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Octavia Estelle Butler

Butler signing a copy of Fledgling
Born June 22, 1947(1947-06-22)
Pasadena, California
Died February 24, 2006 (aged 58)
Lake Forest Park, Washington
Occupation Novelist
Nationality United States
Writing period 1970s–2000s
Genres Science fiction
Official website

Octavia Estelle Butler (June 22, 1947 – February 24, 2006) was an American science fiction writer, one of the best-known among the few African-American women in the field. She won both Hugo and Nebula awards. In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant.[1]



Butler was born and raised in Pasadena, California. Since her father Laurice, a shoeshiner, died when she was a baby, Butler was raised by her grandmother and her mother (Octavia M. Butler) who worked as a maid in order to support the family. Butler grew up in a struggling, racially mixed neighborhood.[2] According to the Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Butler was "an introspective, only child in a strict Baptist household" and "was drawn early to magazines such as Amazing, Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Galaxy and soon began reading all the science fiction classics."[3]

Octavia Jr., nicknamed Junie, was paralytically shy and a daydreamer, and was later diagnosed as being dyslexic. She began writing at the age of 10 "to escape loneliness and boredom"; she was 12 when she began a lifelong interest in science fiction.[4] "I was writing my own little stories and when I was 12, I was watching a bad science fiction movie called Devil Girl from Mars," she told the journal Black Scholar, "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."[5]

After getting an associate degree from Pasadena City College in 1968 [1], she next enrolled at California State University, Los Angeles. She eventually left CalState and took writing classes through UCLA extension.

Butler would later credit two writing workshops for giving her "the most valuable help I received with my writing" [2]:

Butler moved to Seattle, Washington, in November 1999.

She described herself as "comfortably asocial—a hermit in the middle of Seattle—a pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive."[7] Themes of both racial and sexual ambiguity are apparent throughout her work.

She died outside of her home in Lake Forest Park, Washington, on February 24, 2006, at the age of 58.[8] Some news accounts have stated that she died of head injuries after falling and striking her head on her walkway, while others report that she apparently suffered a stroke as a result of those injuries. Another suggestion, backed by Locus magazine (issue 543; Vol.56 No.4), is that a stroke caused the fall and hence the head injuries.


Her first published story, "Crossover," appeared in Clarion's 1971 anthology; another short story, "Childfinder," was bought by Harlan Ellison for the never-published collection The Last Dangerous Visions. (Like other stories purchased for that volume, it has yet to appear anywhere.) "I thought I was on my way as a writer..." Butler wrote in her short fiction collection Bloodchild and Other Stories. "In fact, I had five more years of rejection slips and horrible little jobs ahead of me before I sold another word."[9]


Patternist series

In 1974, she started the novel Patternmaster (reportedly related to the story she started after watching Devil Girl from Mars), which became her first published book in 1976 (though it would become the fifth in the Patternist series). Over the next eight years, she would publish four more novels in the same story line, though the publication dates of the novels do not match the internal order of the series (see Works below).

Wild Seed, the first book in the Patternist series, was published in 1980. In Wild Seed, Butler contrasts how two potentially immortal characters go about building families. The male character, Doro, engages in a breeding program to create people with stronger psychic powers both as food, and as potential companions. The female character, Anyanwu, creates villages. Yet Doro and Anyanwu, in spite of their differences grow to need each other, as the only immortal/extremely long-lived beings in the world. This book also explores the psychodynamics of power and enslavement.


In 1979, she published Kindred, a novel that uses the science-fiction staple of time travel to explore slavery in the United States. In this story, Dana, an African American woman, is inexplicably transported from 1976 Los Angeles to early nineteenth century Maryland. She meets her ancestors: Rufus, a white slave holder, and Alice, an African American woman who was born free but forced into slavery later in life.

This novel is often shelved in the literature or African-American literature sections of bookstores instead of science fiction—Butler herself categorized the novel not as science fiction but rather as a "grim fantasy," as there was "absolutely no science in it"[10] (no scientific explanation of the book's time travel is ever given[11]). Kindred became the most popular of all her books, with 250,000 copies currently in print. "I think people really need to think what it's like to have all of society arrayed against you," she said of the novel.[12]

Lilith's Brood

Lilith's Brood (formerly Xenogenesis trilogy) refers to a collection of three novels. The central characters are Lilith and her genetically altered children. Lilith, along with the few other surviving humans, are saved by extraterrestrials, the Oankali, after a "handful of people [a military group] tried to commit humanicide," leading to a missile war that destroyed much of Earth. The Oankali have a third gender, the ooloi, who have the ability to manipulate genetics, plus the ability of sexually seductive neural-stimulating and consciousness-sharing powers. All of these abilities allow them to unify the other two genders in their species, as well as unifying their species with others that they encounter. The Oankali are biological traders, driven to share genes with other intelligent species, changing both parties.

