Octavia Butler: The Sci-Fi Hero You Should Be Reading
Words: Satya Nelms
Beloved writer Octavia Butler surprised readers with her rich worlds and social insight. Today her work is just as pertinent as ever.
For many black girl nerds the world over, Octavia Butler is a legend and a hero. She wrote people of color into the world of science fiction and paved the way for generations of writers who would come after her. Butler began writing when she was only 10 years old, but when she started reading science fiction at age 12, she quickly realized she had found a home. Watching the 1950s British alien flick Devil Girl From Mars sealed the deal. After watching the movie, “[I] decided that I could write a better story than that,” Butler told The Black Scholar in 1986. “I turned off the TV and proceeded to try and I’ve been been writing science fiction ever since... I just knew there were stories I wanted to tell.” So she set out into the world, determined not to be a writer, but confident that she already was one.
Octavia Butler credited two workshops for providing her with the most valuable preparation for her career as a writer. The first was the Screenwriter’s Guild of America Open Door Program, which she attended from 1969-1970, and the second was Clarion Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop, which she also attended in 1970. These workshops helped her to build her writing habits, which Butler found to be far more productive than inspiration: “Forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not. Habit will help you finish and polish your stories. Inspiration won’t. Habit is persistence in practice.”
Despite being confident in her place in the world as a writer, and the numerous accolades that would come throughout her career, Butler was known for being critical of her work, and warned her students, “You don’t start out writing the good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then you gradually get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” Through that persistence she won Hugo Awards for best science fiction novel in 1984 and 1985, a Locus Award from the science fiction literary magazine by the same name in 1985, Nebula Awards for outstanding work in science fiction or fantasy in 1985 and 1999, the prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellowship—affectionately know as the “genius grant”—in 1996, and published a body of work which includes three series, two books of short stories, and two stand-alone novels.
Butler published her first book, Patternmaster, in 1976. What makes this book so interesting is that while it was published first, chronologically it is the last story in what would make up Butler’s Patternist series. She would go on to publish four prequels to the Patternist story: Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, and Survivor. The five books tell the history and evolution of a new breed of humans with psychic abilities, and their journey to find a place in the world. All of the books are available in hardcopy and e-book except for Survivor,which Butler let go out of print because in retrospect she didn’t like it, she’s explained. Hardcore Butler fans might not agree with her, but finding the copies of the book can be time-consuming and expensive.
In the midst of the Patternist books, Butler released Kindred, the book for which she is most well-known, and which earned her such acclaim that she was able to write full-time, and give up her stream of odd jobs which included cleaning warehouses and factories. While many of her other books are lesser known outside of the science-fiction genre, Kindred graces top book lists, is taught at high schools and universities alike, and is considered a part of the canon of modern African-American literature. In Kindred, a woman from the present-day is inexplicably thrust back into the past and forced to live through the atrocities of slavery. While the time travel is in keeping with Butler’s love of science fiction, the themes brought up by the historical context of the book are credited with its more widespread recognition.
Next came the Xenogenesis books, sometimes referred to as Lilith’s Brood. The books include Dawn, Adulthood Rites,and Imago. These books pay homage to Butler’s love of Star Trek as human beings flee a post-apocalyptic Earth, only to be genetically altered by the extraterrestrial life they come in contact with.
The Xenogenesis series was followed by the Parables. Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents may well have been published before their time; her stories of a dystopian society, and the formation of a new culture from the rubble, would fit in quite well with the current trend toward post-apocalyptic fiction.
Bloodchild and Other Stories was released between the two Parables, covering narratives that were at times vaguely reminiscent of previous books and at others directly connected. Butler published Fledgling—her final book and a stab at popular fantasy—in 2005. The book follows a 53-year-old African-American female vampire able to withstand the sun’s rays because of the melanin in her skin.
Butler fans eagerly awaited what would come next. Would Fledgling be the first in a series like so many novels before it? Would there be another book of short stories? Perhaps there would be a whole new epic story to dive into? All of these dreams came to a screeching halt with Butler’s death in 2006. News sources gave a variety of causes of death. Some said she suffered a stroke. Others said she died from head injuries brought on from a fall at her home. Still others combined the two, saying the stroke caused the fall, which caused the head injury, which led to her death. What we know for sure is that she was gone far too soon, taken from the world at the age of only 58.
Butler’s editors and agents sorted through her literary estate, trying like the rest of her fans to find something to hold onto. In the process they found two short stories, A Necessary Being and Childfinder. These two stories were released in a compilation appropriately titled Unexpected Stories this past June. The book gives a glimpse into a younger Butler, as both stories predate all of her published work. In these short pieces, Butler hasn’t entirely found her voice yet, but there are glimmers of her genius. It is hard to read the book without wondering what kind of work Butler might have produced if she had had even more time to develop her craft before dying so young.
Octavia Butler opens Parable of the Sower with a quote from Earthseed: The Book of the Living, a bible the people in this story will come to live by. It says, “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you.” For each person that reads Octavia Butler’s work, the story is slightly different because of the lens through which they read it, but no matter the person, taking a dive into Ms. Butler’s world is to find yourself forever changed.