Octavia Butler Butler, Octavia - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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."

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Patternmaster (novel) 1976
Mind of My Mind (novel) 1977
Survivor (novel) 1978
Kindred (novel) 1979
Wild Seed (novel) 1980
Clay's Ark (novel) 1984
Dawn∗ (novel) 1987
Adulthood Rites∗ (novel) 1988
Imago∗ (novel) 1989
Parable of the Sower (novel) 1993
Bloodchild and Other Stories (novella, short stories, and essays) 1995

∗Known collectively as the Xenogenesis Trilogy.

Ruth Salvaggio (essay date Summer 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Octavia Butler and the Black Science-Fiction Heroine," in Black American Literature, Vol. 18, No. 2, Summer, 1984, pp. 78-81.

[Salvaggio is Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and University. In the following essay, she discusses Butler's black, female protagonists in the Patternist novels.]

A traditional complaint about science fiction is that it is a male genre, dominated by male authors who create male heroes who control distinctly masculine worlds. In the last decade, however, a number of women writers have been changing that typical scenario. Their feminine and feminist perspectives give us a different kind of science fiction,...

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Octavia Butler with Frances M. Beal (interview date March/April 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Black Women and the Science Fiction Genre," in Black Scholar, Vol. 17, No. 2, March/April, 1986, pp. 14-8.

[In the following interview, Butler discusses the science fiction genre, her career, and themes in her work.]

Octavia Butler is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning science fiction writer. One of very few black writers who have selected this genre as their focus, she is a Clarion Science Fiction Writers' Workshop graduate. Her books include, Clays Ark, Kindred, Mind of My Mind, Patternmaster, Wild Seed and Survivor. This interview was conducted by Black Scholar Associate Editor Frances M. Beal on October 29, 1985, in East Lansing,...

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Sandra Y. Govan (essay date Spring-Summer 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Homage to Tradition: Octavia Butler Renovates the Historical Novel," in MELUS, Vol. 13, Nos. 1 and 2, Spring-Summer, 1986, pp. 79-96.

[In the following essay, Govan delineates the similarities between Butler's Wild Seed and Kindred, including strong, black, female protagonists, and the use of history and black tradition.]

Despite the fact that her novels are sometimes difficult to find, Octavia Butler has nonetheless firmly established herself as a major new voice in science fiction. The five published novels of her Patternist saga, depicting over a vast time span both the genesis and evolution of Homo Superior (psionically enhanced human beings)...

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Adele S. Newson (review date Summer 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Dawn and Adulthood Rites, in Black American Literature Forum, Vol. 23, No. 2, Summer, 1989, pp. 389-96.

[In the following review, Newson discusses the subjects of Butler's Xenogenesis series, including prejudice and genetic arrangement.]

It is a widespread myth that Blacks don't write or read science fiction. The myth is fed by the notion that they cannot afford to indulge in fantasy. Octavia Butler's latest works, Dawn and Adulthood Rites, prove that Blacks can ill afford to remain ignorant of the genre.

Dawn, Octavia Butler's seventh novel and the first in the Xenogenesis series, introduces new...

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Frances Bonner (essay date Spring 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Difference and Desire, Slavery and Seduction: Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis," in Foundation, No. 48, Spring, 1990, pp. 50-62.

[In the following essay, Bonner discusses how Butler portrays desire and rape in her Xenogenesis trilogy, and how the trilogy is still successful despite its lack of hope.]

Octavia E. Butler's recently completed Xenogenesis trilogy (Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago) is a striking addition not just to her already fascinating body of work, but also to the field of s[cience] f[iction] trilogies generally. Too often it seems, especially when the first volume is published as "Book I of the whatever trilogy," the reader is...

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Hoda M. Zaki (essay date July 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Utopia, Dystopia, and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler," in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2, July, 1990, pp. 239-51.

[In the following essay, Zaki discusses Butler's work as it relates to the genre of utopian and dystopian science fiction.]

In an interview published in 1986, Octavia E. Butler stated that there was no "women's genre in science fiction." Women authors, she continued, wrote too many varieties of S[cience] F[iction] for their work to be labeled as one subgenre. Nor did Butler see herself writing utopian S[cience] F[iction]: "I've actually never projected an ideal society. I don't believe that imperfect humans can form a...

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Octavia Butler with Randall Kenan (interview date Spring 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "An Interview with Octavia Butler," in Callaloo, Vol. 14, No. 2, Spring, 1991, pp. 495-504.

[In the following interview, Butler discusses her career, her writing style, and her inspiration.]

Octavia E. Butler is something of a phenomenon. Since 1976 she has published nine novels, more than any other black woman in North America, and even more amazing: She writes science fiction. Having won all the major S[cience] F[iction] awards, (a Nebula and two Hugos), she has gained a substantial cult following, as well as critical acclaim, particularly for her 1979 novel. Kindred, reissued in 1988 in the prestigious Beacon Black Women Writers Series. Kindred...

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Orson Scott Card (review date January 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Mind of My Mind, Patternmaster, and Survivor, in Fantasy & Science Fiction, January, 1992, pp. 52-4.

[In the following review, Card praises Butler for her development of the "psi" theme in her Patternist novels.]

It's odd, I know, to review novels that are out of print or available only in British editions. But Octavia Butler is far too important a novelist—and these books are far too powerful—to be languishing out of print in the United States.

While it's true that her Xenogenesis books (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago) are more satisfying as hard science fiction, and show how much power her storytelling...

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Michelle Erica Green (essay date 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'There Goes the Neighborhood': Octavia Butler's Demand for Diversity in Utopias," in Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference, edited by Jane L. Donawerth and Carol A. Kolmerten, Syracuse University Press, 1994, pp. 166-89.

