Octavia E. Butler was the first black woman to gain popularity and critical acclaim as a science-fiction writer. In a genre dominated by white men, she brought complex themes of gender and race and created divergent series of novels that attracted new readers, many of whom were African-American and female.
"A science fiction writer has the freedom to do absolutely anything. The limits are the imagination of the writer." ~ Octavia Butler
Octavia Estelle Butler was born in Pasadena, California, on June 22nd, 1947. Her father Laurice was a shoe-shiner, and died when she was still an infant. Octavia was an only child, though her mother, Octavia M. Butler, had been pregnant four other times, each time losing the baby before it could come to term.
Octavia learned about her family through stories of her mother and grandmother. They lived in a neighborhood that was racially diverse but uniformly poor, and each month it was a struggle to make ends meet. Octavia's mother was a maid, an occupation that gave Octavia early insight into issues of race and class in America.
In an interview with Black Scholar, Octavia recalled days when she was still very small and her mother had to take her to work with her, as there was no-one available to watch her at home. "I used to see her going to back doors, being talked about while she was standing right there, and basically being treated like a non-person."
Octavia knew this treatment was a continuation of the treatment her race had received for centuries, just under a different guise. This understanding made her feel separated from her peers, especially white friends whom she saw blaming their parents' generation for modern problems.
Her realization of the bigger history was one of the inspirations for the novel Kindred, about a modern black woman who travels back in time to the South in the early 1800s and meets her ancestors first-hand.
Octavia was writing from an early age, as young as ten. She was a shy girl and self-described daydreamer who struggled in school, and she turned to writing to help cope with the loneliness and boredom.
She recalls that she was 12 when she saw "a bad science fiction movie" (it was Devil Girl From Mars), and "decided that I could write a better story than that. And I turned off the TV and proceeded to try, and I've been writing science fiction ever since."
The story Octavia began that day would form the basis for her first published novel.
Octavia attended Pasadena City College and won a short-story contest in the first semester. After completing a 2-year Associate's degree in 1968, she applied to California State University at Los Angeles. As she would later tell Lisa See of Publishers Weekly, there she took "everything but nursing classes - I'm a bit dyslexic and worried about killing people."
The programs that Octavia credited with leading to her success as a science fiction writer were both writers' workshops outside of university: The Open Door Program of the Screen Writers' Guild, and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers' Workshop.
The latter was in Pennsylvania and considered a "boot camp" for the genre, and had been suggested to her by the distinguished science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, whose class she had attended at the Open Door Program. Ellison was supportive of Octavia's work and saw her potential. In 1970 he published one of her stories in an anthology.
At the Clarion Workshop, Octavia really felt at home among the other science fiction writers. She noted that they were all somewhat awkward and introverted, but "we seemed to get along with each other." After the workshop she took on a series of jobs that paid the bills, but didn't really offer much further. She went to her job every day and got up at 2AM to write.
The First in a Series
Initially Octavia worked on short stories, but by the end of 1974 she had decided to write a novel. The result was Patternmaster, which she finished quite quickly and sent to Doubleday for review. An editor at Doubleday liked the story, but would only publish it if Octavia made some major revisions, which she did. By 1976 Patternmaster was being sold in bookstores.
Octavia followed Patternmaster with a sequel while Doubleday was still reviewing her first. The sequel was titled Mind of my Mind (1977), and followed the saga into the next generation. The third book in the series was Survivor, published in 1978.
This series focuses on a telepathic people known as "Patternists" and their dominance over the mute, non-telepathic masses and mutants called "Clayarks." The telepaths are trying to create a superhuman race. Each book comments on class structure, the dominance of brawn over brain, and the role of women in society.
Octavia's lead characters were like nothing science-fiction had ever seen, described by Vibe's Carol Cooper as "assertive black homegirls with attitude." What some found enticing, however, is exactly what made publisher Doubleday apprehensive: the books brought in female and African-American audiences, groups that had never exactly flocked to the genre before. Despite their concerns, the books were very successful.
A New Kind of Book
Motivated to continue writing fiction with consideration to the perspectives and experiences of black people and women, Octavia wrote Kindred, which was published in 1979. As the novel deals with going back to confront and save previous generations, writing the novel helped Octavia deal with some unresolved feelings over how her mother had been treated in her job.
"If my mother hadn't put up with those humiliations, I wouldn't have eaten very well or lived very comfortably," she reflected later to Publishers Weekly. "So I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people had to live through in order to survive."
The book is recognized as a classic today but when she first wrote it, Octavia struggled to find the literary category into which it fit. She sent it to a number of different publishers, but they could not classify it as science fiction because "there's absolutely no science in it."
Octavia describes it as "the kind of fantasy that nobody had really thought of as fantasy because after all, it doesn't fall into the sword and sorcery or pseudo-medieval fantasy that everyone expects with lots of magic being practiced." Doubleday eventually published it in 1979, classified as fiction.
The novel was met with considerable praise, and soon became the standard text in high schools and colleges across the nation. "Probably no contemporary African-American novelist has so successfully exercised the imagination of her readers with acute representations of familial and historical relations as has Octavia Butler," gushed Ashraf H. A. Rushdy in College English, "and nowhere more so than in Kindred."
Recognition and Awards
Following the success of Kindred, Octavia wrote two more books in the Patternmaster series: Wild Seed in 1980, and Clay's Ark in 1984. By this time Octavia was receiving more serious recognition from her peers, and in 1984 she won a Hugo Award from the World Science Fiction Society for her short story "Speech Sounds" - along with the Nebula, the Hugo is considered one of science fiction's highest award.
