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Octavia Butler was the first notable female African American science-fiction writer. Butler’s works present familiar science-fiction topics, such as aliens, psychic powers, genetic engineering, and dystopian futures, in terms of racial and sexual awareness.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
An “Out Kid”
Octavia Butler was born in 1947 in Pasadena, California, where she grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood. An only child, her father died when she was still a baby, and she was reared by her mother, grandmother, and other relatives in southern California. Her own experience accounts for the positive treatment of such adoptive relationships in all of her novels. She describes herself in childhood as ”a perennial ‘out kid,”’ shy, bookish, and taller than her classmates. Raised by strict Baptists, she was not permitted to dance, or later, to wear makeup. Not feeling accepted by those her own age, she was more comfortable with older people.
Butler’s status as a loner child was enhanced by her love of books, which she possessed despite suffering from dyslexia. Always an avid reader, she began writing stories at age ten. Her mother, who had been forced to quit school early in order to work, encouraged her daughter to read and write. As a child, Butler frequented the Pasadena Public Library, but she soon outgrew the children’s books, and since she was not allowed in the adult section, she began browsing the magazines, where she discovered science fiction.
Contact with Science-Fiction Writers
As a student at Pasadena City College, and later, California State at Los Angeles, she took courses in English, speech, and social sciences—history and anthropology in particular. Unable to major in creative writing, she quit formal work toward a degree but attended evening writing classes at UCLA while working in a variety of jobs, many described by the female narrator of Kindred. Her most useful training as a writer she attributes to work with the Writers Guild of America, West, Inc., an organization that established an ”open door” program for aspiring writers in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Through this group she met writers Sid Stebel and Harlan Ellison, who provided the early criticism and encouragement she needed.
It was Ellison who brought Butler to the Clarion Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop in the summer of 1970, where she worked under such well-known writers of science fiction as Joanna Russ, Fritz Leiber, Kate Wilhelm, Damon Knight, and Robin Scott Wilson. The six-week session provided nuts-and-bolts advice on writing and publishing science fiction, and she sold her first two stories while a student there. After the Clarion Workshop, she continued her formal training as a science-fiction writer with classes at UCLA given by Ellison and Theodore Sturgeon.
Influenced by 1970s Social Conditions
In the early 1970s, Butler went to work on her first series of books, the Patternist novels. As she was creating a future world, Butler was influenced by the social turmoil of that time, and her dominant themes were related to the concerns raised by both the feminist movement and the Civil Rights movement. These early novels, which focus on the responsibility of the powerful to the powerless and explore questions about sexual and racial roles, brought contemporary issues into the science-fiction context. However, her writing was not directly influenced by any particular social movement. For feminist critics, her work presented certain problems, particularly since she presents no clear winners or losers in the gender struggle, but indicates where compromises can be made to unify women and men. Similarly, her futuristic settings presented problems for African American literary critics whose attention was largely focused on depictions of the black experience in the past and in the present.
Throughout her career, Butler continued to explore the themes first introduced in her earliest works, even as she branched out from her early Patternist novels to write two other series, the Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-1989) and the Parable of the Sower novels (1993 and 1998), as well as two well-received stand-alone novels, Kindred (1979) and The Fledgling (2005), which was published shortly before her death at the age of 58.
Works in Literary Context
Butler’s writing explores themes that have generally received cursory treatments in the science-fiction genre, including sexual identity, racial conflict, and contemporary politics. Because of this, Butler’s works have been compared to those of authors outside of science fiction, particularly Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood, and she has earned recognition as a pioneer among women writers.
The Powerful and the Powerless
The responsibility of the powerful to the powerless is one of the continuing themes of Butler’s writing. Her novels often feature societies in which there is a clear distinction between the powerful and the powerless, and the tensions of this relationship are explored throughout. For example, a class struggle is one of the central concerns of the Parable of the Sower novels. Butler’s deft handling of this timeless concern has won her work virtually universal acclaim by critics and fans of science fiction and has attracted a wide audience among general readers.
Sexual and Racial Themes
Butler’s heroines typically are powerful black women who possess large measures of both mental and physical acumen. While they exemplify the traditional female gender roles of nurturer, healer, and conciliator, these women also display courage, independence, and ambition, and embody the belief that hierarchical systems are flawed. They enhance their influence through alliances with or opposition to powerful males. Frances Smith Foster has commented: ”Her major characters are black women, and through her characters and through the structure of her imagined social order, Butler consciously explores the impact of race and sex upon future society.” The insight displayed in Butler’s novels has won her a solid reputation among both readers and critics. One critic noted that her work has a ”cult status among many black women readers.” She also observed that ”Butler’s work has a scope that commands a wide audience.”
