Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler: the Grand Dame of Science Fiction

In honor of Black History Month I’d like to introduce one of my favorite authors, Octavia Butler, to those who don’t know her.

Octavia Estelle Butler, often referred to as the “grand dame of science fiction,” was born in Pasadena, California on June 22, 1947.  After receiving her degrees at Pasadena Community College and California State and the University of Los Angeles, she studied at the Screenwriter’s Guild Open Door Program and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop, where she took a class with science fiction master Harlan Ellison (who later became her mentor), and which led to Butler selling her first science fiction stories.

“I had no idea how to get along with other children. And also, I was a strange kid who learned to stay by herself and make things up.”

Butler’s first story, Crossover, was published in the 1971 Clarion anthology. Patternmaster, her first novel and the first title of her five-volume Patternist series, was published in 1976, followed by Mind of My Mind in 1977.  Others in the series include Survivor (1978), Wild Seed (1980), which won the James Tiptree Award, and Clay’s Ark (1984).

“I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.”

By writing black female protagonists into science fiction, and bringing her acute appraisal of real-world power structures to bear on the imaginary worlds she created, Butler became an early pillar of the subgenre and aesthetic known as Afrofuturism.

Kindred, one of the books most famously associated with Butler, was published in 1979. Kindred is the story of Dana, a contemporary black writer hurtled backward in time to antebellum Maryland. A spirited feminist, Dana must learn to conform herself to the times so she can survive; she needs to find her slave-holding ancestor to ensure her own existence more than 150 years in the future.

Butler researched the book arduously and the lifelike details made Kindred a classic. It’s taught in high schools and colleges annually. Butler often said she was inspired to write it when she heard young black people minimize the severity of slavery, and strongly assert what they would or would not have tolerated if they were enslaved. She wanted them to not only know the facts of slavery, but how slavery felt. She wanted to make those militant young people see that even surviving such an institution made their ancestors heroic.

She won the Hugo Award in 1984 for her short story, Speech Sounds, and in 1985, Butler’s novelette Bloodchild won a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, the Locus Award, and an award for best novelette from Science Fiction Chronicle.

Butler used to say she remembers exactly when she decided to become a science fiction writer. She was 9 years old and saw a 1954 B-movie called Devil Girl from Mars, and two things struck her. First: “Geez, I can write a better story than that!” And second: “Somebody got paid for writing that story!” If they could, she decided, then she could, too.

Octavia Butler with books

Eventually she did exactly that. Butler became one of the world’s premier science fiction writers, the first black female science fiction writer to reach national prominence, and the only writer in her genre to receive a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.

Other books by Butler include the Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989). Lilith’s Brood is a collection of these three volumes published in 2000 when Xenogenesis went out of print. Parable of the Sower, the first of her Earthseed series, was a finalist for the Nebula Award as well as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.  And in 2005, Butler published Fledgling, the story of an apparently young, amnesiac girl whose alarmingly un-human needs and abilities lead her to a startling conclusion: she is in fact a genetically modified, 53-year-old vampire.

Prophetic Writing

One political character rallies his crowds with the call to “make America great again”

In the second book of her Earthseed series, The Parable of the Talents (1998), which won a Nebula Award, Butler gave us Senator Andrew Steele Jarret, a violent autocrat in the year 2032 whose “supporters have been known… to form mobs.” Jarret’s political opponent, Vice President Edward Jay Smith, “calls him a demagogue, a rabble-rouser, and a hypocrite,” and—most presciently—Jarret rallies his crowds with the call to “make America great again.” Though Donald Trump has trademarked the slogan, it didn’t originate with him, nor even with Butler’s Jarret character, but with the 1980 Reagan-Bush campaign.

Butler passed away on February 24, 2006 at the age of 58. Some news accounts have stated that she died of head injuries after falling and striking her head, while others report that she apparently suffered a stroke,

Access Her Works

Butler maintained a longstanding relationship with the Huntington Library and bequeathed her papers and photographs to the library in her will. The collection has resided at The Huntington since 2008, and since being made available to scholars for research, it has become one of the most heavily used archives at the institution. The collection includes extensive drafts, notes, and research materials for more than a dozen novels, numerous short stories, and essays, as well as correspondence, ephemera, and assorted books.

Giving Back

The Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship enables writers of color to attend one of the Clarion writing workshops, where Octavia got her start. It furthers Octavia’s legacy by providing the same experience and opportunity that Octavia had to future generations of new writers of color. In addition to her stint as a student at the original Clarion Writers Workshop in Pennsylvania in 1970, Octavia taught several times for Clarion West in Seattle, Washington, and Clarion in East Lansing, Michigan, giving generously of her time to a cause she believed in.

The first Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarships were awarded in the summer of 2007, and they have been awarded annually each subsequent year.


Aguirre. Abby. Octavia Butler’s Prescient Vision of a Zealot Elected to “Make America Great Again.” The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/books/second-read/octavia-butlers-prescient-vision-of-a-zealot-elected-to-make-america-great-again

Bates, Karen Grisby. Octavia Butler: Writing Herself Into The Story. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2017/07/10/535879364/octavia-butler-writing-herself-into-the-story

Huntington Library at http://www.huntington.org/octaviabutler/

Octavia Butler site at http://octaviabutler.org/bio/

Octavia Butler’s 1998 Dystopian Novel Features a Fascistic Presidential Candidate Who Promises to “Make America Great Again.” Open Culture. http://www.openculture.com/2016/07/octavia-butlers-1998-dystopian-novel-features-a-fascistic-presidential-candidate-who-promises-to-make-america-great-again.html


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