Octavia Butler 1947–
(Full name Octavia Estelle Butler) American novelist, short story writer, and essayist.
The following entry presents an overview of Butler's career. For further information on her life and works, see CLC, Volume 38.
Best known as the author of the Patternist series of science-fiction novels, which involves a society whose inhabitants have developed telepathic powers over several centuries, Butler explores themes that have been given only cursory treatment in the genre, including sexual identity and racial conflict. Butler's heroines are black women who are powerful both mentally and physically. While they exemplify the traditional gender roles of nurturer, healer, and conciliator, these women are also courageous, independent, and ambitious. They enhance their influence through alliances with or opposition to powerful males. Butler has earned many accolades, including a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, and a Locus Award, all for her 1985 novella, "Bloodchild," which was later published in the collection Bloodchild and Other Stories (1995).
Butler spent her youth in a racially mixed neighborhood in Pasadena, California. Her father died when she was very young, and her mother worked as a maid to support the two of them. Butler has written memoirs of her mother's sacrifices, which included buying Butler a typewriter of her own when she was ten years old, and paying a large fee to an unscrupulous agent so Butler's stories could be read. Butler entered student-writing contests as a teenager and, after attending such workshops as the Writers Guild of America Clarion Science Fiction Writer's Workshop in 1970, she sold her first science-fiction stories. This early training brought her into contact with a range of well-known science-fiction writers, including Joanna Russ and Harlan Ellison, who became Butler's mentor.
Four of Butler's novels—Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977), Survivor (1978), and Wild Seed (1980)—revolve around the Patternists, a group of mentally superior beings who are telepathically connected to one another. These beings are the descendants of Doro, a four thousand-year-old Nubian male who has selectively bred with humans throughout time with the intention of establishing a race of superhumans. He prolongs his life by killing others, including his family members, and inhabiting their bodies. The origin of the Patternists is outlined in Wild Seed, which begins in seventeenth-century Africa and spans more than two centuries. The novel recounts Doro's uneasy alliance with Anyanwu, an earth mother figure whose extraordinary powers he covets. Their relationship progresses from power struggles and tests of will to mutual need and dependency. Doro's tyranny ends when one of his children, the heroine of Mind of My Mind, destroys him and unites the Patternists with care and compassion. Patternmaster and Survivor are also a part of the Patternist series. The first book is set in the future and concerns two brothers vying for their dying father's legacy. The pivotal character in the novel, however, is Amber, one of Butler's most heroic women, whose unconventional relationship with her brother is often analyzed within feminist contexts. In Survivor, set on an alien planet, Butler examines human attitudes toward racial and ethnic differences and their effects on two alien creatures. Alanna, the human protagonist, triumphs over racial prejudice and enslavement by teaching her alien captors tolerance and respect for individuality. Kindred (1979) departs from the Patternist series yet shares its focus on male/female relationships and racial matters. The protagonist, Dana, is a contemporary writer who is telepathically transported to a pre-Civil War plantation. She is victim both of the slave-owning ancestor who summons her when he is in danger and of the slaveholding age in which she is trapped for increasingly lengthy periods. Clay's Ark (1984) reflects Butler's interest in the psychological traits of men and women in a story of a space virus that threatens the earth's population with disease and genetic mutation. In an interview, Butler commented on how Ronald Reagan's vision of a winnable nuclear war encouraged her to write more dystopic material. This shift in focus is most evident in Parable of the Sower (1993), a novel which depicts a religious sea-change, set against the backdrop of a strife-ridden inner city in 2025. Butler has also authored three novels—Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989)—known collectively as the Xenogenesis trilogy; the trilogy has been interpreted as a positive analysis of an evolutionary society in which things are in a constant state of change. Butler's acclaimed novella, "Bloodchild," examines the topic of patriarchal society, and is set in a world inhabited by human-like beings called Terrans who live on "Preserves" which are provided for them by a government run by a monstrous race of creatures known as Tlics. The Terran families are valued by the Tlics because each of them is forced to sacrifice at least one of its sons to the Tlics to function as a "host" for Tlic eggs; the process produces highly desirable offspring but sometimes results in the death of the host. The central relationship in the novella is that between T'Gatoi, a government official who manages the Preserves, and Gan, the Terran boy who serves as the host for her eggs.
Critics applaud Butler's lack of sentimentality, and respond favorably to her direct treatment of subjects not previously addressed in science fiction, such as sexuality, male/female relationships, racial inequity, and contemporary politics. Hoda Zaki writes: "A constant thread throughout Butler's work is her celebration of racial difference and the coming together of diverse individuals to work, live and build a community…." Several reviewers assert that there is an underlying theme in Butler's narratives dealing with an exploration of slavery, but Butler herself disputes this. In an interview with Stephen W. Potts, she states, "The only places I am writing about slavery is where I actually say so." Critics note Butler's ambiguous endings that leave open the question of the possibilities and limitations of mankind. Jim Miller states, "Whether she is dealing with the role of medical science, biological determinism, the politics of disease, or the complex interrelations of race, class, and gender, Butler's dystopian imagination challenges us to think the worst in complex ways while simultaneously planting utopian seeds of hope."