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Butler, Octavia E.

Octavia E. Butler

1947–2006

Writer

"I didn't decide to become a science fiction writer," Octavia Butler claimed in an interview with Frances M. Beal in the Black Scholar. "It just happened." Butler—the most recognized black woman writer in the genre—became one of sci-fi's leading lights with a career that included publishing the Patternmaster series, the Xenogenesis Trilogy, the celebrated historical fantasy Kindred, and the highly praised dystopian saga The Parable of the Sower and The Parable of the Talents, among other works. Along with "cyberpunk" novelist William Gibson, Terri Sutton of the LA Weekly listed Butler among "science fiction's most thoughtful writers." 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." The Washington Post went further, declaring Butler to be "one of the finest voices in fiction period."

Butler's work helped put race and gender into the foreground of speculative fiction, exploring these and other social and political issues with a developed sense of ambiguity and difficulty. Such explorations, Cooper noted in Vibe, were previously absent from science fiction: "In the '70s, Butler's work exploded into this ideological vacuum like an incipient solar system." As the award-winning author told Black Scholar, "A science fiction writer has the freedom to do absolutely anything. The limits are the imagination of the writer."

Used Fiction to Transcend Reality

Butler was born on June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, California. Her father died during her infancy and her mother's occupation provided Butler with early lessons in racism and economic inequity: "My mother was a maid and sometimes she took me to work with her when I was very small and she had no one to stay with me," Butler recalled to Black Scholar. "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." Butler recognized these kinds of working conditions as a tradition in her own ancestry, and that legacy helped alienate her from her peers, who in the 1960s blamed their parents' generation for contemporary problems. The realizations sparked by these issues helped inspire Butler's novel Kindred, in which a modern black women travels back in time to the antebellum South and confronts slavery first-hand.

Butler discovered her vocation at an early age. "I was writing when I was 10 years old," she told Black Scholar. "I was writing my own little stories and when I was 12, I was watching a bad science fiction movie [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 upon which Butler embarked would form the basis for her first published novel and the rest of the Patternmaster series.

Butler later attended Pasadena City College, winning a short-story contest during her first semester. After receiving her Associate's degree in 1968, she moved on to California State University at Los Angeles, taking "everything but nursing classes," as she recollected to Lisa See of Publishers Weekly. "I'm a little bit dyslexic and worried about killing people." Thanks to the Open Door Program at the Screen Writers' Guild, Butler was able to attend a class taught by esteemed science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. The venerated Ellison was supportive of her work, offering to publish one of her stories in an anthology and encouraging her to attend the Clarion Science Fiction Writers' Workshop in Pennsylvania, described as a "boot camp" for would-be practitioners of the genre.

Six Weeks at Clarion Started Writing Momentum

Butler spent six weeks at Clarion. "We were all social retards," she quipped to Publishers Weekly about her class there, "but we seemed to get along with each other." She elaborated on this sense of isolation among her peers, believing that "to write science fiction you do have to be kind of a loner, live in your head, and, at the same time, have a love for talking. Clarion was a good place for that." The workshop published an anthology in 1970 that included one of her stories. Ellison's collection, meanwhile, didn't get published.

After leaving Clarion, Butler hit something of a wall professionally, and ended up taking a series of low-paying jobs. She supported herself and woke during the wee hours to write. She originally only wrote short stories but finally deciding to undertake a novel near the end of 1974. The result was Patternmaster, which she executed rather quickly after getting over her fear of novelistic length. She sent the manuscript to Doubleday where an editor saw promise in the story. It was only after Butler made some of the major revisions suggested by the editor that Doubleday agreed to publish the book, and by 1976 Patternmaster was on bookstore shelves.

Patternmaster addressed issues of class division with a plot revolving around telepathic people known as "Patternists" and their domination over the mute, non-telepathic masses and mutant beings called "Clayarks." Vibe's Carol Cooper praised Butler's characterizations, stating that "her lead characters—whether telepaths or human/alien half-breeds—remained assertive black homegirls with attitude."

