Octavia E. Butler was a great science fiction (mostly) writer, who unfortunately died way too young (2006, at age 58).
She was African-American, or Black, and she might be my favorite African-American SF writer, and she is one of my favorite SF writers. The only reason I say “might” is that I don’t want to overthink this, and get down into the weeds of figuring out who else I would consider, or even who else is a African-American SF writer (Samuel R. Delany would be my next choice).
She won a number of awards that matter in the SF and speculative fiction field, with three Hugo Awards, two Nebula Awards, a Bram Stoker Award, the first Ignyte Award, and a Locus Award. She became the first SF writer to win a MacArthur Fellowship (AKA “Genius Award”) in 1995. She is a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Mark R. Kelly’s Science Fiction Awards Database has a very good entry on her works and awards. The SF Encyclopedia has a very good entry on her, as does Wikipedia.
Her works are taught, remembered and discussed. She matters, and her works matter!
A bookstore from her home town of Pasadena, California, is opening in February (not an accident, I think) in tribute to her, “Octavia’s Bookshelf“. Octavia’s Bookshelf is “Pasadena’s first independent bookstore highlighting BIPOC authors”, to quote their website. There is a great interview of the owner, Nikki High, at the KQED California Report from the January 20, 2023 show, between about 19:35 to about 27:40.
One of my favorite quotes of hers comes from Carolyn S. Davidson’s 1981 “The Science Fiction of Octavia Butler.” In it, she said, “I began writing about power because I had so little.”
As I said, Octavia Butler left us way too soon. I don’t know, but I have to wonder if the systemic racism and resulting stress and health impacts found in all parts of the United States had an effect on how long she lived.
That makes me sad just to consider. If she were still with us, we’d have both more of her fiction and she’d still be making “good trouble” to quote John Lewis, including talking to us or writing about today and how things could be better or different, or not.
But, I really wanted to mention some of her works at both short fiction and novel length that I just love. Especially if you have not read her works, or even if you have, Black History Month would be a great time to revisit her. She is a proud and outstanding part of that.
At the same time, I don’t want to sugar coat things. She did write about brutal things, and did not avoid them or inordinately use euphemisms.
Some of my favorite of her short fiction works include:
“Speech Sounds”, a short story, from Asimov’s Science Fiction, Mid-December 1983. Her first work to win a Hugo Award.
“Bloodchild“, a novelette, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, June 1984. Hugo, Nebula and Locus Award winner.
It’s true that she mostly published novels, but these were two amazing stories from her. I rated them as “Superlative” on my rating scale. These both have many, many reprints, so they are not hard to find. They are both found in her superlative collection, “Bloodchild and Other Stories“, 1995 Four Walls Eight Windows. This collection could be a great place to start if you have not read anything by her.
She wrote a lot of novels, many of which were parts of series. I think I’ve read most of them; this is confused a bit by my reading some of them from the library before I created a Book Database, so I don’t necessarily know for sure if I’ve read them all or not. For her, not appearing in my Book Database does not mean that I did not read or love the rest, but is more an accident of timing.
Looking at my Book Database, I have six of her novels rated as “Superlative”, including:
“Fledgling“, 2005 Seven Stories Press, her last novel and for me her great horror/fantasy novel.
“Patternmaster“, 1976 Doubleday, her first Patternist series novel.
“Wild Seed“, 1980 Doubleday, another in her Patternist series.
“Parable of the Sower“, 1993 Four Walls Eight Windows, first in her Parable of the Sower/Earthsea series.
“Kindred“, 1979 Doubleday.
“Adulthood Rites“, 1988 Warner Books, the second novel in her Xenogenesis/Lilith’s Brood series. (You really should start with the first one, “Dawn“, 1987 Warner Books, which I had as “Great”).
If you look at the “Octavia E. Butler” page at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (or ISFDB), you’ll see her fiction summarized, along with interviews and essays listed. For me, of the fiction noted, the only book of hers in my Book Database that is below a “Great” rating is the posthumous “Unexpected Stories“, a 2014 collection of her unpublished fiction on Open Road Media. I have that at “Very good”, and I was very happy to see it.
Many libraries and all the usual sources stock her works.
So get out there, read some Octavia Butler, and take action to make the world a better place. I know I’ll be revisiting some of her work as part of Black History Month.
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