The following year, Octavia wrote Bloodchild, a novel examining the issues of power surrounding childbirth, and the book won the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus Awards. Another novel called The Evening and the Morning and the Night was nominated for a 1987 Nebula award as well.
Towards the end of the 1980s, Octavia constructed a new series, the Xenogenesis Trilogy, which began in 1987. This series revolves around the near destruction of humankind by extra-terrestrials, and as the extra-terrestrials observe the humans, they notice that society is hierarchical, which causes it to be prejudiced, and have class structure and conflict. The extra-terrestrials consider that mankind will eventually destroy itself, with no help from them.
For her next work Octavia consciously sought a new direction, a story that focused on a woman who started a religion, but she felt that "everything I wrote was garbage." Through perseverance and experimenting with poetry, she produced Parable of the Sower, a story about a half-black, half-Latina protagonist who escapes society's middle class to start a new community beyond its walls.
Shortly after the book's publication, Octavia received one of the highest honors of her career, the Catherine T. McArthur Foundation Fellowship Award. Also referred to as a "genius grant," the award is given to the best and brightest African Americans in their field, with the purpose of allowing them to continue their work for the next five years without the worry of financial backing.
Octavia received the fellowship in 1995, and was presented with an award of $295,000 to be paid out over five years.
With the money, Octavia committed to continuing to write new and genre-breaking science fiction to introduce more black and female readers to the category, and to write about issues that commented on social issues. She composed Parable of the Talents as a sequel to Parable of the Sower, and the book was critically acclaimed.
In 1995 a compilation of Octavia's essays were published, providing not only a collection of her previous work but also insights into her habits around writing, and her experiences overcoming racism and poverty to attain her goals.
She was very forthcoming in her essays, as well as in her interviews. "I don't write utopian science fiction because I don't believe that imperfect humans can form a perfect society," she told Black Scholar. "Nobody is perfect,"
She also explained what she was trying to accomplish in the Parable books, where she explored story-lines around nation and community building without some of the more fantastical elements that science-fiction writers typically depend on. As stated to Vibe, "Part of what I wanted to do in the new book was to begin a new society that might actually get somewhere, even though nobody has any special abilities, no aliens intervene, and no supernatural beings intervene. The people just have to do it themselves."
While Octavia had always called the science-fiction genre "potentially the freest genre in existence," she had trouble finding a topic that satisfied her when composing her next novel.
For her last book, Octavia would describe her writing not as a "save the world" novel, but instead a "chance to play." In 2005 she published Fledgling, a story about a middle-aged woman who discovers that she is a vampire. Never one to miss the opportunity to explore social issues, the text explores the meaning of human identity and the extent of society's damning rejection of anyone seen as different.
Fledgling was seen by critics and fans as a new beginning for Octavia, and critics praised it as "a literary gem." Seattle Times writer Nisi Shawl found only one complaint about the book: "that it ends."
Sadly, what seemed like a new beginning for Octavia was cut short when she fell in her Seattle home and died quite suddenly on February 24th, 2006. She was 58 years old, and her death shocked her fans and the community. To honor her legacy, the Carl Brandon Society set up an Octavia E. Butler Scholarship Fund to help others follow in her footsteps.
Terri Sutton of LA Weekly listed Octavia as being "among science fiction's most thoughtful writers," while the Washington Post declared she was "one of the finest voices in fiction, period."
Vibe magazine's Carol Cooper declared that what Gibson "does for young, disaffected white fans of high tech and low life, Octavia Estelle Butler does for people of color. She gives us a future."
What was different about Octavia's work was that she put issues of race and gender at the foreground in a genre that previously did not deal with them at all. As described by Vibe's Carol Cooper, "In the '70s, Butler's work exploded into this ideological vacuum like an incipient solar system."
In her eulogy of Octavia, Leslie Howle of the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame stated, "She stands alone for what she did. She was a beacon."
While being embraced worldwide, Octavia's books provided a particularly familiar tone for black readers who enjoyed science fiction, but never quite felt it was meant for them. Octavia's themes of black culture and history resonated, as did the examination of how the past, present, and future are related and enmeshed.
Octavia left us with dozens of books that sold over a million copies, and were translated into 10 different languages.
After Octavia's death, a manifesto of sorts was found on one of the pages of her notebook, found at her house. The page contained a series of affirmation and goals which a touching not only for their positivity and liveliness, but for their reach - not only is Octavia concerned with meeting the goals she sets for herself, but with helping others meet their goals.
The manifesto can be viewed here, and states the following:
I shall be a bestselling writer. After Imago, each of my books will be on the bestseller lists of LAT, NYT, PW, WP, etc. My novels will go onto the above lists whether publishers push them hard or not, whether I’m paid a high advance or not, whether I ever win another award or not.
This is my life. I write bestselling novels. My novels go onto the bestseller lists on or shortly after publication. My novels each travel up to the top of the bestseller lists and they reach the top and they stay on top for months (at least two). Each of my novels does this.
So be it! I will find the way to do this. See to it! So be it! See to it!
My books will be read by millions of people!
I will buy a beautiful home in an excellent neighborhood
I will send poor black youngsters to Clarion or other writer’s workshops
I will help poor black youngsters broaden their horizons
I will help poor black youngsters go to college
I will get the best of health care for my mother and myself
I will hire a car whenever I want or need to.
I will travel whenever and wherever in the world that I choose
My books will be read by millions of people!Quotes:
So be it! See to it!
"I'm black, I'm solitary, I've always been an outsider."