Butler wrote her next novel, a sequel to Patternmaster, while Doubleday was reviewing her first. Published in 1977, Mind of My Mind followed the saga into the next generation, as did the third book in the series, Survivor in 1978. The series sold well, but the people at Doubleday were still leery of publishing science fiction that attempted to bring in both African-American and female audiences, groups that had notoriously stayed away from the genre. Hence, Butler interrupted her work on the series to write a very different story.

Injected Personal Memories into Kindred

Motivated by considerations of what previous generations of black people—especially women—had experienced, Butler wrote Kindred, a novel in which a present-day black woman, Dana, travels back in time to Maryland during the time of slavery. There she confronts a white ancestor whom she must rescue repeatedly in order to preserve her own future. Writing Kindred helped Butler exorcise some of her feelings about generational distrust. "If my mother hadn't put up with those humiliations, I wouldn't have eaten very well or lived very comfortably," she reflected 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."

In the March/April 1986 issue of Black Scholar, Butler discussed the trouble she had placing Kindred because it didn't fit into any preconceived literary category. "I sent it off to a number of different publishers because it obviously was not science fiction. There's absolutely no science in it. It was 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." Eventually Doubleday published the novel in 1979, but as fiction rather than science fiction.

At a Glance …

Born Octavia Estelle Butler on June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, CA; died on February 24, 2006, Seattle, WA; daughter of Laurice and Octavia M. (Guy) Butler. Education: Pasadena City College, AA, 1968; attended California State University at Los Angeles, 1969; attended University of California at Los Angeles, 1970; attended Clarion Science Fiction Writers' Workshop, 1970.

Career : Freelance writer, 1970–76; author, 1976–2006.

Selected awards : Hugo Award for "Speech Sounds," 1984; Nebula, Hugo, and Locus Awards for Blood-child, 1985; MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Award recipient, 1995; PEN Center West Lifetime Achievement Award, 1998; Nebula Award, for Parable of the Talents, 1999; Carl Brandon Society, Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship Fund, first awarded 2007.

Kindred met considerable praise upon its publication, and soon became a standard text in high schools throughout the country. "Probably no contemporary African-American novelist has so successfully exer-cised the imagination of her readers with acute representations of familial and historical relations as has Octavia Butler," surmised Ashraf H. A. Rushdy in College English, "and nowhere more so than in … Kindred."

Generated Awards

Coming off the success of Kindred, Doubleday published Wild Seed in 1980, the fourth book in the Patternmaster series. St. Martin's Press took over the series in 1984 and published the fifth book, Clay's Ark. By that time, Butler's work had begun to receive more serious recognition from her peers. She won a Hugo Award from the World Science Fiction Society in 1984, for the short story "Speech Sounds"; her short novel Bloodchild, which explored issues of power surrounding childbirth, won the Nebula, Hugo, and Locus awards the following year. Her novella The Evening and the Morning and the Night was nominated for a 1987 Nebula award as well.

In the late 1980s Butler embarked on a new series of novels, the Xenogenesis Trilogy, which began in 1987 with Dawn: Xenogenesis. The series depicts the plight of human beings who must choose between certain death or hybridization with a race of rational, compassionate space-faring creatures. Both the characters and the reader are forced to question what it means to be human, and to what lengths human beings might go to preserve their species.

As Eric White wrote in his analysis of the series for Science-Fiction Studies, despite the initial horror induced in the human survivors by the alien beings—known as Oankali—who want to mate with them, "the loss of human specificity entailed in hybridization with the irreducibly other is, in the last analysis, depicted affirmatively." The next two books in the Xenogenesis Trilogy, Adulthood Rites and Imago, were published in 1988 and 1989, respectively. "The Xenogenesis books," wrote Sutton in the LA Weekly, "are weighted with the horror and rebellion of what are in effect an enslaved people: change is no cheap date."

