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Biography of Octavia E. Butler

Name: Octavia E. Butler
Bith Date: June 22, 1947
Death Date:
Place of Birth: Pasadena, California, United States
Nationality: American
Gender: Female
Occupations: author
Octavia E. Butler

Octavia Butler (born 1947) is best known as the author of the Patternist series of science fiction novels in which she explores topics traditionally given only cursory treatment in the genre, including sexual identity and racial conflict. Butler's heroines are black women who are both mentally and physically powerful .

Butler grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood in Pasadena, California. Her father died while she was very young, and her mother worked as a maid to support the two of them. Butler has written memoirs of her mother's sacrifices: buying her a typewriter of her own when she was ten years old, and to paying a large fee to an unscrupulous agent so Butler's stories could be read. Butler entered student contests as a teenager, and after attending workshops like the Writers Guild of America, West "open door" program during the late 1960s and the Clarion Science Fiction Writer's Workshop in 1970, Butler sold her first science fiction stories.This early training brought her into contact with a range of well-known science fiction writers, including Joanna Russ and Harlan Ellison, who became Butler's mentor.

Four of Butler's six novels revolve around the Patternists, a group of mentally superior beings who are telepathically connected to one another. These beings are the descendants of Doro, a four thousand-year-old Nubian male who has selectively bred with humans throughout time with the intention of establishing a race of superhumans. He prolongs his life by killing others, including his family members, and inhabiting their bodies. The origin of the Patternists is outlined in Wild Seed, which begins in seventeenth-century Africa and spans more than two centuries. The Novel recounts Doro's uneasy alliance with Anyanwu, an earth-mother figure whose extraordinary powers he covets. Their relationship progresses from power struggles and tests of will to mutual need and dependency. Doro's tyranny ends when one of his children, the heroine of Mind of My Mind, destroys him and united the Patternists with care and compassion. Patternmaster and Survivor are also part of the Patternist series. The first book set in the future, concerns two brothers vying for their dying father's legacy. However, the pivotal character in the novel is Amber, one of Butler's most heroic women, whose unconventional relationship with one of her brothers is often interpreted in feminist contexts. In Survivor, set on an alien planet, Butler examines human attitudes toward racial and ethnic differences and their effects on two alien creatures. Alanna, the human protagonist, triumphs over racial prejudice and enslavement by teaching her alien captors tolerance and respect for individuality. Kindred departs from the Patternist series yet shares its focus on male/female relationships and racial matters. The protagonist, Dana, is a contemporary writer who is telepathically transported to a pre-Civil War plantation. She is a victim both of the slave-owning ancestor who summons her when he is in danger and of the slave-holding age in which she is trapped for increasing periods. Clay's Ark (1984) reflects Butler's interest in the psychological traits of men and women in a story of a space virus that threatens the earth's population with disease and genetic mutation. In an interview, Butler commented on how Ronald Reagan's vision of a winnable nuclear war encouraged her to write more dystopic material. This shift in focus is most evident in Parable of the Sower (1994), a novel which depicts a religious sea-change, set against the backdrop of a strife-ridden inner city in 2025. She followed this novel with a powerful sequel, Parable of the Talents (1998), which chronicles the destruction of a town by the rising forces of Christian fundamentalism.

Critics have often applauded Butler's lack of sentimentality and have responded favorably on her direct treatment of subjects not previously addressed in science fiction, such as sexuality, male/female relationships, racial inequity, and contemporary politics. Frances Smith Foster has commented: "Octavia Butler is not just another woman science fiction writer. Her major characters are black women, and through her characters and through the structure of her imagined social order, Butler consciously explores the impact of race and sex upon future society."

Concerned with genetic engineering, psionic powers, advanced alien beings, and the nature and proper use of power, Octavia E. Butler's science fiction presents these themes in terms of racial and sexual awareness. "Butler consciously explores the impact of race and sex upon future society," Frances Smith Foster explains in Extrapolation. As one of the few black writers in the science fiction field, and the only black woman, Butler's racial and sexual perspective is unique. This perspective, however, does not limit her fiction or turn it into mere propaganda. "Her stories," Sherley Anne Williams writes in Ms., "aren't overwhelmed by politics, nor are her characters overwhelmed by racism or sexism." Speaking of how Butler's early novels deal with racial questions in particular, John R. Pfeiffer of Fantasy Review maintains that "nevertheless, and therefore more remarkably, these are the novels of character that critics so much want to find in science fiction--and which remain so rare. Finally, they are love stories that are mythic, bizarre, exotic and heroic and full of doom and transcendence."

