Hello, Germs, and welcome back to another edition of Belle Lettres! For this month, we will be spotlighting Octavia Butler. Butler was an American science fiction author who broke into a world that was mostly dominated by white male writers. Her widely known works are Kindred and her Patternist series. She was also the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, also known as the “Genius Grant,” in 1995.
Octavia Estelle Butler was born in Pasadena, California, on June 22, 1947. Her father, Laurice Butler, was a shoeshine man, and her mother, Octavia Guy, worked as a maid. Butler was raised by her mother and grandmother after her father died when she was seven, and Butler’s mother would often take her along while she worked at different houses. Even though she grew up in a racially integrated neighborhood, Butler’s mother would come through the back door of the houses that were owned by white families. As a child, Butler’s tall stature — she reached almost 6 feet — along with her dyslexia contributed to her being very shy. She became an avid reader, using the books that her mother brought home from the families that no longer wanted them.
It was during this time that Butler became interested in science fiction, reading magazines of that genre such as Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and reading authors such as Zenna Henderson and Theodore Sturgeon. After watching a film called Devil Girl from Mars, Butler started writing her science fiction-based stories.
Butler began attending Pasadena City College in 1965, taking up various odd jobs while balancing writing projects. She graduated with an Associate of Arts degree in 1968 and later attended California State University and the University of California at Los Angeles. Butler published her first story, “Crossover,” in the 1971 Clarion anthology.
In 1976, Butler released her first novel, Patternmaster, which led to five more books that became part of the Patternist series. Her publishing company, Doubleday, grouped the books in the following order by the era in which their stories took place: Wild Seed (1980), Mind of my Mind (1977), Clay’s Ark (1984), Survivor (1978), and Patternmaster. The storyline in the Patternist series follows a power struggle between the dominant and intelligent telepaths, known as the Patternists, and the Clayarks, who are characterized as being of “lower intelligence” and “animalistic.” Some of the themes explored within the series include: how the assumption of power changes people; gender and racial-based animosity; and what it means to be human.
Butler released Kindred in 1979. Kindred centers around Dana, a young black woman writer who lives in Maryland in 1976. Dana repeatedly gets pulled back in time to the nineteenth century to save a young white man, who later becomes a slave owner, who happens to be her ancestor. The then present day setting of Kindred is in 1976, which coincides with the bicentennial of the independence of the United States. Having Dana travel between two time periods is a comment on how America needs to face its own dark history in order to understand current situations. Transporting this modern day black female character between these two time periods allows Dana and the reader to experience what black people had to endure in order to survive. Kindred was reissued in 1988 and again in 2004 as a special 25th anniversary edition.
Butler won a Hugo Award for her short story “Speech Sounds” in 1984 and again the following year for her novella Bloodchild. Bloodchild also won Butler the 1984 Nebula Award. Between 1987 and 1989, she released three novels, which became the Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. The three novels, set in the 24th century, explore the struggle of power dynamics between two different races of beings and their dependence on one another for survival after a devastating nuclear war. In 1993, Butler published Parable of the Sower, which looks at how the economic gap between the rich and the poor has grown so much that it threatens a collapse of social order. Parable of the Talents, which continues the same storyline, won the Science Fiction Writer’s of America’s Nebula Award as the Best Science Novel of 1999.
She released two short stories, “Amnesty” (2003) and “The Book of Martha” (2003), after having writer’s block for several years. In 2005, Butler released a novel titled Fledgling, which explores the symbiotic relationship between humans and a group of vampires called Ina. Butler taught at Clarion’s Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop. She was also inducted into the Chicago State University’s International Black Writers Hall of Fame in 2005.
On February 24, 2006, Butler passed away from injuries sustained from a fall outside her home after having a stroke.
Butler was definitely a pioneer in bringing the voice and experiences of black writers into science fiction, which paved the way to Afrofuturism. For Butler, it was important to write people who looked like her in the stories she created. “…Every story I create, creates me. I write to create myself.”