Octavia Estelle Butler’s contribution to speculative fiction remains notable not only for the undisputed quality of her stories, but for the range of social commentary provided and the innovative ways in which that commentary is presented throughout her body of work. Throughout her lifetime, Butler produced 13 novels in addition to a number of essays and Hugo and Nebula award winning short stories. In addition to receiving the MacArthur Fellowship (popularly nicknamed the ‘Genius Grant’) from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in 1995, Butler was the recipient of PEN’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000. The story of her career is perhaps especially remarkable because her presence within the realm of the speculative fiction genre was one among such authors as Joanna Russ and Ursula K. LeGuin that, together, introduced female and African American perspectives into a particularly narrow branch of popular literature.
Butler was born in June of 1947 in Pasadena, California to Lawrence and Octavia M. Butler. After the death of Butler’s father, her mother continued to work as a housekeeper and it was during her formative years that lessons in race based condescension began to form some of her earliest ideas about the world. Painfully shy throughout her childhood, self-conscious about both her height and her as-of-then undiagnosed dyslexia, this only child began writing at the early age of ten. When asked about the beginnings of her writing career, Butler is quoted as having been inversely inspired by the B science fiction film, Devil Girl From Mars, after which she was certain that she could write a better story. After graduating in 1965 from John Muir High School in Pasadena, Butler proceeded to work as she first pursued her Associates Degree at Pasadena City College and then her Bachelors at California State College before transferring to the University of California at Los Angeles. Throughout this period, Butler began to take classes sponsored by the Writers Guild of America where the result was a body of work that produce her first published short story.
She continued with temporary work until Doubleday published her first novel, Patternmaster, in 1976. Patternmaster was quickly followed by the 1977 Mind of my Mind and the 1978 Survivor, all of these novels linked into the Patternist series which would continue with 1980’s Wildseed and culminate in 1984’s Clay’s Ark. These five books are separated by the 1979 stand alone novel Kindred, Butler’s most famous work outside of the realm of science fiction. In life, Butler described herself as “comfortably asocial—a hermit living in a large city—a pessimist if I’m not careful; a student, endlessly curious; a feminist; an African American; a former Baptist; and an oil and water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.”
Her legacy as an author and as a visionary remains important to all who have a love for literature. The Octavia Butler Society works to continue the conversation that Butler began in her fiction and to pass on the knowledge that she left in her wake.