Headed in New Direction

As Butler attempted to leave behind the Xenogenesis books and move in a new direction, she experienced what she alternately described to Lisa See of Publishers Weekly, as a "literary metamorphosis" and "literary menopause." Taking a new direction wasn't as easy as she expected: "I knew that I wanted my next book to be about a woman who starts a religion, but everything I wrote seemed like garbage…. I also had this deep-seated feeling that wanting power, seeking power, was evil." She finally resorted to expressing her ideas in poetry, which became the expressive medium of her next novel's protagonist. "I'm the kind of person who looks for a complex way to say something," she told See. "Poetry simplifies it." This simplification helped her to conceive Parable of the Sower.

In Parable of the Sower, half-black, half-Latina protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina escapes the walled city of the middle class to venture into the unknown "outside," where she ends up leading an attempt to build a new human community. Sprinkled throughout the text are quotations from Lauren's poems, called "Earthseed: The Books of the Living." L.A. Weekly's Terri Sutton called the novel "the plainer sister to Butler's elaborate, luminous Xenogenesis series," a tale in which change becomes, simply, God. As Butler herself put it to See, "One of the first poems I wrote sounded like a nursery rhyme. It begins: 'God is power,' and goes on to: 'God is malleable.' This concept gave me what I needed."

Shortly after publishing Parable of the Sower Butler received perhaps one of the most lucrative honors of her career when she was named a recipient of a Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Award. The award, given to the brightest and most promising African Americans in their field, allows the recipient to pursue new and groundbreaking activities without worry of financial backing. When Butler received the fellowship in 1995, she was presented with a prize of $295,000 which would be paid out over five years. When asked what she would do with the money by Jet magazine, Butler said that she would continue to write new and genre breaking science fiction in order to reach a wider variety of readers interested in the genre, especially those readers of the African-American community.

True to her word, Butler continued to write significant science fiction that commented on social issues. In a follow-up to Parable of the Sower, Butler produced the critically acclaimed Parable of the Talents in 1998, which traced the path of Lauren Olamina as she attempted to reconcile her world by starting a community called Acorn. Much like Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents is more a study of the character of human beings instead of an action or sci-fi genre novel. Butler said to Poets & Writers Magazine that she felt the need to continue to write about the future world she had created in Parable of the Sower because "I examined a lot of the problems in Parable of the Sower, and now I'd like to consider some of the solutions. Not propose solutions, you understand—what I want to do is look at some of the solutions that human beings can come up with when they're feeling uncertain and frightened."

In 1995 Butler's early work was compiled for the first time in a book called Bloodchild: And Other Stories. The collected work included her Hugo and Nebula award winning story "Bloodchild," as well as "The Evening of Morning Sounds," "Near of Kin," "Speech Sounds," and "Crossover." Also included were insights from Butler herself, including an afterword to each short story and two essays, "Positive Obsessions" and "Furor Scribendi," which talk about the habit of writing and overcoming personal challenges, including racism and poverty, to achieve a goal. According to Publishers Weekly, this book was one of the first instances where the reading public was able to "clarify what excites and motivates this exceptionally talented writer."

However, Butler was always very open about what types of themes and issues she dealt with in her writing. "I don't write utopian science fiction because I don't believe that imperfect humans can form a perfect society," Butler confessed in Black Scholar. "Nobody is perfect," she insisted to Vibe. "One of the things I've discovered even with teachers using my books is that people tend to look for 'good guys' and 'bad guys,' which always annoys the hell out of me. I'd be bored to death writing that way. But because that's the only pattern they have, they try to fit my work into it."

Most importantly, she tried, in her later writings, including the Parable tales, to explore issues of nation building and community building without some of the fantastic ingredients she and other science fiction writers had relied upon in the past. She asserted 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." Sutton seconded this in LA Weekly: "In Butler's bible, the meek don't inherit the earth: they refuse both the earth and the idea of meekness."

Her Last Seven Years

Though much of Butler's work confronts the sort of bedrock difficulties of co-existence that many of her fellow science fiction authors avoided, Butler repeatedly emphasized that she found the genre intensely liberating. When asked by Black Scholar what drew her to the form, she replied "The freedom of it; it's potentially the freest genre in existence." But that openness caused difficulty for Butler starting in the late 1990s; she couldn't settle on a topic that inspired her enough to finish a novel. What would become her last book came to fruition after Butler spent seven years starting and stopping various other novels, none able to hold her interest.

