This week, I am excited to reflect on the icon and mastermind that was Octavia E. Butler. I can’t quite remember how I discovered Butler’s work, but one thing I’m certain of is that I wasn’t interested in science fiction until I saw the literary worlds she created. Butler was born on June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, California. Raised by a widowed mother, Butler attended Pasadena City College and spent time studying at the Clarion Fiction Writers Workshop.
The first book I read by Butler was her 1979 Kindred. Until Kindred, I’d genuinely never seen science fiction explored in such a way through Black characters. Kindred is a powerful novel, set in the 1970s, about a young Black woman named Dona living in California as a newlywed and aspiring author. Dona finds herself being repeatedly and uncontrollably transported to an enslaved South. What’s most interesting of all about Kindred is that the plantation Dona finds herself on is owned by her white ancestors. Yes, you read that correctly. Here, I saw Black history and science fiction meet in a really profound way.
After beginning this novel last summer, I was excited to see Butler’s name on the reading list of a literature class for the fall semester. Here, I discovered Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a science fiction novel written in 1993, set in a 2020s Pasadena, California. This post-apocalyptic novel is notable because of the way it tackles common themes of Butler’s writings like climate change, intersectionality, and poverty. You recognize the title, Parable of the Sower, from Matthew 13 in the Bible. Butler followed Parable of the Sower with Parable of the Talents in 1998.
Ironically, just at the moment we were about to begin Parable of the Sower as a class, I noticed the novel was sitting at the top of the New York Times Bestseller list—an entire fourteen years after Butler’s 2006 death, and more than twenty years after its initial release. At minimum, I think this speaks to Butler’s gift of crafting science fiction with highly probable implications for the future. Just give the novel a read, if you’d like to see for yourself.
Butler has been the recipient of a collective of awards, but I think it’s worth remembering that in 1995 she became the first science fiction author to be awarded the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. Among the list of Butler’s other awards are the PEN American Center Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing, two Nebula Awards, and two Hugo Awards. In 2010 after her death, she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.
Butler is an author I will always hold in high regard. Science fiction wasn’t something I’d read much beyond middle school, and certainly nothing I’d ever seriously considered writing. But after reading only a few of Butler’s masterpieces, her dedication to creating Black characters in science fiction has inspired several of my own stories. As a Black woman in science fiction, Butler’s texts are proof that she did not believe in limits.
“There are no real walls around science fiction. We can build them, but they’re not there naturally.”
–Octavia E. Butler