The African American Author, Octavia E. Butler, graced the science fiction world with her genius writing. Her novels have the unique ability to transport readers to worlds with a mixture of narratives. Therefore, Butler’s writing style became the backbone for the sub-genre of Afrofuturism. She defied the way white men wrote about Black characters. At the time, white men only wrote Black characters in science fiction to characterize race in their plots. Butler changed the leading narrative and brought diverse characters to the front of science fiction.
Octavia Estelle Butler was born June 22nd, 1947, in Pasadena, CA. Growing up in an expressly racially divided city, Butler had experienced many hardships. Her father was a shoe shiner and her mother worked hard as a house cleaner. Her father passed away when she was only seven. After that, Butler was raised by her mother and grandmother in a Baptist household. Although Butler’s mother only had three years of formal schooling, she never let it stop her from providing her daughter with better learning opportunities than she had.
While attending public school, Butler found reading difficult as she struggled with dyslexia. Her school’s choice of fiction also didn’t help. She thought their books were boring. Thus, she begged her mother for a library card. It was the first time Butler started to read books that interested her. As a result, she spent most of her time at her local library. She read all genres of fiction but fell in love with science fiction. Later on, her mother gifted her a typewriter. Butler would soon create her own fairy-tales and science fiction stories. At nine, she knew she wanted to write science fiction. She knew she could write better than anything she’d ever seen or read.
Only the Beginning
Butler started submitting short stories from the age of 13 and throughout high-school. She chased a creative career that was unheard of for Black women at the time. The science fiction genre was mainly controlled by white men. However, this did not stop her. In fact, Butler won her first short story contest and first payment for writing in college. Her creative passion was taking off. In 1968, Butler graduated from Pasadena City College with an Associate’s degree in history. Her work was heavily influenced by the Black Power Movement. Any free time she had, she spent it writing.
After graduating college, she took writing classes at California State University in Los Angeles and then at the University of California at Los Angeles. Butler attended a science fiction class led by writer Harlan Ellison at the Screen Writer’s Guild Open Door Program. She saw Ellison as her mentor. He encouraged her to reach for more. In 1970, she then took part in the Clarion Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop. At the end of the workshop, she sold her first two short stories, “Crossover” and “Childminder.” These stories were only the beginning.
A Series of Achievements
The renowned novelist set the stage for science fiction writers. In 1976, Butler released one of her first novels, Patternmaster. Although Butler wrote it first, it became the last book in her five-part Patternist series. Butler depicts a future society separated by groups. The groups consist of telepathic entities, those with animalistic superpowers and ordinary people who depend on the powers of the first group. The sci-fi series keenly focuses on themes of race and gender in society.
Beyond her early work, Butler published her most well-known book in 1979. The stand-alone novel, Kindred, put Butler on the map. It integrates time travel with present-day issues and uses a neo-slave narrative. The story follows a young writer from Los Angeles who travels back in time to meet her ancestors on a pre-civil war Maryland plantation. Butler makes an effort to comment on human behavior in society. She also shows how the environment can play a major role in how people choose to live. Butler wrote a total of 15 novels. Each has challenged the narrative structure of science fiction. Her writings thoughtfully explore themes of race, gender, class, genetics, and environment.
Octavia E. Butler’s legacy will forever be associated with the power of imagination backed by determination. Her works have also influenced the future of narrative in science fiction. She made space in the genre for diverse characters to exist and finally have their unique experiences heard from first-person.
Her short story “Speech Sounds” won her a Hugo Award in 1984, along with her story “Bloodchild,” which also won a Nebula Award. She became the first science fiction writer ever to win a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Shortly after, she received a PEN Award for lifetime achievement. Her achievements only scratch the surface of the legacy she leaves behind. Her books are read in many schools and universities throughout the world. Science fiction is nothing without the woman who reshaped it.
Looking to learn more about important Octavia E. Butler ? Check out Remembering Octavia Butler: Afrofuturist Literature