors. The book is a powerful fantasy which ruminates on the power of memory and heritage. The book was highly praised in the genre community.
In 1980, Butler produced a new Patternist novel, Wild Seed. This novel is the earliest in the series chronologically and introduces Doro, an immortal, and Anyanwu, a shape shifter, and their uneasy relationship over the years. Butler capped off the Patternist series with a final installment, Clay’s Ark, published in 1984. This novel followed an astronaut recently returned from an alien world, infected with a disease that could devastate his home world.
Butler’s Patternist series is bleak, and deals with a number of pressing issues that, to date, hadn’t been widely covered in science fiction. Over the course of the series, Butler examines the growing divide between “normal” humans (Mutes) and the Patternists, and the alienation between groups; the books liken slavery to a type of alien abduction. In Kindred, she examines the horrors of slavery and the loss of one’s own agency as Dana is pulled from the modern day into the past. Butler’s contributions to the genre were electrifying moral examinations that outstrip anything seen in the Golden Age of science fiction.
While Butler was primarily a novelist, she wrote a handful of short stories throughout the 1980s and beyond. “Speech Sounds” appeared in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in December 1983, and “Bloodchild” was published six months later in the magazine’s June 1984 issue. “Speech Sounds” won the 1984 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, and a year later, “Bloodchild” won the Hugo, Locus and Nebula Awards in the short story category. In 1987, “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” appeared in the May 1987 issue of Omni.
In the same year, Butler embarked on a new series: Xenogenesis, which started with Dawn. The novel featured an Earth devastated by conflict, where the few human survivors are retrieved by an alien race called the Oankali and placed in stasis until Earth is habitable again. The aliens want to create a hybrid race; the novel focuses on Lilith and her desire to remain fully human. 1988 brought a new installment in the series, Adulthood Rites, in which tensions emerge out of this new hybrid society. Humans are rendered infertile, and the novel follows Akin, a human construct who must reconcile his human and alien natures. In 1989, Butler released the final book in the trilogy, Imago, which examines the nature of the human-Oankali species.
Once again, Butler turned to themes of race and sexuality throughout the Xenogenesis novels, looking at the idea of racial integration between unwilling participants. The Oankali are presented as saviors of the human race, much as many slave owners presented themselves as providing good homes and work for enslaved Africans.
In the 1990s, Butler set to work on a new series, Parable, and the first entry, Parable of the Sower, appeared in 1993. Set in Los Angles, its main character, Lauren, is an empath who creates a new religion amid the collapse of society. Its sequel, Parable of the Talents, published in 1998, examines the conduct of religious extremists. A third novel was planned, Parable of the Trickster, but was never completed in Butler’s lifetime, although early drafts exist in her papers. Parable of the Sower was nominated for the 1995 Hugo award, but was withdrawn as ineligible, although it did place second in that year’s Locus Poll and was nominated for Best Novel in the Nebulas. Parable of the Talents won the 2000 Best Novel Nebula, and was shortlisted for the Clarke award in 2001.
In 1995, Butler was the first-ever sci-fi author to receive a McArthur Fellowship Grant. The so-called Genius Grant “supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world,” and awards its recipients with a major cash grant for their use. In the same year, Butler released a collection of short fiction and essay titled Bloodchild and Other Stories. Five years later, Butler received a lifetime achievement award in writing from the PEN Center USA, whose mission is to “stimulate and maintain interest in the written word, to foster a vital literary culture, and to defend freedom of expression domestically and internationally.”
Butler continued to write, publishing a pair of short stories in 2003, “Amnesty” and “The Book of Martha,” both of which appeared on Sci Fiction, SciFi.com’s online fiction portal, edited by Ellen Datlow.
Her last published novel, Fledgling, was published in 2005—a vampire novel. It would be the last book published within her lifetime. In her last years, Butler’s health began to fail her, and she complained that the medications that she was taking impeded her writing progress. On February 24th, 2006, she slipped and fell outside of her home in Seattle, Washington, hitting her head. She passed away at the age of 58. The sense of loss to the science fiction and literature communities was immediate. The Washington Post described her as “[a] woman of great intellect, of immense talent, of tremendous passion.” In 2007, The Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Fund was set up by the Carl Brandon Society with the express purpose to "[enable] writers of color to attend one of the Clarion writing workshops, where Octavia got her start."
In the years since her death, scholars have begun to sift through the extraordinary volume of papers which Butler left behind at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. According to scholar Gerry Canavan, the finding aid (the guide to the papers themselves) is 500 pages in length alone. Going through her work, Merrilee Heifetz, the Butler estate's literary agent, has discovered two previously unpublished stories, “A Necessary Being” and “Childfinder.” The latter had been intended for Harlan Ellison’s famously unpublished anthology, Last Dangerous Visions. The two stories have recently been paired together in an e-book, and it was released last month by Open Road Media under the title Unexpected Stories. As it seems that there will be more discoveries in the future, Butler’s influence will undoubtedly live on through her exemplary works.
Octavia Butler photographed by Joshua Trujillo/Seattle Post-Intelligencer