Among Butler's strengths as a writer, according to some reviewers, is her creation of believable, independent female characters. "Her major characters are black women," Foster explains, and through these characters Butler explores the possibilities for a society open to true sexual equality. In such a society Butler's female characters, "powerful and purposeful in their own right, need not rely upon eroticism to gain their ends." Williams also believes that Butler posits "a multiracial society featuring strong women characters." In addition to her unique characters, critics praise Butler's controlled, economical prose style. Writing in the Washington Post Book World, Elizabeth A. Lynn calls the author's prose "spare and sure, and even in moments of great tension she never loses control over her pacing or over her sense of story." "Butler," Dean R. Lambe of the Science Fiction Review similarly attests, "has a fine hand with lean, well-paced prose."

Butler's stories have been well received by science fiction fans. In 1985 she won three of the field's top honors--the Nebula Award, the Hugo Award, and the Locus Award--for her novella "Bloodchild," the story of human males on another planet who bear the children of an alien race. "`Bloodchild,'" Williams explains, "explores the paradoxes of power and inequality, and starkly portrays the experience of a class who, like women throughout most of history, are valued chiefly for their reproductive capacities."

Historical Context

  • The Life and Times of Octavia E. Butler (1947-)
  • At the time of Butler's birth:
  • Harry S Truman was president of the United States
  • Albert Camus' The Plague published
  • Notable films were Miracle on 34th Street, with Maureen O'Hara and Edmund Gwenn, and The Farmer's Daughter with Loretta Young and Joseph Cotten
  • Ajax cleanser was introduced by Colgate-Palmolive
  • The times:
  • 1950-1953: Korean War
  • 1957-1975: Vietnam War
  • 1960-present: Postmodernist Period in American literature
  • 1983: American invasion of Grenada
  • 1991: Persian Gulf War
  • 1992-1996: Civil war in Bosnia
  • Butler's contemporaries:
  • Alice Walker (1944-) American writer
  • Hillary Rodham Clinton (1947-) Lawyer and "First Lady" of United States
  • David Mamet (1947-) American playwright
  • Stephen King (1947-) American writer
  • David Bowie (1947-) British singer/musician
  • Meryl Streep (1949-) American actress
  • Selected world events:
  • 1949: George Orwell's 1984 published
  • 1954: William Golding's Lord of the Flies published
  • 1955: U.S. occupation of Japan ended
  • 1963: President John F. Kennedy assassinated in Dallas
  • 1966: Star Trek premieres on NBC television
  • 1969: Neil Armstrong was first person to walk on the moon
  • 1981: IBM introduced its first personal computer
  • 1987: Toni Morrison's Beloved published

Further Reading

  • Contemporary Literary Criticism,Volume 38, Gale, 1986.
  • Dictionary of Literary Biography,Volume 33: Afro-American Fiction Writers After 1955, Gale, 1984.
  • Analog: Science Fiction/Science Fact, January 5, 1981; November, 1984; December 15, 1987; December, 1988.
  • Black American Literature Forum, summer, 1984.
  • Black Scholar, March/April, 1986.
  • Equal Opportunity Forum Magazine, Number 8, 1980.
  • Essence, April, 1979; May, 1989, pp. 74, 79, 132, 134.
  • Extrapolation, spring, 1982.
  • Fantasy Review, July, 1984.
  • Janus, winter, 1978-79.
  • Los Angeles Times, January 30, 1981.
  • Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February, 1980; August, 1984.
  • Ms., March, 1986; June, 1987.
  • Salaga, 1981.
  • Science Fiction Review, May, 1984.
  • Thrust: Science Fiction in Review, summer, 1979.
  • Washington Post Book World, September 28, 1980; June 28, 1987; July 31, 1988; June 25, 1989.

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