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Octavia Butler

Known as the United States' first female African American science fiction writer, Octavia Butler's novels have become modern classics of the genre. Determined from childhood to make a name for herself in the white, male-dominated world of science fiction writing, Butler began writing and submitting stories to magazines when she was still a girl. Her series, novels, and short stories have won numerous awards and explore themes that remain relevant today, including issues of race, class, and ecological decline.

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Octavia Butler

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Known as the United States' first female African American science fiction writer, Octavia Butler's novels have become modern classics of the genre. Determined from childhood to make a name for herself in the white, male-dominated world of science fiction writing, Butler began writing and submitting stories to magazines when she was still a girl. Her series, novels, and short stories have won numerous awards and explore themes that remain relevant today, including issues of race, class, and ecological decline.

Octavia Butler: Biography

Octavia Estelle Butler was born in Pasadena, California, on June 22, 1947. Her father died when she was seven years old. Her mother and grandmother then raised her.

Butler was terribly shy and slightly dyslexic as a child, making school and homework difficult for her. Her classmates often teased her, and she took refuge in the library, where she devoured fairytales, horse stories, and later science fiction magazines.

Butler also spent her childhood writing in a notebook she carried with her. When she was ten, her mother bought her a typewriter, and the aspiring writer began transcribing her stories. At just twelve years old, Butler started the story that would become the first of her Patternist novels, a series of five books exploring a secret history beginning in Ancient Egypt.

Octavia Butler, Space Vortex, StudySmarterFig. 1 Octavia Bulter aspired to be a science fiction writer from childhood.

Butler graduated from John Muir High School in 1965 and began taking classes at Pasadena City College. While she was a student, Butler continued writing, winning her first short story contest and getting inspired for the novel that would become Kindred (1979).

Butler graduated from PCC in 1968 with an Associate's Degree in arts with a concentration in history. She worked various temporary jobs that allowed her to maintain writing time, particularly very early in the morning, but found little success. As an African American woman, Butler struggled to break into the field of science fiction, a genre traditionally dominated by white men. She continued taking writing courses, first at California State University in Los Angeles and later at UCLA.

Finally, Butler attended an Open Doors workshop meant to support minority writers. There, she met the science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, who recommended that Butler attend another seminar in Pennsylvania. In 1971, while attending the six-week workshop, Butler sold her first two short stories for publication.

She also began working on the novels that would become the Patternist series, but it would be another five years before they were successfully published. She published the first novel, Patternmaster, in 1976, followed by Mind of My Mind (1977) and Survivor (1978). The success of these three novels finally allowed Butler to make writing her full-time occupation.

Octavia Butler, Plantation House, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Kindred takes on a Maryland plantation in the pre-Civil War South.

The following year, Butler published Kindred (1979), her first stand-alone novel. She also published two more novels, Wild Seed (1980) and Clay's Ark (1984), which completed the Patternist series.

In the mid-1980s, Butler began to receive more recognition for her work. She won her first Hugo Award for the short story "Speech Sounds" (1984) and another in 1985 for the novelette "Bloodchild" (1984). "Bloodchild" was also awarded the 1984 Nebula Award for Best Novelette and the 1985 Locus Award for Best Novelette.

In 1987, Butler published Dawn, the first in the Xenogenesis trilogy, along with Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989).

The three novels Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago were republished in one volume in 2000 as Lilith's Brood.

1995, Butler was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, also known as the MacArthur Genius Grant, making her the first and only science fiction writer to win the $295,000 prize. She also began work on a new series called Parable, starting with Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998).

Although Butler intended to write four more books to complete the series, she struggled with writer's block and put the planned novels aside. Butler turned her attention instead to Fledgling (2005), which would be her last published novel.

On February 24, 2006, Butler died outside of her Seattle home after suffering a fall that could have resulted from a stroke. She was fifty-eight years old.

