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Butler, Octavia

Butler, Octavia

June 22, 1947

Octavia Estelle Butler, a novelist and short-story writer, is one of a select number of African Americans whose writing deliberately discards the realistic tradition to embrace a specialized genrenamely, science fiction. The only surviving child of Laurice and Octavia M. Guy Butler, she was raised in a racially and culturally diverse neighborhood of Pasadena, California. She attended a two-year program at Pasadena City College and took subsequent course work at both California State College and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Dyslexic, extremely shy, and therefore solitary, Butler began writing as a child, convinced she could write better science-fiction stories than those she saw on television.

Respected by the science-fiction community of writers, critics, and fans as an important author ever since her first books earned excellent reviews, Butler has produced many novels and several highly regarded short stories. Her first published novel (although plotwise the last in its series), Patternmaster (1976), is one of the five books in her past-and-future-history Patternist saga, a series of interrelated stories using genetic breeding and the development of "psionic" powers as a unifying motif. The saga reaches from precolonial Africa to a post-holocaust Earth of the distant future. In the proper reading order, the books in the tale are Wild Seed (1980), Mind of My Mind (1977), Clay's Ark (1984), and Survivor (1978).

In each of these novels, as in Kindred (1979)her only novel outside a seriesButler conspicuously introduces issues of race and gender to science fiction. Her female protagonists are African, African-American, or mixed-race women operating principally in nontraditional modes. This depiction of women as powerful, self-sustaining, and capableable either to adapt or to nurture and heal, and equally equipped to fight or to compromisegained Butler the critical approval of two additional audiencesblack readers and scholars, and white feminists.

Butler's Xenogenesis seriesDawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989)which was deemed "satisfying hard science fiction" by Orson Scott Card (1992), continues an examination of women in differing roles as it explores issues of human survival in another grim post-holocaust future where aliens have landed. Here Butler continues to explore her interest in genetics, anthropology, ecology, and sociobiology. Also central are issues of family, alliances or networks, power, control, and hierarchical structures fueling what Butler designates the "human contradiction," the capacity for self-destruction if humanity refuses to change.

Although she is primarily a novelist, Butler's short stories have won two coveted science-fiction awards: "Speech Sounds" (1983) received a Hugo Award, and "Bloodchild" (1984) earned both a Hugo and a Nebula Award. Each first appeared in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. "The Evening and the Morning and the Night" (1987) initially appeared in Omni. "Bloodchild" explores a forced human adaptation to change through the metaphor of male pregnancy, while "Speech Sounds" examines a violent near-future cityscape whose inhabitants contract a sometimes deadly illness that dramatically affects language. "The Evening " recounts the impact of a terrifying genetically based disease and the efforts of those affected to eradicate or control it. Butler's 1999 novel Parable of the Talents won the Nebula Award, and she received the PEN Center West Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000.

See also Delany, Samuel R.; Literature of the United States


Card, Orson Scott. "Books to Look For." Fantasy and Science Fiction (January 1992): 5154.

Foster, Frances Smith. "Octavia Butler's Black Female Future Fiction." Extrapolation 23 (1982): 3749.

Govan, Sandra Y. "Connections, Links, and Extended Networks: Patterns in Octavia Butler's Science Fiction." Black American Literature Forum 18 (1984): 8287.

Gregg, Sandra. "Writing out of the Box." Black Issues Book Review (September 2000): 50.

McCaffery, Larry. "An Interview with Octavia Butler." In Across the Wounded Galaxies, pp. 5470. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

sandra y. govan (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

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