Octavia E. Butler, Part 1: Biography and Themes

Octavia E. Butler’s Birthday Special:
An extraordinary writer.
⁓The Voice before the Void

Octavia E. Butler, Part 1: Biography and Themes

compiled from Wikipedia

Octavia Estelle Butler (1947 June 22 – 2006 February 24) was an American science fiction writer. A multiple-recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, Butler was one of the best-known women in the field. In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship.

Biography

“I began writing about power because I had so little.”
-Octavia E. Butler, in Carolyn S. Davidson’s “The Science Fiction of Octavia Butler”

Early life

Octavia Estelle Butler was born in 1947 in Pasadena, California, the only child of Octavia Margaret Guy, a housemaid, and Laurice James Butler, a shoeshine man. Butler’s father died when she was seven, so Octavia was raised by her mother and maternal grandmother in what she would later recall as a strict Baptist environment. While growing up in the racially-integrated community of Pasadena allowed Butler to experience cultural and ethnic diversity in the midst of segregation, she became acquainted with the workings of white supremacy when she accompanied her mother to her cleaning work and witnessed her entering white people’s houses through back doors and being spoken to or about in disrespectful ways. Many times, Butler’s mother would bring home books and magazines the white families had discarded for her young daughter to read.

From an early age, an almost paralyzing shyness made it difficult for Butler to socialize with other children. Her awkwardness, paired with a slight dyslexia that made schoolwork a torment, made her believe she was “ugly and stupid, clumsy, and socially hopeless.” Eventually, she grew to almost six feet tall, becoming an easy target for bullies. As a result, she frequently passed the time reading at the Pasadena Public Library and writing reams and reams of pages in her “big pink notebook.” Hooked at first on fairy tales and horse stories, she quickly became interested in science fiction magazines such as Amazing Stories, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Galaxy and began reading stories by Zenna Henderson, John Brunner, and Theodore Sturgeon.

At age ten, she begged her mother to buy her a Remington typewriter on which she “pecked [her] stories two fingered.” At age twelve, watching the televised version of the film Devil Girl from Mars convinced her that she could write a better story, so she drafted what would later become the basis for her Patternist novels. Happily ignorant of the obstacles that a black female writer could encounter, she became unsure of herself for the first time at the age of thirteen when her well-intentioned aunt Hazel conveyed the realities of segregation in five words: “Honey… Negroes can’t be writers.” Nevertheless, Butler persevered in her desire to publish a story, even asking her junior-high science teacher, Mr. Pfaff, to type the first manuscript she submitted to a science fiction magazine.

After graduating from John Muir High School in 1965, Butler worked during the day and attended Pasadena City College at night. As a freshman, she won a college-wide short story contest, her first fifteen dollars earned as a writer. She also got the “germ of the idea” for what would become her best-selling novel, Kindred, when a young African-American classmate involved in the Black Power Movement loudly criticized previous generations of African-Americans for being subservient to whites. As she explained in later interviews, the young man’s remarks instigated her to respond with a story that would give historical context to that shameful subservience so that it could be understood as silent but courageous survival. Butler graduated from PCC in 1968.

Rise to success

Even though Butler’s mother wanted her to become a secretary with a steady income, she continued to work at a series of temporary jobs, preferring the kind of mindless work that would allow her to get up at two or three in the morning to write. Success, however, eluded her, as an absence of useful criticism led her to style her stories after the white-and-male-dominated science fiction she had grown up reading. She enrolled at California State University, Los Angeles, but then switched to taking writing courses through UCLA Extension. She finally caught her break during the Open Door Workshop of the Writers Guild of America, West, a program designed to mentor minority writers. Her writing impressed one of the Writers Guild teachers, noted science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, who encouraged her to attend the six-week Clarion Writers Workshop, in Clarion, Pennsylvania. There, she met the writer and later longtime friend Samuel R. Delany. She also sold her two first stories: “Child Finder” to Ellison, for his anthology The Last Dangerous Visions, and “Crossover” to Robin Scott Wilson, the director of Clarion, who published it as part of the 1971 Clarion anthology.