The Parable series

In 1994, her dystopian novel Parable of the Sower was nominated for a Nebula for best novel, an award she received in 1999 for a sequel, Parable of the Talents. The two novels provide the origin of the fictional religion Earthseed.

Butler had originally planned to write a third Parable novel, tentatively titled Parable of the Trickster, mentioning her work on it in a number of interviews.


She eventually shifted her creative attention, resulting in the 2005 novel, Fledgling, a vampire novel with a science-fiction context. Although Butler herself passed Fledgling off as a lark, the novel is connected to her other works through its exploration of race, sexuality, and what it means to be a member of a community. Moreover, the novel continues the theme, raised explicitly in Parable of the Sower, that diversity is a biological imperative.

Short stories

Butler published one collection of her shorter writings, Bloodchild and Other Stories, in 1996. She states in the preface that she "hate[s] short-story writing" and that she is "essentially a novelist. The ideas that most interest me tend to be big."[13] The collection includes five short stories spanning Butler's career, the first finished in 1971 and the last in 1993. "Bloodchild," the Hugo and Nebula award-winning title story, concerns humans who live on a reservation on an alien planet ruled by insect-like creatures. The aliens breed by implanting eggs in the humans, with whom they share a symbiotic existence. In Butler's afterword to the story, she writes that it is not about slavery as some have suggested, but rather about love and coming-of-age—as well as male pregnancy and the "unusual accommodation[s]" that a group of interstellar colonists might have to make with their adopted planet's prior inhabitants.[14] She also states that writing it was her way of overcoming a fear of bot flies.[14]

In 2005, Seven Stories Press released an expanded edition.


Butler is well known for her Patternist series, Lilith's Brood (formerly the Xenogenesis trilogy), and the Parable of the Sower Series. The first book which she wrote for the Patternist series, Patternmaster (1976), is actually the last in the internal chronology of the series. In fact, most of the Patternmaster novels were written and published out of sequence. The four novels in Butler's "Patternist series" other than Survivor were released in 2006 as the single volume Seed to Harvest.

Themes of Social Criticism

Butler used the hyperbolic reach of speculative fiction to explore modern and ancient social issues. She often represented concepts like race, sexuality, gender, religion, social progress and social class in metaphoric language. However, these issues were not relegated only to metaphor. For instance, class struggle is an overt topic in the Parable of the Sower series.




Scholarship fund

The Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship was established in Butler's memory in 2006 by the Carl Brandon Society. Its goal is to provide an annual scholarship to enable writers of color to attend one of the Clarion writing workshops where Butler got her start. The first scholarships were awarded in 2007.[17]



Standalone novels

Short stories


See also

Literature portal


  1. ^ Crossley, Robert (2003). "Critical Essay". Kindred: 25th Anniversary Edition. Boston: Beacon Press. pp. 273.  
  2. ^ AA profile on Octavia Butler.
  3. ^ Norton Anthology of African American Literature, p.2515.
  4. ^ Voices.
  5. ^ Essay.
  6. ^ Washington Post obituary, 2006/2/27
  7. ^ TW Bookmark.
  8. ^ New York Times obituary, March 1, 2006
  9. ^ Butler, Octavia E. (2005), Bloodchild and Other Stories (second ed.), Seven Stories Press, pp. 120  
  10. ^ Crossley, Robert (2003). "Critical Essay". Kindred: 25th Anniversary Edition. Boston: Beacon Press. pp. 269.  
  11. ^ Crossley, Robert (2003). "Critical Essay". Kindred: 25th Anniversary Edition. Boston: Beacon Press. pp. 267–268.  
  12. ^ Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
  13. ^ Butler, Octavia E. (2005), Bloodchild and Other Stories (second ed.), Seven Stories Press, pp. vii-viii  
  14. ^ a b Butler, Octavia E. (2005), Bloodchild and Other Stories (second ed.), Seven Stories Press, pp. 30–32  
  15. ^ 1985 Locus Awards
  16. ^ Science Fiction Chronicle Reader Awards Winners By Year
  17. ^ Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship

Further reading


  • Gates, Henry Louis Jr (ed.). "Octavia Butler." In The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, 2nd Edition. New York: W.W. Norton and Co, 2004: 2515.
  • Geyh, Paula, Fred G. Leebron and Andrew Levy. "Octavia Butler." In Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998: 554-555.