Octavia Butler: Books

Octavia Butler is well known for her series, including the Patternist novels and the Xenogenesis trilogy, and her stand-alone novels, such as Kindred.

Patternist Series

The Patternist Series includes Butler's first published novels. The series consists of five books: Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977), Survivor (1978), Wild Seed (1980), and Clay's Ark (1984). The series tells the story of a secret history beginning in the ancient past and continuing into the future. It begins with two immortal beings who travel from Africa to North America, where they attempt to breed a new race of humans.

The Patternist books can each be read as a stand-alone novel or as a single, larger story. However, the order in which they were published is not the series' chronological order. The books were combined in one volume, Seed to Harvest, in 2007 in the following order:

  • Wild Seed
  • Mind of My Mind
  • Clay's Ark
  • Pattenmaster

Several years after Survivor, chronologically the fourth novel in the Patternist series, was published, Butler spoke of her discontent with the novel and declined to republish it.

Xenogenesis Trilogy

The Xenogenesis trilogy, later published as Lilith's Brood (2000), consists of the novels Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago. The trilogy tells the story of a war that destroys Earth and humanity. Centuries later, a girl, Lilith, awakes after being resurrected by an alien race that rescued humanity by mixing their genes with humanity's. They created a new race of beings to repopulate the Earth. Xenogenesis explores how humans like Lilith learn to coexist with these creatures.

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents

Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are the first two novels in an intended series. They are works of post-apocalyptic speculative fiction that explore the fate of the United States following society's collapse and the effects of climate change. The first novel begins in 2024 and tells the story of Lauren, a young girl trying to escape Southern California's social and ecological instability.

Octavia Butler, Forest Fire, StudySmarterFig. 3 - In Parable of the Sower, Southern California is becoming unlivable due to climate change and social upheaval.

Butler intended to write several other novels to complete the Parable series, but she struggled with depression and writer's block in the last years of her life. After her death, numerous false starts for the new Parable novel were found among the author's papers.

Kindred

Kindred was Butler's first stand-alone novel and remains one of her best-known works. It tells the story of a young, modern-day African American woman called Dana, who travels back in time and meets her ancestors on a Maryland plantation in the years before the Civil War. She saves the life of a young white boy who she later learns will become her great-great-grandfather. Although he is a slave owner, she must protect him to ensure the existence of herself and her own family.

Kindred is considered a modern classic of American literature and is widely read in classrooms around the country.

Octavia Butler: Short Stories

Octavia Butler is also well known for her award-winning short stories, including "Speech Sounds" and "Bloodchild."

"Speech Sounds"

"Speech Sounds" was published in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in 1983 and won the 1984 Hugo Award for Best Short Story. It tells the story of a plague that damages humanity's ability to communicate. Some people cannot speak, while others cannot read or write. Individuals carry objects or symbols to identify themselves in place of names, and fights and disagreements resulting from misunderstandings are common.

Octavia Butler, Wooden Cube Letters, StudySmarterFig. 4 - In "Speach Sounds" a plague leaves humanity unable to communicate.

In "Speech Sounds," a woman, Rye, meets a man named Obsidian, and the two navigate the changed world together.

"Bloodchild"

"Bloodchild" is a novelette first published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine in 1984. The novelette won several prestigious science fiction awards, including a Nebula Award, a Hugo Award, and a Locus Award, all for Best Novelette. It tells the story of a colony of humans who settled on a planet inhabited by the Tlic, a race of insect-like creatures. The two races coexist on the condition that the humans act as hosts for Tlic eggs.

One boy, Gan, is chosen as a host but is traumatized after watching Tlic larvae hatching and second-guesses the role.

The story was later published in the collection Bloodchild and Other Stories in 1995 and again with two additional stories in 2005.

Octavia Butler: Quotes

In Kindred, Octavia Butler's most famous stand-alone novel, a young African American woman, Dana, living in California in the 1970s, is transported back in time to the Antebellum South. One of Butler's goals with the novel was to challenge the opinions of young African Americans around her who insisted they would never have tolerated slavery and argued that their ancestors didn't try hard enough to change things.

