Butler was one of the first African-American science fiction writers, and one of the first women to break the science fiction gender barrier.
Butler was born on June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, California. Her difficult life prepared her to write about struggling to survive in hostile dystopias. Her father, a shoeshine man, died when she was seven. Her mother was a maid. Butler would accompany her mother to her cleaning work and recalled her mother entering white people’s houses through back doors.
Butler was conspicuously tall for her age and painfully shy. Despite having mild dyslexia, she found escape in books. Her mother would bring home the discarded books of the white families she worked for. Butler’s mother also encouraged her to write and bought her daughter her first typewriter when she was ten years old. Butler recalled her mother remarking that one day she might become a writer, causing Butler her to realize for the first time that it was possible to make a living as an author. Later, a well-intentioned aunt told her, “Honey … Negroes can’t be writers.”
Butler earned an Associate’s degree from Pasadena City College in 1968, and later studied at California State University, Los Angeles. As a student, Ms. Butler became a protégée of the renowned science fiction writer, Harlan Ellison. He encouraged Butler to attend the 6-week Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop in Pennsylvania and contributed $100 towards her application fee. Butler’s mother gave Butler the money she had been saving for dental work to pay the rest of the fee. Butler sold her first two stories at the workshop. After her death, the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship was established by the Carl Brandon Society to provide support to students of color to attend the Clarion Writers Workshop where Butler got her start decades years before.
Butler began writing stories as a child and soon turned to science fiction. At twelve, she watched the televised version of the film, Devil Girl from Mars, and was convinced she could write a better story. She then drafted a story that would later become the basis for her Patternist novels.
Butler realized that black people were only occasional characters in science fiction story, and then were usually portrayed as feeble-witted. Many of Butler’s novels featured black women protagonists who are strong, physically and mentally, and intelligent. One of Ms. Butler’s best-known novels, Kindred, tells the story of a modern-day black woman travels back in time to the antebellum South to save the life of a white, slaveholding ancestor.
Butler was attracted to science fiction writing because of its limitless possibilities. She used the genre as a vehicle for social commentary. Many of her books are concerned with hierarchy and community. Her first novel, Patternmaster, was published in 1976, and became the first installment in Ms. Butler’s highly regarded Patternist series, whose later titles, include Mind of My Mind (1977), Survivor (1978), Wild Seed (1980), and Clay’s Ark (1984). Among her other novels is the Xenogenesis trilogy, comprised of Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989), which describes how the human race overcomes its death drive and hierarchical impulse through radical biophilia (love of life), acceptance of diversity, and a willingness to submit to profound change.
For several years, Butler supported herself through a series of odd jobs, including dishwasher, telemarketer, potato chips inspector, so she could rise each day at 2 a.m. to write. She had a practice of writing affirmations to encourage herself. In 1978, she was finally able to stop working at temporary jobs and live on the proceeds from her writing.
In 1995, Butler was awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship, also called the “Genius Grant,: the first science fiction writer to be so honored. The award came with a prize of $295,000. She also received two Hugo Awards from the World Science Fiction Society and two Nebula Awards from the Science Fiction Writers of America.
Of special interest to Shapers of Earthseed, Butler was the author of Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). The series depicts the struggle of the Earthseed community to survive the socioeconomic and political collapse of twenty-first century America due to poor environmental stewardship, corporate greed, and the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor. The books describe a new religion called “Earthseed,” founded on the concepts that God is Change, that we can Shape God, and that the Destiny of Earthseed is to take place among the stars. The novels contain excerpts from a fictional book of scripture called, “The Book of the Living,” which is authored by the protagonist, Lauren Olamina, and sets forth Earthseed’s theology, ethics, and vision for the future.
Parable of the Talents won the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Nebula Award for Best Science Novel. Butler had plans for four more Parable novels: Parable of the Trickster, Parable of the Teacher, Parable of Chaos, and Parable of Clay. However, after several failed attempts to begin Parable of the Trickster, she stopped work in the series.
Parable of the Sower was adapted as Parable of the Sower: The Concert Version by American folk/blues musician Toshi Reagon in collaboration with her mother, singer and composer Bernice Johnson Reagon. The adaptation’s libretto and musical score combine African-American spirituals, soul, rock and roll, and folk music into rounds to be performed by singers sitting in a circle. It was performed as part of The Public Theater’s 2015 Under the Radar Festival in New York City.