Essay

Out of This World: Octavia Butler

Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006) was a bestselling and award-winning author, considered one of the best science fiction writers of her generation.

For Women’s History Month, we’re spotlighting thirty-one remarkable women—one for each day in March. Today, we’re proud to feature Octavia Butler.

Octavia Butler

(Pictured: Butler reading a book in 1975)

“In order to rise
From its own ashes
A phoenix
First
Must
Burn.”

—Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents

Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006) was a bestselling and award-winning author, considered one of the best science fiction writers of her generation. She received both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and in 1995 became the first author of science fiction to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. She was also awarded the prestigious PEN Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.

Butler’s father died when she was very young; her mother raised her in Pasadena, California. Shy, tall, and dyslexic, Butler immersed herself in reading whatever books she could find. She began writing at twelve, when a B movie called Devil Girl from Mars inspired her to try writing a better science-fiction story.

She took writing classes throughout college, attending the Clarion Writers Workshop and, in 1969, the Open Door Workshop of the Screenwriters’ Guild of America, a program designed to mentor Latino and African American writers. There she met renowned science fiction author Harlan Ellison, who adopted Butler as his protégé.

In 1974 she began writing Patternmaster (1976), set in a future world where a network of all-powerful telepaths dominate humanity. Praised both for its imaginative vision and for Butler’s powerful prose, the novel spawned four prequels, beginning with Mind of My Mind (1977) and finishing with Clay’s Ark (1984).

Although the Patternist series established Butler among the science fiction elite, Kindred (1979) brought her mainstream success. In that novel, a young black woman travels back in time to the antebellum South, where she is called on to protect the life of a white, slaveholding ancestor. Kindred’s protagonist stood out in a genre that, at the time, was widely dominated by white men.

In 1985, Butler won Nebula and Hugo awards for the novella Bloodchild, which was reprinted in 1995 as Bloodchild and Other Stories. Dawn (1987) began the Xenogenesis trilogy, about a race of aliens who visit earth to save humanity from itself. Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989) continue the story, following the life of the first child born with a mixture of alien and human DNA.

Fledgling (2005), which combines vampire and science fiction narratives, was Butler’s final novel. “She wasn’t writing romance or feel-good novels,” mystery author Walter Mosley said. “She was writing very difficult, brilliant work.” Her books have been translated into several languages, and continue to appear widely in school and college literature curricula.

Butler died at home in Washington in 2006.

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