Butler's novels are very similar to other pieces in literature history and very different as well. (Williams, Cummings, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Larsen, Hurston...) What are some of the similarities? What are some of the differences? What do the similarities and differences tell you about American literature and its history?
American novelist and sci-fi writer Octavia Butler occupies a distinct position in the canon of American literature. Her works span numerous hybrid and speculative genres; including historical fantasy, dystopian satire, and futuristic sci-fi.
Butler is most known for her pioneering work in the genre of afro-futurism. The afro-futurist sub-genre uses the images and tropes of science fiction to illuminate various aspects of contemporary African-American life and culture.
Butler worked with the same themes that have preoccupied American novelists since the early 20th century. Like Faulkner, Twain, Hurston, and Fitzgerald before her, Butler's stories play with the concepts of history, memory, and agency. Her characters try to act in meaningful ways against the backdrop of historical/cultural and institutional forces. The most iconic example of this theme might be her work "Kindred". In "Kindred," the main character travels between the present day and 19th century plantation slavery, trying to make meaning of her own life and voice against the overwhelmingly traumatic history of her family's enslavement.
Another similarity between Butler and other American novelists is Butler's emphasis on everyday life. American novels tell the stories of everyday people, as opposed to the stories of aristocratic members of the court or celebrity stars. Works such as Morrison's The Bluest Eye, Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, and Twain's Huckleberry Finn are classic examples of this tendency.
However, Butler's work is unique in some important ways. More than other American novelists, Butler uses real history to comment on the present. In Kindred, her character's personality and choices are intimately shaped by her travels to the past. The Parable of the Sower and Patternist series characters are constantly looking back and working out of the framework of their collective past as well as their own personal histories.
Butler's work bridges the gap between history and present. She does this via a sci-fi / fantasy lens. In this way, her work shares more in common with contemporary sci - fi / dystopian films (such as District 9 and Avatar, for example) than with the traditional American novel.
Here are a few helpful resources (in addition to the reference links listed below):