For the next five years, Butler worked on the series of novels that would later become known as the Patternist series: Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977), and Survivor (1978). In 1978, she finally was able to stop working at temporary jobs and live on her writing. She took a break from the Patternist series to research and write Kindred (1979), but went back to the series to finish it by writing Wild Seed (1980) and Clay’s Ark (1984).

Butler’s rise to prominence began in 1984 when “Speech Sounds” won the Hugo Award for Short Story and, a year later, “Bloodchild” won the Hugo Award, the Locus Award, and the Science Fiction Chronicle Reader Award for Best Novelette. In the meantime, Butler traveled to the Amazon rain forest and the Andes to do research for what would become the Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989). During the 1990s, Butler worked on the novels that solidified her fame as a writer: Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). In 1995, she became the first science fiction writer to be awarded a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation fellowship, an award that came with a prize of US$295,000.

In 1999, after the death of her mother, Butler moved to Lake Forest Park, Washington. Parable of the Talents had won the Science Fiction Writers of America’s Nebula Award for Best Science Novel and she 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 decided to stop work in the series. In later interviews, Butler explained that the research and writing of the Parable novels had overwhelmed and depressed her, so she had shifted to composing something “lightweight” and “fun” instead. This became her final book, the science fiction vampire novel Fledgling (2005).

“Who am I? I am a forty-seven-year-old writer who can remember being a ten-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an eighty-year-old writer. I am also comfortably asocial—a hermit… A pessimist if I’m not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive.”
-Octavia E. Butler, reading the self-penned description of herself included in Parable of the Sower during a 1994 interview with Jelani Cobb

Death

During her last years, Butler struggled with writer’s block and depression partly caused by the side effects of her high blood pressure medication. She continued writing, and taught at the Clarion Workshop regularly. In 2005, she was inducted into Chicago State University’s International Black Writers Hall of Fame.

Butler died outside of her home in Lake Forest Park, Washington, on 2006 February 24, at the age of 58.

Themes

The critique of present-day hierarchies

In multiple interviews and essays, Butler explained her view of humanity as inherently flawed by an innate tendency towards hierarchical thinking which leads to intolerance, violence, and, if not checked, the ultimate destruction of our species. “Simple peck-order bullying,” she wrote in her essay “A World without Racism,” “is only the beginning of the kind of hierarchical behavior that can lead to racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, classism, and all the other ‘isms’ that cause so much suffering in the world.” Her stories, then, often replay humanity’s Darwinian domination of the weak by the strong as a type of parasitism. These superior beings, whether aliens, vampires, superhuman, or slave-masters, find themselves defied by a protagonist who embodies difference, diversity, and change, so that, as John R. Pfeiffer notes “[i]n one sense [Butler’s] fables are trials of solutions to the self-destructive condition in which she finds mankind.”

The remaking of the human

In his essay on the sociobiological backgrounds of Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy, J. Adam Johns describes how Butler’s narratives counteract the death drive behind the hierarchical impulse with an innate love of life (biophilia), particularly different, strange life. Specifically, Butler’s stories feature gene manipulation, interbreeding, miscegenation, symbiosis, mutation, alien contact, non-consensual sex, contamination, and other forms of hybridity as the means to correct the sociobiological causes of hierarchical violence. As De Witt Douglas Kilgore and Ranu Samantrai note, “[i]n [Butler’s] narratives the undoing of the human body is both literal and metaphorical, for it signifies the profound changes necessary to shape a world not organized by hierarchical violence.” The evolutionary maturity achieved by the bioengineered hybrid protagonist at the end of the story, then, signals the possible evolution of the dominant community in terms of tolerance, acceptance of diversity, and a desire to wield power responsibly.