Works in Critical Context
Most of Butler’s novels have enjoyed a favorable critical reception, but it was not until the mid-1980s that she began winning important science-fiction awards. In 1985 she won three of science-fiction’s major awards—a Nebula award, a Hugo award, and a Locus award—for her novella Bloodchild. She has since won another Hugo Award and another Nebula Award.
The Patternist Series
Five of Butler’s first six novels (Kindred being the exception) were part of the Patternist series, and all enjoyed a favorable critical reception. All six of her novels have enjoyed a favorable critical reception, and she was particularly praised for the artistry and power of her most recent works. Feminists and critics of Afro-American literature wrote admiringly of her handling of issues of gender and race, and critics and fans of science fiction lauded the fully realized worlds of the past and future which spring from her work. An unnamed critic for Kirkus Reviews offers a positive review, noting however, that the book is ”old-fashioned” in its science-fiction sensibility. A reviewer for Publishers Weekly also noted the book’s formulaic appeal: ”The author carefully spells out the ground rules of her unique world, and the ensuing story of love, chase, and combat is consistently attention-holding.”
Several of Butler’s books, particularly Kindred, have been recommended by critics as examples of the best that science fiction has to offer. For example, speaking of Kindred and Wild Seed, John Pfeiffer argued that with these books Butler ”produced two novels of such special excellence that critical appreciation of them will take several years to assemble. To miss them will be to miss unique novels in modern fiction.” It is the unique combination of elements, particularly in her non-series novels such as Kindred, that has captured the attention of readers and reviewers. In her obituary of Butler, Susanna Sturgis wrote that ”[t]he mere premise of Kindred took my breath away.” Similar sentiments were expressed by reviewers when Kindred was first released in 1979, not as science fiction, but as mainstream fiction. The novel subsequently became a staple in college classes in both literature and African American studies.
- Contemporary Novelists. Detroit: St. James Press, 2001.
- ”Octavia E(stelle) Butler (1947-).” Contemporary Literary Criticism. Edited by Daniel G. Marowski, Roger Matuz, and Jane E. Neidhardt. Vol. 38. Detroit: Gale Research, 1986, pp. 61-66.
- Pfeiffer, John R. ”Octavia Butler Writes the Bible.” In Rusinko, Susan, ed. Shaw and Other Matters. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1998.
- Stevenson, Rosemary. Black Women in America, An Historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson Publishing, 1993.
- Bogstad, Janice. ”Octavia E. Butler and Power Relationships.” Janus (Winter 1978-79): 28-29.
- Davidson, Carolyn S. ”The Science Fiction of Octavia Butler.” Salaga (1981): 35.
- Elliot, Jeffrey. ”Interview with Octavia Butler.” Thrust: SF in Review (Summer 1979): 19-22.
- Foster, Frances Smith. ”Octavia Butler’s Black Female Future Fiction.” Extrapolation (Spring 1982): 37-49.
- Govan, Sandra Y. ”Connections, Links, and Extended Networks: Patterns in Octavia Butler’s Science Fiction.” Black American Literature Forum (1984):82-87.
- Gregg, Sandra. ”Writing out of the Box.” Black Issues Book Review (September, 2000).
- Harrison, Rosalie G. ”Sci Fi Visions: An Interview with Octavia Butler.” Equal Opportunity Forum Magazine (1980): 30-34.
- Jones, Gerald. ”Science Fiction.” New York Times Book Review (January 3, 1999).
- Melzer, Patricia. ”’All That You Touch You Change’:Utopian Desire and the Concept of Change in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.” FEMSPEC (2002).
- Mixon, Veronica. ”Futurist Woman: Octavia Butler.” Essence (April 1979): 12-15.
- Raffel, Burton. ”Genre to the Rear, Race and Gender to the Fore: The Novels of Octavia E. Butler.” Literary Review (April 1, 1995).
- Salvaggio, Ruth. ”Octavia Butler and the Black Science-Fiction Heroine.” Black American Literature Forum (1984): 78-81.
- Sturgis, Susanna. ”Octavia E. Butler: June 22, 1947-February 24, 2006.” The Women’s Review of Books (May-June 2006): 19.
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