  • Baccolini, Raffaella. "Gender and Genre in the Feminist Critical Dystopias of Katharine Burdekin, Margaret Atwood, and Octavia Butler." in Future Females, the Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism, Marleen S. Barr (ed.). New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000: 13-34.
  • Haraway, Donna. "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," and "The Biopolitics of Postmodern Bodies: Constitutions of Self in Immune System Discourse," in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991: 149-181, 203-230.
  • Holden, Rebecca J., "The High Costs of Cyborg Survival: Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis Trilogy," in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction 72 (1998): 49–56.
  • Lennard, John. Octavia Butler: Xenogenesis / Lilith's Brood. Tirril: Humanities-Ebooks, 2007. ISBN 978-1-84760-036-3
  • -- "Of Organelles: The Strange Determination of Octavia Butler." In Of Modern Dragons and other essays on Genre Fiction. Tirril: Humanities-Ebooks, 2007: 163-90. ISBN 978-1-84760-038-7
  • Levecq, Christine, "Power and Repetition: Philosophies of (Literary) History in Octavia E. Butler's Kindred," in Contemporary Literature 41.1 (2000 Spring): 525–53.
  • Luckhurst, Roger, "'Horror and Beauty in Rare Combination': The Miscegenate Fictions of Octavia Butler," in Women: A Cultural Review 7.1 (1996): 28–38.
  • Melzer, Patricia, Alien Constructions: Science Fiction and Feminist Thought. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-292-71307-9
  • Omry, Keren, "A Cyborg Performance: Gender and Genre in Octavia Butler," in Phoebe:Journal of Gender and Cultural Critiques. 17.2 (2005 Fall): 45-60.
  • Ramirez, Catherine S. "Cyborg Feminism: The Science Fiction of Octavia Butler and Gloria Anzaldua." In Reload: Rethinking Women and Cyberculture, Mary Flanagan and Austin Booth (eds.). Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002: 374-402.
  • Ryan, Tim A. "You Shall See How a Slave Was Made a Woman: The Development of the Contemporary Novel of Slavery, 1976-1987," in Calls and Responses: The American Novel of Slavery since Gone with the Wind. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 2008: 114-48.
  • Schwab, Gabriele. "Ethnographies of the Future: Personhood, Agency and Power in Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis." In Accelerating Possession, William Maurer and Gabriele Schwab (eds.). New York: Columbia UP, 2006: 204-228.
  • Scott, Johnathan. "Octavia Butler and the Base for American Socialism" In Socialism and Democracy 20.3 November 2006, 105-126
  • Slonczewski, Joan, "Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy: A Biologist’s Response" [3]

External links

Biographies and works



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Octavia E. Butler (June 22, 1947February 24, 2006) was an American science fiction writer, one of the very few African-American women in the field.


  • Choose your leaders
    with wisdom and forethought.
    To be led by a coward
    is to be controlled
    by all that the coward fears.
    To be led by a fool
    is to be led by the opportunists
    who control the fool.
    To be led by a thief
    is to offer up
    your most precious treasures
    to be stolen.
    To be led by a liar
    is to ask
    to be lied to.
    To be led by a tyrant
    is to sell yourself
    and those you love
    into slavery.
    • Parable of the Talents p.183 (Nebula Award for best novel in 2000). From EARTHSEED: THE BOOKS OF THE LIVING: ELEVEN (the religion started by the novel's protagonist Lauren Olamina).
  • Beware:
    All too often,
    We say
    What we hear others say.
    We think
    What we are told that we think.
    We see
    What we are permitted to see.
    We see what we are told that we see.
    Repetition and pride are the keys to this.
    To hear and to see
    Even an obvious lie
    And again and again
    May be to say it,
    Almost by reflex
    Then to defend it
    Because we have said it
    And at last to embrace it
    Because we've defended it.
    • Parable of the Talents p.307 (Nebula Award for best novel in 2000). From EARTHSEED: THE BOOKS OF THE LIVING: EIGHTEEN (the religion started by the novel's protagonist Lauren Olamina).


  • "It’s when people begin using their religion as just a way of getting power over other people that scares me. I’m afraid that’s what’s going on in a lot of cases right now. When people deliberately tell lies, Creationism for instance, and pretend, “Oh, it’s not really religion”. I mean they know they’re lying, and yet they’re the religious people. There’s something wrong there."
  • "Writing is one of the few professions in which you can psychoanalyse yourself, get rid of hostilities and frustrations in public, and get paid for it"
  • "Sometimes being a friend means mastering the art of timing. There is a time for silence. A time to let go and allow people to hurl themselves into their own destiny. And a time to prepare to pick up the pieces when it's all over."
  • "I have this theory that anything that happens to you that leaves you alive and intact can be used somewhere in your writing."

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