Octavia Butler: A Brief Biography
Octavia Estelle Butler was born in Pasadena, California on June 22, 1947, the only child of Laurice and Octavia (Guy) Butler. Her father died when she was young and she was raised by her mother, who worked as a maid.
Butler was a shy child and daydreamer who experienced but eventually overcame dyslexia. She spent much of her time as a child in the Pasadena public library.
She began writing at age 10, mostly in the form of short stories about horses, using a typewriter her mother bought for her. At 11 she began dabbling in romances. At 12 she moved into science fiction after seeing a film called Devil Girl From Mars and thinking she could write a better story. Butler started submitting her work at age 13 and entered numerous writing contests as a teenager.
Today, Butler is one of only a few well-known black science fiction writers, and the only black woman to make a living writing science fiction full time. She has become known for exploring subjects not often addressed in science fiction, including racial inequity, politics, sexuality and sexual identity—issues particularly prevalent in the five-volume Patternist series.
Butler’s heroines are also often strong black women, a rarity in modern science (or other) fiction. The narratives frequently delve into the nature of personal relationships, often between two very different individuals—whether the difference be in age, race, sex, alienness or otherness.
Butler, often referred to as the “grande dame of science fiction,” has said that her writing has always been about trying to fix the world. In earlier novels she dealt with people with parapsychological abilities, such as in the Patternist series; in the Xenogenesis trilogy, she altered biology; and in her latest work, the Earthseed series, her characters work within their own human mental and physical abilities.
Butler received an Associate of Arts degree in 1968 from Pasadena City College. Beginning in 1969, she studied at California State University in Los Angeles and the University of California, Los Angeles. Beginning in 1970, it was her experience studying at the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop and the Screen Writers’ Guild Open Door Program, where she took a class with science fiction master Harlan Ellison (who later became her mentor) that led to Butler selling her first science fiction stories.
It was during her college years that she began work on a novel that would later become Kindred. Butler worked at a variety of blue-collar jobs during college, which she translated into the experience of Kindred’s protagonist, Dana.
Butler’s first story, Crossover was published in the 1971 Clarion anthology. For the next several years she worked a number of jobs to support herself. Her big writing break came with the publication of the first two titles of her five-volume Patternist series, Patternmaster (Butler’s first novel) in 1976 and Mind of My Mind in 1977. The others in the series include Survivor (1978), Wild Seed (1980), which won the James Tiptree Award, and Clay’s Ark (1984).
With the publication of Kindred in 1979, Butler was able to support herself writing full time. She won the Hugo Award in 1984 for her short story Speech Sounds, which explores the results of a disease that has caused the population of Los Angeles of the future to lose one aspect of their ability to communicate.
In 1985, Butler’s novelette Bloodchild won a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, the Locus Award, and an award for best novelette from Science Fiction Chronicle. In the late 80s she published the Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989). Bloodchild and Other Stories, a short story collection, was printed in 1995.
Parable of the Sower, the first of her Earthseed series, was published in 1993 and was a finalist for the Nebula Award as well as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. Parable of the Talents, the sequel to Parable of the Sower, was published in 1998 and won a Nebula Award. Butler is planning four more Earthseed titles.
In 1995 Butler was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowship, commonly referred to as the “genius grant.” This was the first MacArthur fellowship given to a science fiction writer. After spending most of her life in California, Butler now lives in Seattle, Washington.