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date: 27 July 2021

Butler, Octavia E. free

(22 June 1947–24 Feb. 2006),

Butler, Octavia E. free

(22 June 1947–24 Feb. 2006),
  • Cynthia A. Callahan

A version of this article originally appeared in African American National Biography.

science fiction writer, was born Octavia Estelle Butler in Pasadena, California, the only child of Laurice James Butler, a shoe shiner, and Octavia Margaret Guy, who sometimes found work as a domestic. Butler's father died when she was young, so she was raised by her mother. Butler's consciousness of her family's struggle for financial stability in both Louisiana and California would eventually form the basis for an important theme in her writing, which introduced an underrepresented black, female perspective into science fiction and fantasy writing.

Butler recognized early in childhood that writing was her passion. A shy and sometimes lonely child, she read voraciously at the encouragement of her mother, who brought home castoff books from her employers’ families. But Butler was influenced by other forms of entertainment, too. After watching Devil Girl from Mars, described by Butler in an interview as a “silly” science fiction movie in which beautiful Martian women attempt to colonize Earth's men, she decided that she could write better stories herself. She also loved radio programs—which she called “theater of the mind”—and science documentaries. Such diverse sources helped to shape her life-long fascination with the intersections of science and narrative (Rowell, 53).

At the age of ten Butler begged her mother for a typewriter and at thirteen began submitting her work for publication. After graduating from high school in 1965, she worked a variety of warehouse, factory, and secretarial jobs while attending Pasadena City College, from which in 1968 she earned an associate of arts degree. As she slowly gained confidence in her abilities, Butler took any writing classes she could, including those offered at California State University, Los Angeles; University of California, Los Angeles; and the Open Door Program of the Screenwriters Guild of America, West. These classes helped her to establish relationships with other writers, including the science fiction authors Harlan Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon. It was Ellison who encouraged her to participate in the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop in 1970, where she met the prominent African American science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany . This six-week course immersed Butler in a science fiction community and helped launch her career. In 1971 she sold her first short story, “Crossover,” to Clarion, the workshop's anthology, and her first novel, Patternmaster, was published five years later. Over the next thirty years, she went on to publish ten more novels and several short stories and nonfiction pieces.

As a young reader Butler recognized that early science fiction tended to reproduce predictable race and gender hierarchies, and her work makes tremendous progress toward rectifying this disparity. Her fiction features recognizable science fiction tropes, including interplanetary travel, futuristic settings, and individuals with powers that far surpass those of ordinary humans. Yet she complicates the genre by consistently including black women as empowered characters whose social position challenges American racial stereotypes. Her female characters demonstrate that a balance of physical and emotional strength combined with intellect and sympathy will endure long after physical power alone has expended itself. The characters and the texts are neither polemical nor one-dimensional, as even the most heroic of her characters exhibit weaknesses and flaws.

As much as Butler influenced science fiction as a genre, her work also drew upon and contributed to the African American literary tradition more generally. Her family's history and her own experience as a working-class African American coming of age during the civil rights period actively informed her depiction of race, and she rooted her fiction in African American history and literature. An early novel, Kindred (1979), features an African American woman living in 1976 who is drawn back in time to the antebellum South to save the life of a white ancestor and slave owner. The protagonist's interactions with the slaves she meets complicate her perception of the lived experience of slavery. This novel, Butler explains, was an attempt to answer criticism by some in her generation who considered their ancestors insufficiently rebellious in response to the slave system. Her novel implicitly warns against using a late twentieth-century standard to judge the actions of those who attempted to survive slavery. Another of Butler's novels confronts American slavery directly. Wild Seed (1980), her “prequel” to the Patternmaster series, is a complex allegory of the transatlantic slave trade, drawing upon the cultural history of pre-colonized Africa to trace the path of Africans kidnapped into slavery, transported across the Atlantic in the Middle Passage, and enslaved for generations in the United States.

Both of these novels qualify as neo-slave narratives, joining Sherley Anne Williams 's Dessa Rose (1986), Charles Johnson's Middle Passage (1990), and Toni Morrison 's Beloved (1987) as contemporary reworkings of the form. In returning to the slave narrative from the vantage point of the late twentieth century, Butler draws explicit attention to the enduring effect of slavery on both black and white Americans. In terms of literary production, Butler advanced a developing tradition, blending the historical past and imagined futures in a mutually informative way and making her contributions to the African American literary tradition as significant as her influence on science fiction.

While still concerned about the relationship between the past and the future, Butler, in her later novels, paid particularly close attention to the potential repercussions of America's social problems. In the Xenogenesis series, published in the 1980s, and her subsequent novels Parable of the Sower (1995) and Parable of the Talents (1998), Butler mixed an awareness of the United States’ history of social inequalities with concerns about violence and environmental deterioration. Worried about the “inevitability of unintended consequences,” Butler forecast the repercussions of these conditions into a troubled future (Butler, “A Few Rules,” 364).

Octavia Butler's literary accomplishments were recognized not only by her peers in the science fiction community but also by larger professional organizations. Several of her short stories won the most prestigious awards in science fiction. “Speech Sounds” (1983) won a Hugo Award in 1984. Her novella Bloodchild (1984) won several awards, including the Hugo (1985) and Nebula (1984). Her short story “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” (1987) was nominated for a Nebula Award as was her novel The Parable of the Sower. Its companion novel, Parable of the Talents, won a Nebula Award in 1999. Perhaps the most noteworthy recognition of Butler's contribution to American culture came in 1995, when she was awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, a cash prize recognizing the recipients’ creativity and independence in their chosen fields.

In an informational note appended to her novel, Wild Seed, Octavia Butler describes herself as “comfortably asocial—a hermit in the middle of a large city, 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.” In this statement Butler reveals her own complexity in much the same way that she captures the interconnectedness of humanity in her fiction. She links past, present, and future, male and female, black and white, human and alien in a web that enriches readers’ understanding of race, gender, and human nature. Octavia Butler's contribution to science fiction writing and contemporary African American literature cannot be underestimated.

Butler relocated to Seattle, Washington, in 1999. She died there, at the age of fifty-eight, after a fall that may have been the result of a stroke. An intensely private person, Butler lived alone at the time of her death and left no immediate survivors.

Further Reading

  • Butler, Octavia. Bloodchild and Other Stories (1995)
  • Butler, Octavia. “A Few Rules for Predicting the Future,” Essence (May 2000).
  • Kenan, Randall. “An Interview with Octavia Butler,” Callaloo 14, no. 2 (1991).
  • Rowell, Charles. “An Interview with Octavia E. Butler,” Callaloo 20, no. 1 (1997).