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Black HERstory Month: Octavia Butler, an unexpected queen of sci-fi

8:31 pm - 02/12/2013

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Octavia E. Butler was born on June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, California. She studied at several universities and began her writing career in the 1970s. Her books blended elements of science fiction and African American spiritualism. Her first novel, Patternmaster (1976), led the five-volume Patternist series. Butler went on to write several other novels, including Kindred (1979), and Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1999), of the Parable series. She continued to write and publish until her death on February 24, 2006, in Seattle Washington.

Butler thrived in a genre typically dominated by white males. She lost her father at a young age and was raised by her mother. To support the family, her mother worked as a maid.

As a child, Octavia E. Butler was known for her shyness and her impressive height. She was dyslexic, but she didn't let this challenge deter her from developing a love of books. Butler started creating her own stories early on, and she decided to make writing her life's work around the age of 10. She later earned an associate degree from Pasadena City College. Butler also studied her craft with Harlan Ellison at the Clarion Fiction Writers Workshop.

To make ends meet, Butler took all sorts of jobs while maintaining a strict writing schedule. She was known to work for several hours very early in the morning each day. In 1976, Butler published her first novel, Patternmaster. This book was the first in a series of works about a group of people with telepathic powers called Patternists. Other Patternist titles include Mind of My Mind (1977) and Clay's Ark (1984).

In 1979, Butler had a career breakthrough with Kindred. The novel tells the story of a African American woman who travels back in time to save a white slave owner—her own ancestor. In part, Butler drew some inspiration from her mother's work. "I didn't like seeing her go through back doors," she once said, according to The New York Times. "If my mother hadn't put up with all those humiliations, I wouldn't have eaten very well or lived very comfortably. So I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people have had to live through in order to endure."

For some writers, science fiction serves as means to delve into fantasy. But for Butler, it largely served as a vehicle to address issues facing humanity.
It was this passionate interest in the human experience that imbued her work with a certain depth and complexity. In the mid-1980s, Butler began to receive critical recognition for her work. She won the Hugo Award in 1984 for the best short story of the year, for "Speech Sounds." That same year, the novelette "Bloodchild" won a Nebula Award and later a Hugo.

In the late 1980s, Butler published her Xenogenesis trilogy—Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989). This series of books explores issues of genetics and race.

To insure their mutual survival, humans reproduce with aliens known as the Oankali. Butler received much praise for this trilogy. She went on to write the Parable series, which includes the novels Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1999).

In 1995, Butler received a "genius" grant from the MacArthur Foundation, which allowed her to buy a house for her mother and herself.

In 1999, Butler abandoned her native California to move north to Seattle, Washington. She was a perfectionist with her work and spent several years grappling with writer's block. Her efforts were hampered by her ill health and the medications she took. After starting and discarding numerous projects, Butler wrote her last novel Fledgling (2005).

On February 24, 2006, Octavia E. Butler died at her Seattle home. She was 58 years old. With her death, the literary world lost one of its great storytellers. She is remembered, as Gregory Hampton wrote in Callaloo, as writer of "stories that blurred the lines of distinction between reality and fantasy." And through her work, "she revealed universal truths."

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She was an absolutely fantastic author and woman.

For those who have read her work and are interested in work similar to hers, her friend Tananarive Due is an excellent Black horror/sci-fi author that I really enjoy.
rkt 13th-Feb-2013 04:19 am (UTC)
butler is my most favorite author of all times forever.
romp 13th-Feb-2013 04:22 am (UTC)
I recommend her because I've never heard of anyone who doesn't like her. I've only read Parable of the Sower but it was powerful, more real and powerful than I like my fiction, left me feeling tender. Frankly, she's too literary for me. I'm not even sure how SF she is compared to Margaret Atwood.

I've wondered if Nnedi Okorafor considered Butler a forerunner and a quick google shows me that Okorafor wrote a tribute in Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New-Wave Trajectory. I hadn't heard of Due, OP--thank you--but I see she's mentioned repeatedly in the book.

