The Forgotten Genius of Sci-Fi & Feminist Author, Octavia E. Butler

Black History Month celebrates “The Grand Dame of Science Fiction”

To survive
Know the past.
Let it touch you.
Then let
The past
- from “Earthseed: The Books of the Living”, the religious texts Butler created in Parable of the Talents

If you haven’t heard of Octavia E. Butler, that’s a damn shame. In her lifetime, Butler changed the landscape of science fiction and completely ignored society’s limits on black authorship. She is the first science fiction writer (and only, by my last check of Wikipedia) of any color or gender to receive the MacArthur Fellowship (more commonly known as the “genius grant”).

She inspired writers of color, men and women, by proving that they could be writers. Her powerful prose, reflected through the lens of black female characters, remains as important today as it was nearly 50 years ago when she sold her first story. Without Butler, the world of sci-fi literature would very likely be a dreary, monochromatic place.

Butler received the “genius grant” of $295k paid in installments over five years in 1995 for her seminal work in science fiction.

Octavia Estelle Butler was born an only child on July 22, 1947, in Pasadena to a housemaid and shoeshine man. At seven years old, after her father passed away, Butler was raised by her strict, Baptist mother and grandmother. At the time, Pasadena was a more racially integrated city than others around the country. Still, Butler would later recount memories of blatant racism her mother endured at the hands of her employers — including racial slurs and not being allowed to enter residences through the front door.

Octavia with her mother in 1951.

Butler described herself at a young age as “ugly and stupid, clumsy, and socially hopeless” due to her crippling shyness and dyslexia. Accordingly, she spent much of her time at the local Pasadena library. She learned to love reading, and eventually writing, from a young age. She once pleaded with her mother for a Remington typewriter but, not knowing how to type properly, “pecked stories two-fingered.” After seeing the B movie Devil Girl From Mars, she was sure she could do better with the genre. From then on she spent as many hours filling the pages of her pink notebook as possible.

“Perhaps she was isolated, perhaps, but her work certainly kept me company, kept me from feeling alone.” — Junot Diaz, in an interview with Salon

Still, she faced undue criticism from nearly every corner of her life. Her aunt Hazel, upon learning of her niece’s intention to become a writer, tried to break it gently to the young, dark-complected girl, saying, “Honey… Negroes can’t be writers.”

Butler didn’t stop. She had a compulsion — a drive she would later instill in her human and alien characters. She attended Pasadena Community College, working simultaneously to pay tuition, and received an Associate of Arts with a focus in History in 1968. She later took additional writing courses through UCLA.

Butler’s senior class portrait.

Her first true encouragement came when she participated in the Clarion Writer’s Workshop and then the Open Door Workshop of the Screenwriters’ Guild of America (a mentorship program for Latino and African American writers) in 1969. At the Clarion workshop, famed sci-fi author, Harlan Ellison, took an interest in her writing and dubbed her his protege.

In 1971, she sold her first story, “Crossover,” to the Clarion anthology. Ellison had also purchased her story “Child Finder” for his anthology, The Last Dangerous Visions, around this time though it went unpublished. She was not an immediate success and opted to work temporary jobs that allowed her to write in her free time — most often at two or three in the morning.

“I thought I was on my way as a writer. In fact, I had five more years of rejection slips and horrible little jobs ahead of me before I sold another word.” — Butler, in her short fiction collection, Bloodchild and Other Stories

She read stories by John Brunner, Zenna Henderson, and Theodore Sturgeon. Yet, the lack of black (and especially black female) representation bothered her.

“Why aren’t there more sci-fi black writers? There aren’t because there aren’t. What we don’t see, we assume can’t be. What a destructive assumption.” — Butler in “Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories”

In 1974, she started work on what would become Patternmaster (1976), a novel set in a dystopian future where telepaths ruled humanity. The novel performed so well it spawned four prequels: Mind of My Mind (1977), Survivor (1978), Wild Seed (1980), and Clay’s Ark (1984). The series allowed her to finally leave hourly-wage work behind and pursue writing full-time.

In 1979, she gained mainstream acclaim with the release of Kindred, a story that revolves around a young black woman who, at first, accidentally travels back in time where she must save the life of one of her white, slave-owning ancestors. Butler attributed the initial idea for the novel to remarks made by a classmate during the Black Power Movement, where African American ancestors were criticized for a history of subservience to whites. Butler used the novel to give historical context wherein subservience served the purpose of “silent but courageous survival.”

The following years brought greater recognition from the sci-fi community she so adored. She won the Hugo Award for Short Stories in 1984 for “Speech Sounds,” and received the award again the next year (in addition to the Locus Award and the Science Fiction Chronicle Reader Award for Best Novelette) for “Bloodchild.” She then traveled to the Amazon rainforest and Andes mountains to research her next novels, the Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989). They were eventually collected into Lilith’s Brood in 2000.

Next came her Parable novels (Parable of the Sower in 1993 and Parable of the Talents in 1998). The setting (the 2020s) feels eerily close at hand — society as we know it has vanished due to climate change, vast wealth inequality, and corporate greed. The protagonist of the first novel is a hyperempath (someone who can feel the sensations of others) who develops a belief system of sorts known as Earthseed. In the second novel, we follow her daughter and the girl’s disconnect from the woman her mother became, a religious figurehead who’s worshipped. It’s a cunning indictment of religious fundamentalism, often compared to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tail. The pair of novels effectively cemented Butler’s place in the upper echelons of science fiction.

“Who am I? I am a forty-seven-year-old writer who can remember being a ten-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an eighty-year-old writer. I am also comfortably asocial — a hermit.… 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.” — an autobiographical description of Butler included in Parable of the Sower

In ’99, Butler moved to Lake Forest Park, Washington, following the death of her mother. She attempted to continue the Parable series with Parable of the Trickster, Parable of the Teacher, Parable of Chaos, and Parable of Clay, but found the writing and research too depressing to continue. Instead, she turned her attention to something more diverting, eventually producing her a vampire novel (with her particular sci-fi twist), Fledgling, released in 2005. The novel was received well; Junot Diaz called it the book of the year and Butler was praised for reimagining and reinventing the lore of vampires.

It was the last work the world would receive from Butler. Reports suggested she suffered from writer’s block in her final years due to high blood pressure. She died outside her home in Washington in 2006 at the age of 59.

Yet her work lives on.

Selma and A Wrinkle In Time director, Ava DuVernay, has plans to release Dawn as a TV series. This will be the first time Butler’s work is adapted for the screen.

Excerpts taken from Butler’s biography in Seed to Harvest: The Complete Patternist Series, “Positive Obsession” from Bloodchild and Other Stories, and “An Interview with Octavia Butler” from Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers.