Octavia Estelle Butler grew up in a manner that reflected some of the hardest realities routinely faced by African Americans. Her father, who died when she was very young, had shined shoes for a living; her mother, who had been taken out of school at the age of ten, supported herself and her daughter after her husband’s death by working as a maid while leaving the primary responsibilities of child care to her own mother, a devout Baptist.
Although Butler felt comfortable in the company of her adult relatives, she was profoundly uncomfortable with the social system with which she and they had to contend. She was a misfit from the very beginning, unusually tall for her age and chronically shy. Further isolated from her peer group by strict religious prohibitions, she took refuge in reading and became a devotee of science fiction. She began writing when she was about ten years old and began to experiment with her own science fiction at twelve, later recalling that the abysmal quality of the risible B-picture Devil Girl from Mars (1954) convinced her she could write better stories herself.
Her family could not imagine that her ambition to write was practicable, and her teachers refused to support her choice of science fiction as a medium. She attended Pasadena City College and then the California State College at Los Angeles; she was unable to study creative writing there, but attended evening writing classes at the University of...
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Octavia Butler’s father died when she was an infant; she was raised by her widowed mother in California. A shy, quiet child, she was bullied by her classmates because she was dark-skinned and unusually tall. She began writing imaginative stories in a notebook, retreating into her own solitary world. She was a voracious reader; her mother, a domestic worker, brought home books that she had found in the trash. Young Octavia was disappointed to find no African American characters and only stereotyped portrayals of women characters in the science-fiction stories she favored. When she was ten years old, she began writing her stories on a portable typewriter, a gift from her mother.
Although Butler’s early stories were routinely rejected by magazines, she persisted in her writing. A short story she wrote as a freshman at Pasadena City College won first prize in a school contest. She also attended California State University, Los Angeles, and the University of California, Los Angeles. For several years she did factory and office work, getting up early in the morning to write. She continued to get rejection slips. She credits the Open Door Program of the Screen Writers Guild of America and the Clarion, Pennsylvania, Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop for giving her the critical feedback she needed. She sold her first story when she was twenty-three.
Butler attracted the attention of science-fiction fans with her Patternist series of five novels...
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Butler brought a unique perspective to the genre of science fiction, usually the domain of white male writers. As an African American woman, she was attentive to issues of gender, race, and social class. However, she did not view these narrowly as black/white or male/female relationships but extended these explorations to include differences in sexual orientation and even extraterrestrial/human relationships. A consistent motif in her work was her interest in family relationships, especially the painful experiences of her female characters who must choose between their own desires and the needs of loved ones.
Critics praised her attention to character development and her inquiry into the moral choices that confront...
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