I closed my eyes and saw the children playing their game again. 'The ease seemed so frightening.' I said. 'Now I see why.'

'What?'

'The ease. Us, the children ... I never realized how easily people could be trained to accept slavery.'" -Kindred (Chapter 3)

While back in the 19th century on the Maryland plantation, Dana experiences the struggle of slavery firsthand, a much different experience than learning about it in history books. In the above quote, she sees a group of enslaved children playing a game where they sell one another and remarks on the ease with which slavery is accepted.

'I saw them eat a man.' He paused. 'It was when I was little. I had been to the Hartmund house and I was on my way home. Halfway here, I saw a man and a Tlic, and the man was N'Tlic. The ground was hilly. I was able to hide from them and watch. The Tlic wouldn't open the man because she had nothing to feed the grubs. The man couldn't go any further and there were no houses around. He was in so much pain, he told her to kill him. He begged her to kill him. Finally, she did. She cut his throat. One swipe of one claw. I saw the grubs eat their way out, then burrow in again, still eating.'" -"Bloodchild"

The above quote comes from Octavia Butler's acclaimed novelette "Bloodchild." The story is an excellent example of Butler's science fiction writing; it takes place on a fictional planet and tells the story of a colony of humans coexisting with a race of insect-like creatures called Tlics. The Tlics use the humans and hosts for their eggs. In the above quote, one character describes witnessing a person being eaten by the grubs because their Tlic has nothing to feed them.

Why aren't there more SF [science fiction] Black writers? There aren't because there aren't. What we don't see, we assume can't be. What a destructive assumption." —Octavia Butler, in "Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories."

Octavia Butler faced many obstacles on her path to success as a Black woman in the science fiction world. As a genre dominated by white men, Butler was often told she'd never succeed as a science fiction writer. Few other Black writers were working in the genre to serve as role models, let alone Black women, forcing Butler to find her own path.

Octavia Butler: Facts

  • Octavia Butler grew up in California in the 1950s, where her mother worked as a maid in white people's homes. Butler sometimes accompanied her mother to work, where they had to enter through the backdoor. This indignity impacted Butler a great deal and was part of the inspiration for her novel Kindred.
  • Butler was incredibly shy as a child and remained a solitary individual throughout her life. She never married or had children.
  • After graduating college, Butler worked an assortment of jobs that allowed her to still have time to write, including a stint as a potato chip inspector.
  • Butler was inspired to write science fiction after seeing the movie Devil Girl From Mars (1945) when she was twelve years old. She was sure she could develop a better story than the film.
  • Butler kept a journal where she wrote about her intention to become a bestselling author and wrote motivational messages to herself.

Octavia Butler - Key takeaways

  • Octavia Butler was born in Pasadena, California, on June 22, 1947.
  • She fell in love with reading and writing as a child and aspired to be a science fiction writer at an early age.
  • Butler is well known for her science fiction series, including the Patternist series; novels, including Kindred; and short stories, including "Speech Sounds."
  • Butler won numerous awards for her work, including Hugo Awards, Nebula Awards, and the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship.
  • Butler died on February 24, 2006, at fifty-eight years old.

Frequently Asked Questions about Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler died after falling outside her Seattle home. It’s possible that Butler suffered a stroke leading to her fall.

Octavia Butler was an African American science fiction writer well known for her award-winning series, novels, and short stories.

Octavia Butler wrote Parable of the Sower to explore the possible fate of the United States if the country continues on its current trajectory.

Parable of the Sower is a post-apocalyptic work of speculative fiction that follows a girl as she tries to escape social collapse and the effects of climate change in Southern California.

Octavia Butler died on February 24, 2006.

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

True or false? Octavia Butler was a popular child and had many friends in school.

Which award did “Bloodchild” NOT win?

Which novel is NOT part of the Patternist series?

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