For this last book, Butler chose not to write what she called her "save the world" novels, but instead approached the new novel as a "chance to play," as she told Essence contributor Evette Porter in 2005. As New York Times book reviewer Gerald Jonas observed, however, Butler's idea of play did not mean that her story was light. Jonas said Butler "never asks easy questions or settles for easy answers." Fledgling, a story about a middle-aged woman who discovers she's a vampire, however, caught Butler up in an exploration of the meaning of human identity and an examination of societal constraints placed on those deemed "different." Critics pronounced Fledgling a "new beginning" for Butler. Washington Post reviewer Ron Charles wrote that in Fledgling Butler "doesn't just resurrect the pale trappings of vampire lore," instead she "completely transforms them in a startlingly original story about race, family and free will." Bernadette Adams Davis writing for Black Issues Book Review called Fledgling a "literary gem." The Seattle Times writer Nisi Shawl found Fledgling's "only flaw" to be "that it ends."

Though critics had started a buzz that Fledgling could be the start of a new series for Butler, all hope was cut short on February 24, 2006, when Butler died suddenly after a fall at her Seattle home. Her death shocked and saddened her community and fans. Her pioneering steps to use science fiction to explore the human condition, especially with regard to race and gender issues, will be her legacy. Leslie Howle of the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame eulogized Butler, saying, according to the Seattle Times: "She stands alone for what she did. She was such a beacon." To keep her legacy alive, the Carl Brandon Society set up an Octavia E. Butler Scholarship Fund to help others follow in her footsteps.

Selected writings

Patternmaster, Doubleday, 1976.
Mind of My Mind, Doubleday, 1977.
Survivor, Doubleday, 1978.
Kindred, Doubleday, 1979.
Wild Seed, Doubleday, 1980.
Clay's Ark, St. Martin's, 1984.
Dawn: Xenogenesis, Warner Books, 1987.
Adulthood Rites, Warner Books, 1988.
Imago, Warner Books, 1989.
Lilith's Brood, SFBC, 1989.
Parable of the Sower, Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993.
Bloodchild: And Other Stories, Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995.
Parable of the Talents, Seven Stories Press, 1998.
Fledgling, Seven Stories Press, 2005.

Sources

Books

Black Writers, Gale, 1993.

The Complete Marquis Who's Who, Marquis Who's Who, 2003.

Periodicals

Black Issues Book Review, November/December 2005, p. 71.

Black Scholar, March/April 1986, pp. 14-18.

College English, February 1993, pp. 135-57.

Emerge, June 1994, pp. 65-6.

Essence, October 2005, p. 96.

Jet, July 3, 1995, pp. 34-5.

Library Journal, November 1, 1998, p. 123.

L.A. Weekly, March 4, 1994, pp. 37-8.

New York Times Book Review, December 29, 1996, p. 7.16.

Publishers Weekly, December 13, 1993, pp. 50-1; August 21, 1995, pp. 50-1; October 19, 1998, p. 60.

Science-Fiction Studies, 20 (1993), pp. 394-408.

Seattle Times, October 14. 2005, February 26, 2006.

Vibe, February 1994.

Washington Post, October 30, 2005, p. BW9.

On-line

"Acclaimed Science Fiction Author Octavia Butler Dies After Falling at Home," Black America Web, www.blackamericaweb.com/site.aspx/bawnews/butler228 (September 6, 2006).

"Octavia E(stelle) Butler," Contemporary Authors Online, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, www.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (September 24, 2003).

"Octavia E. Butler," Science Fiction Writers' Association, www.sfwa.org/members/butler (September 6, 2006).

"Octavia E. Butler," Time Warner Books, www.twbookmark.com/authors/85/184 (September 6, 2006).

"Science Fiction Author Octavia Butler Dies," National Public Radio, www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5235453 (September 6, 2006).

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Octavia E. Butler

Octavia E. Butler

Octavia Butler (born 1947) is best known as the author of the Patternist series of science fiction novels in which she explores topics traditionally given only cursory treatment in the genre, including sexual identity and racial conflict. Butler's heroines are black women who are both mentally and physically powerful.