[In the following essay, Green discusses Butler's fiction in terms of its criticism of popular science fiction utopias and its social critique on such topics as racism and sexism.]

Octavia E. Butler's Dawn, the first novel in the trilogy Xenogenesis, is an angry utopian novel, a scathing condemnation of the tendency of human beings to hate, repress, and attack differences they do not understand. It pleads for an end...

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Rebecca O. Johnson (review date February 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "African-American, Feminist Science Fiction," in Sojourner: The Women's Forum, Vol. 19, No. 6, February, 1994, pp. 12-4.

[Johnson is a writer and activist. In the following review, she traces Butler's portrayal of humanity in her Patternist novels and the Xenogenesis trilogy, and discusses with the author her Parable of the Sower.]

I read to escape. Oh, not as often as when I was twelve years old, but my favorite coping mechanism is reading. Mind candy usually. You know the stuff: mysteries, lesbian fantasy, and occasionally science fiction. But when life gets confusing or I am particularly in need of a vacation or a time of reflection, I turn to books...

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Elyce Rae Helford (essay date Summer 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'Would You Really Rather Die Than Bear My Young?': The Construction of Gender, Race, and Species in Octavia E. Butler's 'Bloodchild,'" in African American Review, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer, 1994, pp. 259-71.

[In the following essay, Helford analyzes Butler's "Bloodchild" and its implications on our conception of gender, race, and species.]

"Did you use the rifle to shoot the achti?"


"And do you mean to use it to shoot me?"

I stared at her, outlined in the moonlight—coiled graceful body. "What does Terran blood taste like to you?"

She said...

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Hoda Zaki (review date July 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Future Tense," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. XI, Nos. 10 and 11, July, 1994, pp. 37-8.

[In the following review, Zaki asserts the utopian potential of the dystopian society Butler sets forth in Parable of the Sower, and ponders the possibility of a sequel to the novel.]

Octavia E. Butler has not lost her capacity to imagine horrifying societies set in the near future. Her Clay's Ark (1984), a work of science fiction set in California, describes the spread of an extraterrestrial organism that changes its human carriers to something other than human. In Parable of the Sower, her tenth novel. Butler returns to some of the ideas she...

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Cathy Peppers (essay date March 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Dìalogic Origins and Alien Identities in Butler's Xenogenesis," in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 22, Part 1, March, 1995, pp. 47-62.

[In the following essay, Peppers studies how Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy uses our three common stories of origin—Biblical, sociobiological, and paleoanthropological—to make us look at human identity in new ways.]

Octavia E. Butler's post-apocalyptic trilogy Xenogenesis is about a new beginning for the remnants of humanity, those few humans who are still alive after a nuclear apocalypse to be "rescued" by the alien Oankali. In order to continue to survive, the humans are offered the "choice" of reproduction only if...

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Jim Miller (review date February/March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Technology Fix," in American Book Review, Vol. 17, No. 3, February/March, 1996, p. 28.

[Miller is the author of the short story collection, Las Vegas Everywhere. In the following review, he asserts that Butler is "not just a good science-fiction writer, but also one of the most interesting and innovative political writers around today."]

At a recent speaking engagement in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Octavia Butler told the story of how she was hassled by the police in L.A. for trying to pay for her groceries with a hundred dollar bill her mother had given her for Christmas. The money was hers, but she was black with no I.D. and that was all that was needed...

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Danille Taylor-Guthrie (review date 31 March 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Writing Because She Must: Octavia Butler's Stories, Essays," in Chicago Tribune Books, March 31, 1996, p. 5.

[Taylor-Guthrie is assistant professor of Afro-American Studies at Indiana University Northwest. In the following review, she praises the stories in Butler's Bloodchild and Other Stories as "vintage Butler."]

Octavia Butler is the only woman among the four most prominent African-American science-fiction writers, a group that includes Samuel R. Delany Jr., Steven Barnes and Charles R. Saunders. Her grounding in African-American culture, concern for feminist issues and ability to imagine the future make her work unique, and were presumably factors...

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Octavia Butler with Stephen W. Potts (interview date November 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "'We Keep Playing the Same Record': A Conversation with Octavia E. Butler," in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 23, Part 3, No. 70, November, 1996, pp. 331-38.

[In the following interview, Butler discusses the science-fiction genre, responses to her work, and themes her work addresses.]

For readers of this journal, Octavia E. Butler literally needs no introduction. Her exquisite, insightful works—especially the three Xenogenesis novels, (Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago) and her award-winning story "Bloodchild"—have been discussed and analyzed more than once in these pages.

One usually has to get up early in the morning to reach Ms....

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Madelyn Jablon (essay date 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Metafiction as Genre," in her Black Metafiction: Self-Consciousness in African American Literature, University of Iowa Press, 1997, pp. 139-65.

[In the following excerpt, Jablon analyzes how Butler has transformed the science-fiction genre by subverting its standard formula with Parable of the Sower.]

Linda Hutcheon identifies detective fiction, fantasy, and erotic fiction as genres of metafiction. Although she omits science fiction from her list, it is included here, for it best exemplifies the self-reflexiveness resulting from the invention of an alternate reality. Furthermore, much of what Hutcheon says about fantasy literature is applicable to science...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Armitt, Lucie. "Space, Time and Female Genealogies: A Kristevan Reading of Feminist Science Fiction." Image and Power: Women in Fiction in the Twentieth Century, edited by Sarah Sceats and Gail Cunningham, pp. 51-61. London: Longman, 1996.

Applies a psychoanalytic analysis based on the work of Julia Kristeva to Octavia Butler's writing and other feminist science fiction.

Campbell, Loretta H. "Planting a Seed." Belles Lettres 10, No. 1 (Fall 1994): 86.

Praises Butler's "dazzling apocalyptic visions" and "straightforward prose" in her Parable of a Sower....

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