The survivor as hero

Butler’s protagonists are disenfranchised individuals who endure, compromise, and embrace radical change in order to survive. As Kilgore and Samantrai note, her stories focus on minority characters whose historical background makes them already intimate with brutal violation and exploitation, and therefore with the need to compromise in order to survive. Even when endowed with extra abilities, these characters are forced to experience unprecedented physical, mental, and emotional distress and exclusion to ensure a minimal degree of agency and to prevent humanity from achieving self-destruction. In many stories, their acts of courage become acts of understanding, and in some cases, love, as they reach a crucial compromise with those in power. Ultimately, Butler’s focus on disenfranchised characters serves to illustrate both the historical exploitation of minorities and how the resolve of one such exploited individual may bring about critical change.

The creation of alternative communities

Butler’s stories feature mixed communities founded by African protagonists and populated by diverse, if similar-minded individuals. Members may be humans of African, European, or Asian descent, extraterrestrial (such as the N’Tlic in “Bloodchild”), from a different species (such as the vampiric Ina in Fledgling), and cross-species (such as the human-oankali Akin and Jodahs in the Xenogenesis trilogy). In some stories, the community’s hybridity results in a flexible view of sexuality and gender (for instance, the polyamorous extended families in Fledgling). Thus, Butler creates bonds between groups that are generally considered to be separate and unrelated, and suggests hybridity as “the potential root of good family and blessed community life.”

Relationship to Afrofuturism

Butler’s work has been associated with the genre of Afrofuturism, a term coined by Mark Dery to describe “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th-century technoculture.” Some critics, however, have noted that while Butler’s protagonists are of African descent, the communities they create are multi-ethnic and, sometimes, multi-species. As Kilgore and Samantrai explain in their 2010 memorial to Butler, while Butler does offer “an afro-centric sensibility at the core of narratives,” her “insistence on hybridity beyond the point of discomfort” exceeds the tenets of both black cultural nationalism and of “white-dominated” liberal pluralism.

Critical reception

Most critics praise Butler on her unflinching exposition of human flaws, which she depicts with striking realism. The New York Times regarded her novels as “evocative” if “often troubling” explorations of “far-reaching issues of race, sex, power.” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction called her examination of humanity “clear-headed and brutally unsentimental,” and The Village Voice’s Dorothy Allison described her as “writing the most detailed social criticism” where “the hard edge of cruelty, violence, and domination is described in stark detail.” Locus magazine regarded her as “one of those authors who pay serious attention to the way human beings actually work together and against each other, and she does so with extraordinary plausibility.” The Houston Post ranked her “among the best SF writers, blessed with a mind capable of conceiving complicated futuristic situations that shed considerable light on our current affairs.”

Scholars, on the other hand, focus on Butler’s choice to write from the point of view of marginal characters and communities and thus “expanded SF to reflect the experiences and expertise of the disenfranchised.” Surveying Butler’s novels, critic Burton Raffel noted how race and gender influence her writing: “I do not think any of these eight books could have been written by a man… nor, with the single exception of her first book… by anyone but an African-American.” Robert Crossley commended how Butler’s “feminist aesthetic” works to expose sexual, racial, and cultural chauvinisms because it is “enriched by a historical consciousness that shapes the depiction of enslavement both in the real past and in imaginary pasts and futures.”

Butler has been praised widely for her spare yet vivid style, with The Washington Post Book World calling her craftsmanship “superb.” Burton Raffel regards her prose as “carefully, expertly crafted” and “crystalline… sensuous, sensitive.”

Publishers and critics have tended to label Butler’s work as science fiction, but while Butler enjoyed working in what she called “potentially the freest genre in existence,” she resisted being branded a genre writer. As many critics have pointed out, her narratives have drawn the attention of people from varied ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Butler herself claimed to have three loyal audiences: black readers, science fiction fans, and feminists.

 

Continued in Octavia E. Butler, Part 2: Notable Works.