Butler grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood in Pasadena, California. Her father died while she was very young, and her mother worked as a maid to support the two of them. Butler has written memoirs of her mother's sacrifices: buying her a typewriter of her own when she was ten years old, and to paying a large fee to an unscrupulous agent so Butler's stories could be read. Butler entered student contests as a teenager, and after attending workshops like the Writers Guild of America, West "open door" program during the late 1960s and the Clarion Science Fiction Writer's Workshop in 1970, Butler sold her first science fiction stories. This early training brought her into contact with a range of well-known science fiction writers, including Joanna Russ and Harlan Ellison, who became Butler's mentor.

Four of Butler's six novels revolve around the Patternists, a group of mentally superior beings who are telepathically connected to one another. These beings are the descendants of Doro, a four thousand-year-old Nubian male who has selectively bred with humans throughout time with the intention of establishing a race of superhumans. He prolongs his life by killing others, including his family members, and inhabiting their bodies. The origin of the Patternists is outlined in Wild Seed, which begins in seventeenth-century Africa and spans more than two centuries. The Novel recounts Doro's uneasy alliance with Anyanwu, an earth-mother figure whose extraordinary powers he covets. Their relationship progresses from power struggles and tests of will to mutual need and dependency. Doro's tyranny ends when one of his children, the heroine of Mind of My Mind, destroys him and united the Patternists with care and compassion. Patternmaster and Survivor are also part of the Patternist series. The first book set in the future, concerns two brothers vying for their dying father's legacy. However, the pivotal character in the novel is Amber, one of Butler's most heroic women, whose unconventional relationship with one of her brothers is often interpreted in feminist contexts. In Survivor, set on an alien planet, Butler examines human attitudes toward racial and ethnic differences and their effects on two alien creatures. Alanna, the human protagonist, triumphs over racial prejudice and enslavement by teaching her alien captors tolerance and respect for individuality. Kindred departs from the Patternist series yet shares its focus on male/female relationships and racial matters. The protagonist, Dana, is a contemporary writer who is telepathically transported to a pre-Civil War plantation. She is a victim both of the slave-owning ancestor who summons her when he is in danger and of the slave-holding age in which she is trapped for increasing periods. Clay's Ark (1984) reflects Butler's interest in the psychological traits of men and women in a story of a space virus that threatens the earth's population with disease and genetic mutation. In an interview, Butler commented on how Ronald Reagan's vision of a winnable nuclear war encouraged her to write more dystopic material. This shift in focus is most evident in Parable of the Sower (1994), a novel which depicts a religious sea-change, set against the backdrop of a strife-ridden inner city in 2025.

Critics have often applauded Butler's lack of sentimentality, and have responded favorably on her direct treatment of subjects not previously addressed in science fiction, such as sexuality, male/female relationships, racial inequity, and contemporary politics. Frances Smith Foster has commented: "Octavia Butler is not just another woman science fiction writer. Her major characters are black women, and through her characters and through the structure of her imagined social order, Butler consciously explores the impact of race and sex upon future society."

Further Reading

Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 38, Gale, 1986.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, Gale, 1984.

Analog: Science Fiction/Science Fact, January 5, 1981; November, 1984; December 15, 1987; December, 1988.

Black American Literature Forum, summer, 1984.

Black Scholar, March/April, 1986.

Equal Opportunity Forum Magazine, Number 8, 1980.

Essence, April, 1979; May, 1989, pp. 74, 79, 132, 134.

Extrapolation, spring, 1982.

Fantasy Review, July, 1984.

Janus, winter, 1978-79.

Los Angeles Times, January 30, 1981.

Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February, 1980; August, 1984.

Ms., March, 1986; June, 1987.

Salaga, 1981.

Science Fiction Review, May, 1984.

Thrust: Science Fiction in Review, summer, 1979.

Washington Post Book World, September 28, 1980; June 28, 1987; July 31, 1988; June 25, 1989. □

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