American Literature Octavia Butler
by
Rebecca J. Holden
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0194

Introduction

Octavia E. Butler (b. 1947–d. 2006), one of the first African American science fiction (sf) authors, remains the most prominent African American women science fiction author. She was born to Laurice and Octavia M. Butler in Pasadena, CA. Her father died when she was a toddler and she was raised an only child by her mother and grandmother. Her family called her “Junie” but most of her friends called her Estelle. An avid reader her entire life, Butler wrote her first sf story when she was about twelve years old after she watched sci-fi B-movie “The Devil Girl from Mars” and realized she could write a better story. She earned an associate’s degree from Pasadena City College and took classes at both Cal State and UCLA. At the behest of Harlan Ellison, whom she met at the “Open Door” Workshop, she attended the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop in 1971, after which she sold her first two stories, one of which, “Crossover,” was published in 1971. She published her first novel, Patternmaster, in 1976, and went on to publish a total of twelve novels, seven short stories, and ten Essays. Two additional short stories, both written early in her career, were published posthumously in 2014. Butler also gave numerous Interviews and presentations at sf conventions and conferences. Her writings transformed the science fiction field by showing us futures—usually difficult futures—in which African American women play primary roles and futures in which being black was not exceptional. She brought together multiple genres—slave narrative, fantasy, science fiction, dystopia, historical narrative, and vampire literature—and transformed sf tropes—including alien invasion, first contact, post-apocalypse, cyborgs, genetic manipulations, and others—in her boundary-breaking sf. Butler often commented that her fiction addressed three sometimes overlapping audiences: those interested in feminism, African American literature, and science fiction. Her fiction was nominated for and won the top science fiction awards, including two Hugos, two Nebulas, two Science Fiction Chronicle awards, and a Locus award. Butler was the first sf author to receive a MacArthur “genius” grant (1995) and also won a Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing from the PEN American Center (2000). Butler’s fiction and life has had a significant influence on the sf genre and field. Teaching at Clarion West, participating in panel discussions, and offering advice and mentorship, Butler inspired many from the recent generation of sf writers of color and has been claimed by the Afrofuturism movement. Her untimely death rocked the sf world, depriving society of a necessary critical and intuitive voice.

Primary Texts

In addition to two Stand-alone Novels, Kindred (1979) and Fledgling (2005), Butler wrote ten novels in three different series: five novels in the Patternist Series three novels in the Xenogenesis Series, and two novels in the Parable Series. Most of Butler’s novels and short stories, with the exception of her third novel from the Patternist series, Survivor, have been republished multiple times. The Xenogenesis novels were published twice in omnibus editions and four of the Patternist books were published in the omnibus Seed to Harvest. Butler also published seven short stories before her death in 2006, all of which are collected in the second edition of Bloodchild and Other Stories. Two other short stories were published posthumously in 2014. Some of Butler’s fiction has been adapted by other artists, including a graphic novel adaption of Kindred as well as a musical based on Parable of the Sower (see Adaptations). In addition to her fiction, Butler wrote a number of Essays that were published in magazines, online, or adapted from her talks. The citations below include the most recent reprint of each work, but are listed in order of the original publication date.

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