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Butler, Octavia E.

Black Women in America

Robert W. Logan

Butler, Octavia E. 

(b. 22 June 1947; d. 24 February 2006), science-fiction author.

Butler is one of the most thoughtful and imaginative authors of her time. The first black woman to make a name for herself in science fiction and one of the few black writers in that field, she has taken full advantage of the speculative freedom that the genre allows writers to explore her interest in sociology, biology, race relations, American history, and the future of humanity. She has been a pioneer in bringing black people into the imagined future that is the most common focus of science fiction, and in telling the story of that future in the voices of black women.

Octavia Estelle Butler was born in Pasadena, California, to Laurice and Octavia M. (Guy) Butler. Her father was a shoeshine man who died when she was a baby, and her mother was a maid. Although they lived in a racially mixed community, her mother took her to work with her when no child care was available, and there the young Octavia observed the condescension and lack of respect that black servants of the time were expected to accept.

An only child, she did not get along easily with other children, and at school she tended to withdraw into shyness and the worlds of reading and imagination. By the time she was ten, she was producing her own short stories. Her future vocation called her one day when she was twelve. Watching a bad science fiction movie on television convinced her that she could write something better, and she immediately set out to prove it. The stories that resulted laid the groundwork for the later development of her first series of novels.

Butler grew tall quickly as a child, and her height increased her sense of self-consciousness and isolation. Afflicted by a form of dyslexia, which was not recognized at the time, she did not succeed in school and thought of herself as not very bright until she was in eighth grade. Being called on to read or recite in front of a classroom was a torment, and unsympathetic teachers frequently treated her as if she were unwilling to do the work. Not all of her teachers were uncaring or blind to her abilities, however, and when she was thirteen one of them took it upon himself to type out the first short story she submitted to a science fiction magazine.

After graduating from John Muir High School in Pasadena in 1965, Butler worked during the day and attended college at night, completing a two-year degree program at Pasadena City College, where her studies included writing fiction. After graduating, she entered California State College in Los Angeles. She continued to work at a series of temporary jobs and left California State for the University of California at Los Angeles, where she took more writing courses. At the same time, she attended writing workshops sponsored by the Writers Guild of America. One of the Writers Guild teachers was Harlan Ellison, a well-known science-fiction writer and an innovative editor with a keen interest in encouraging new and original voices in the field. Ellison provided what Butler later referred to as her “first honest criticism” and saw to it that she was invited to participate in the Clarion Writers’ Workshop in Clarion, Pennsylvania, in 1970. The six-week program for aspiring science fiction writers exposed her to the teaching of a variety of successful writers and the support and encouragement of fellow novices, and it later produced an anthology that included her first published story.

Initially, success eluded Butler, but she continued to work at various blue-collar jobs and to get up in the early hours of the morning to practice her craft. Finally, in 1974, she began work on what was to become the novel Patternmaster, which was published by Doubleday in 1976. Patternmaster was followed by Mind of My Mind (1977), Survivor (1978), Wild Seed (1980), and Clay’s Ark (1984).

The five books are linked by story lines and characters and the constant struggle between a power-hungry race of telepaths, the Patternmasters, and a breed of grossly mutated posthumans known as Clayarks. The books in the series also read well independently of each other, describing intertwined stories of multiple characters and jumping back and forth through time, from centuries in the past to millennia in the future. Among the major themes they cover are racial and gender-based animosity, the ethical implications of biological engineering, the question of what it means to be human, ethical and unethical uses of power, and how the assumption of power changes people.

Between the fourth and fifth books in the Patternmaster series, Butler wrote Kindred (1979), an entirely different kind of book. Inspired by a flippant remark from a friend about previous generations of African Americans and keenly aware of the indignities her mother endured in order to provide for her, Butler set out to illustrate the sacrifices that generations of black Americans made to give their descendants a better life. The book tells the story of a young black woman in 1976 who keeps getting pulled back in time to the early nineteenth century in Maryland, where she repeatedly has to save the life of a white slave-owning ancestor. In the process, the character, Dana, experiences the horrors of slavery firsthand. The appeal of this book, Butler’s most successful novel, which is taught in high schools and colleges, stretches far beyond the usual science fiction audience. Originally published in 1979, it was reissued in 1988 and in a special twenty-fifth anniversary edition in 2004.

Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago, the three novels making up the Xenogenesis trilogy, appeared from 1987 to 1989. Devastated by nuclear war, a weakened human race must decide whether to survive at the cost of crossbreeding with an alien species. The aliens are rational and empathic, but they intend to let the purebred strain of humanity die out after the hybrid species succeeds.

Parable of the Sower (1993) opens in the year 2024 in a world where the economic gap between rich and poor has increased to the point that the social order is on the verge of collapse. After her community is destroyed by raging pyromaniacs, a young black-Latina woman, Lauren Olamina, sets out to create a community of refugees, built around the tenets of her religious faith, Earthseed, which preaches that “God is Change,” and the hope of a better life and eventual escape from a ravaged planet through interstellar travel. Parable of the Talents, which won the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Nebula Award as the Best Science Novel of 1999, is a continuation of the same story.

Much of Butler’s work centers on her bleak yet hopeful vision of humanity’s future. The Parable books take the reader to a relentlessly brutal and almost hopeless future, based on extrapolation of the most alarming and destructive trends visible in contemporary society. The alien creatures encountered by humanity in the Xenogenesis trilogy voice an opinion that Butler frequently brings up in interviews—that humankind’s high intelligence and hierarchal tendencies are a combination incompatible with long-term survival. She does not believe that humanity is doomed to extinction; rather, she believes that it will have to change patterns of behavior in order to survive.

Butler believes in the possibility of travel to the stars. But in both her fiction and her interviews, she suggests that it would take a very strong external impetus to propel such a program into reality, the way that the arms race of the 1950s and 1960s stimulated the development of the space program. She is appreciative of the freedom science fiction offers writers to write about anything at all, but she does not like to be pigeonholed as a genre writer. She takes great pains to point out that Kindred is actually a fantasy story, with no science involved in the protagonist’s leaps into the past, and that, although set a generation in the future, the Parable books contain no supernatural elements.

Much of her work reflects a wide-ranging interest in the physical sciences and the study of human behavior. She keeps up with developments in biology and genetics and believes that if humanity is to survive we must learn to adapt to coexisting with microorganisms. Such coexistence would involve taking advantage of the beneficial properties and behaviors of many microbial organisms that are just beginning to be learned about. This echoes developments in Xenogenesis, where humanity survives by working with a race of aliens, changing into something different in the process.

Although she is best known for her novels, Octavia Butler has also published short stories, and her 1984 novella, Blood Child, won the Hugo and Nebula Awards. Her 1980 novel Wild Seed won the James Tiptree Jr. Award. In 1995 she became the first science-fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grant.” A resident of Pasadena for most of her life, she moved to Seattle in 1999. On 24 February 2006 Butler died from injuries sustained in a fall near her home in Lake Forest Park, Washington. She was fifty-eight and had been suffering from hypertension and other health problems for years before her death.


Butler, Octavia E. Interview by Tavis Smiley. NPR. 4 March 2004.Find this resource:

    Butler, Octavia E. Interviews by Mike McGonigal. Index Magazine. 1998. this resource:

      Govan, Sandra Y. Octavia E. Butler. In Notable Black American Women, edited by Jessie Carney Smith. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.Find this resource:

        Phillips, Jerry. The Intuition of the Future: Utopia and Catastrophe in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. Novel (Spring 2002).Find this resource:

          Sanders, Joshunda. The African QA: Octavia Butler. Africana: Gateway to the Black World. this resource:

            Stevenson, Rosemary. Octavia E. Butler. In Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Darlene Clark Hine. Brooklyn, NY: Carlson, 1993.Find this resource:

              Robert W. Logan