Edited at 2013-02-13 04:23 am (UTC)
moonshaz 13th-Feb-2013 06:39 am (UTC)
Looking at reviews of some of her books on Amazon, they sound as if they might be too intense for me tbqh. May take a look, but not sure if it will go beyond that.
astridmyrna 13th-Feb-2013 04:43 am (UTC)
*adds to reading list*
wikilobbying 13th-Feb-2013 06:16 am (UTC)
same, and i've been dying for good sci-fi recs so this is right up my alley
crossfire 13th-Feb-2013 04:45 am (UTC)
IMO Octavia Butler is must-read for any sci-fi fan. Clay's Ark is genius and "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" is sublime.
nagasasu 13th-Feb-2013 04:49 am (UTC)
Die-hard Octavia Butler fan here.

Here are some reasons why you should read her:
--If you like John Jude Palencar's art, he did a series of book covers for her in 1997
--Black women protagonists who survive
--The issues she addresses are as searingly relevant now as they were then (read Parable of the Talents if you want to freak yourself out in an election year)
--YMMV, but I think her work lets you figure things (morals, who to root for, to feel bad or not about events) on your own; she doesn't preach to you
--She made m-preg legit lit ("Bloodchild.")
fishphile 13th-Feb-2013 04:52 am (UTC)
What's your favorite work of hers?
fishphile 13th-Feb-2013 04:52 am (UTC)
Octavia Butler is my all time favorite author. Discovering her work was very important to me.

I'd recommend Nnedi Okorafor and Nalo Hopkinson if you like Octavia Butler.
nagasasu 13th-Feb-2013 05:05 am (UTC)
Out of curiosity, what about Okorafor and Hopkinson reminds you of Butler? I always have a hard time with telling people "If you like Octavia Butler, check out..."
ms_mmelissa 13th-Feb-2013 05:29 am (UTC)
I recently picked up Kindred after hearing for years how great Octavia Butler is.

She was even better than advertised.

Thanks for the lovely other authorial suggestion op!

And FYI there's a book of sci-fi stories that's been put out that helps pay for Clarion workshop scholarships for writers of colour in Octavia Butler's name. You can read more/contribute here:

tabaqui 13th-Feb-2013 01:01 pm (UTC)
Wow, i had no idea she had died so young. An impressive woman.
mutive 13th-Feb-2013 01:15 pm (UTC)
Yay, Octavia Butler. I love her stories. (And thank you for writing so many of these. I've been lurking and enjoying.) Also, will have to check out Tananarive Due. Thanks for the recommendation.
thecityofdis 13th-Feb-2013 03:55 pm (UTC)
omg a whole post on _p dedicated to octavia butler

this makes me so happy

i fell in love with her in high school and never looked back
salamanderrrr 13th-Feb-2013 06:00 pm (UTC)
LOVE HER, her books will blow your mind :):)
thanks for the other recommendation
pachakuti 14th-Feb-2013 04:42 pm (UTC)
I picked up Parable of the Sower/Talents when I was about fourteen years old. That shit blew my goddamn mind, and continues to do so every time I read it. I had never read sci-fi like that before. It's much of what I seek out, now; and of course, being young and super into sci-fi I bought bsaically anything written by a female author that ALSO had a female main character.

Butler wrote black women who live. This is something you so rarely see in sci-fi that Butler's work actually stands out glaringly. Her protagonists are invariably black, another huge rarity in sci-fi.

The darkness of the Parable books was incredible, pretty searingly intense. The morals, if you can call them that, were things I wasn't used to seeing written in such a practical, realistic way; that you can't change a choice once it's made, that sometimes choices are made for you and their consequences are no less concrete, that sometimes we tell ourselves over and over we did the right thing so that we may pretend what we did was not wrong.

Her characters are also so believably human. It's less reading and more experiencing someone else's life. Taking my eyes off the books sometimes feels like tearing open a wound.

pachakuti 14th-Feb-2013 04:43 pm (UTC)
Okay, that end bit is a little hyperbolic, but still reads very true. Her books are books I can't put down until they're done, and not because I'm fascinated... it's because I am physically unable to stop reading until it's done.

I just love her work so much. RIP, Octavia.
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