Born on 22 June 1947 Octavia Estelle Butler is the first self-identified black female author of science fiction in the United States. She published her first short story, “Crossover,” in 1971 and went on to publish twelve novels and nine short stories over the course of her thirty-five-year career. She won several of the top awards for fiction writing in science fiction, including a James Tiptree Jr. award for Clay’s Ark (1984), a Nebula for “Bloodchild” and Parable of the Talents and a Hugo for “Speech Sounds” (1984) and “Bloodchild” (1985). She also won the Locus award for “Bloodchild.” In 1995, Butler was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, also known as the MacArthur Genius Award, for her groundbreaking work in science fiction. In October 2000, Butler received the PEN Lifetime Achievement Award for writing. In 2005, she was awarded the Langston Hughes Medal that recognizes influential and engaging African American writers, and, in 2010, she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. The Carl Brandon Society, a community of scholars and writers devoted to the study and advancement of black science fiction, established a scholarship in her honor. Painfully shy as a youth and notoriously private as an adult, Butler’s self-penned biographical sketch—that she is “a pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist, a Black, a quiet egoist, a former Baptist”—remained remarkably consistent throughout her career as her acclaim grew. She began writing as a young girl, and attended college at Pasadena City College, where she earned her Associate’s degree. She also took courses at California State University at Los Angeles and a few night courses at UCLA, where she was taught by Harlan Ellison. Ellison ultimately encouraged her to attend the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop, where she was the student of renowned black science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany. She would later become a teacher at Clarion. Butler died in 2006 at the age of 58 after slipping outside her Lake Forest Park, Washington, home and suffering a traumatic head injury. Her sudden death prompted an outpouring of commemorative works, essays, conferences, and organizations to acknowledge and preserve her legacy as the first black woman science fiction writer who so powerfully set about challenging our notions of difference, hierarchy, power, and the complexities of being human.
Although Butler began writing and publishing science fiction in 1971, scholarly attention to her work did not begin to gain traction until the early 1980s. To introduce readers to her full body of work, the articles in this section provide both a biographical overview of Octavia Butler as well as articles that provide comprehensive coverage of her novels. Although Barr 2008 claims a number of firsts in bringing greater critical scholarly attention to Butler’s work, Foster 1982 is the first scholarly article on Butler to point out the significance of her racial and gendered interventions into science fiction discourse, providing an analytical overview of her published works to date. Similarly, Kilgore and Ranu 2010 introduces a special issue of Science Fiction Studies on Butler’s work with a comprehensive overview of all of her major works. Keating 1999 provides both biographical and bibliographical information on Butler and her works. Mickle 2001 demonstrates the centrality of slavery in Butler’s works, while Smith 2007 situates her oeuvre within the feminist science fiction tradition.
Barr, Marleen. Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New-Wave Trajectory. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2008.
The first scholarly essay and short fiction anthology to focus on black women and science fiction. It maps the history of some of the first literary critical examinations of Butler’s work and further establishes her status as a literary foremother of black women’s science and speculative fictions.
Foster, Frances Smith. “Octavia Butler’s Black Female Future Fiction.” Extrapolation 23.1 (1982): 37–50.
Elucidates how the significance of Butler’s racial and gendered interventions into science fiction had been largely neglected at the time of Foster’s writing, and asserts the many ways Butler engages precisely the broad range of human experience, social relations, and cultural politics that critics claimed were missing in the genre.
Keating, AnaLouise. “Octavia E. Butler (1947–).” In Contemporary African American Novelists: A Bio-bibliographical Critical Sourcebook. Edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, 69–75. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999.
With detailed synopses of Butler’s work up to the time of the text’s publication, the author describes the key concepts of Butler’s work centered on hybridity and miscegenation, the seductiveness of power, and the strategies and politics of human survival. It concludes with a brief overview of contemporaneous critical reception.
Kilgore, De Witt Douglas, and Samantrai Ranu. “A Memorial to Octavia E. Butler.” Science Fiction Studies 37.3 (2010): 353–361.
Introduces the special issue of Science Fiction Studies devoted to analyzing Butler’s literary legacy after her untimely death. A thorough overview of Butler’s major themes, tropes, and contributions to science fiction and the literary world, generally, and her impact on complex issues of race, gender, sex, species, and power. Available online by purchase or subscription.
Mickle, Mildred R. “Butler, Octavia E.” In The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Edited by William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris, 60–61. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Offers an analysis of the centrality of the concept of slavery and its various iterations in the works of Butler up through Parable of the Talents.
Smith, Stephanie. “Octavia Butler: A Retrospective.” Feminist Studies 33.2 (Summer 2007): 385–394.
An overview of the themes and concerns central to Butler’s novels, situating her within the early tradition of feminist science fiction. Highlights the ways in which Butler’s novels focus on social problems of racism, sexism, oppression, and power.
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