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Octavia Butler

(1947-2006)
Octavia Estelle Butler, often referred to as the “grand dame of science fiction,” was born in Pasadena, California. She received an Associate of Arts degree in 1968 from Pasadena Community College, and also attended California State University in Los Angeles and the University of California, Los Angeles. During 1969 and 1970, she studied at the Screenwriter’s Guild Open Door Program and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop, where she took a class with Harlan Ellison (who later became her mentor), and which led to Butler selling her first science fiction stories. Butler’s first story, “Crossover,” was published in the 1971 Clarion anthology. With the publication of Kindred in 1979, Butler was able to support herself writing full time. She has won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards. In 1995 Butler was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowship.
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Wild Seed: Two African immortals battle for supremacy in early America

Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

Wild Seed (1980) was written last in Octavia Butler’s 5-book PATTERNIST series, but comes first in chronology. The next books, by internal chronology, are Mind of My Mind (1977), Clay’s Ark (1984), and Patternmaster (1976). Butler was later unsatisfied with Survivor (1978) and elected to not have it reprinted, so I will focus on the main four volumes. Wild Seed is an origin story set well before later books and can stand on its own. It’s one of those books whose basic plot could be described in just a few paragraphs, but the themes it explores are deep, challenging, and thought-provoking. I’ve read a lot of academic discussion of the book, but my a... Read More

Mind of My Mind: The rise of the first Patternmaster

Mind of My Mind by Octavia Butler

Mind of My Mind (1977) was written second in Octavia Butler’s 4-book PATTERNIST series, and comes second in chronology. However, I think it is less-polished than Wild Seed (1980), which comes earlier in chronology but was written later, after she had more fully developed her ideas about psionic powers, power/control, and telepaths vs. mutes. It’s tough to decide whether readers should approach this series in the order it was written, in order to see Butler’s development as a writer, or by internal chronology, to follow the PATTERNIST story at the expense of uneven writing style/quality.

Mind of My Mind takes place about a century after the events of Wild Seed. Doro, the immortal b... Read More

Clay’s Ark: An alien disease transforms a portion of humanity

Clay’s Ark by Octavia Butler

Clay’s Ark (1984) was written last in Octavia Butler’s 4-book PATTERNIST series, but comes third in chronology. It takes place after Wild Seed (1980) and Mind of My Mind (1977), in the post-apocalyptic California desert. Society has collapsed into armed enclaves, marauding ‘car families’, organ hunters, and isolated towns. It’s along the lines of Mad Max, with fuel sources depleted and social infrastructure nonexistent, violent death lurking at any moment, and little room for anything more than survival.

This world is gradually revealed via two storylines, one set in the past and the other in the present. The past story arc is centered on an astronaut named Eli, the only survivor of a spaceship c... Read More

Patternmaster: Patternists and Clayarks battle for dominance

Patternmaster by Octavia Butler

Patternmaster (1976) was written first in Octavia Butler’s PATTERNIST quartet, but comes last in chronology. It takes place several hundred years after Clay’s Ark (1984), back in the Forsythe, CA territory where the Patternists settled down earlier. Society remains scattered and non-industrial, and power is divided between the Patternists, a network of linked human telepaths who can kill at a distance, and the Clayarks, now completely transformed into intelligent, sphinx-like animals with extreme strength, speed, and agility but no special mental powers. The losers in this future world are the mutes, non-pyschic humans who are treated more like pets or servants by the Patternists.

The story centers on Teray, a young Patternist who is o... Read More

Dawn: Aliens grant humans a second chance — at a price

Dawn by Octavia Butler

Dawn (1987) is the first book in Octavia Butler’s XENOGENESIS trilogy, written after her PATTERNIST series. By this point she had been writing challenging science fiction novels for a decade, and her writing craft and ideas had reached a high level. Dawn is a very impressive book. Imagine that mankind has largely destroyed itself and the planet — it’s a fairly common doomsday scenario. But instead of the survivors scrabbling for survival, what if they were saved and kept in storage for centuries by an alien race, the Oankali? And what if one were awakened first, as Lilith Iyabo was, by these strange and frightening alien beings, covered in sensory tentacles? And what if one were told that humanity had been saved and would be repopulating th... Read More

Adulthood Rites: A human-Oankali child is torn between two species

Adulthood Rites by Octavia Butler

Adulthood Rites (1988) is the second book in Octavia Butler’s XENOGENESIS trilogy. It continues the story of Lilith in Dawn (1987), a human woman revived by the alien Oankali centuries after humanity has mostly destroyed itself with nuclear weapons. The Oankali offered humanity a second chance, but at a price — to merge its genes with the Oankali, who are ‘gene traders’ driven to continuously seek new species in the galaxy to combine their DNA with, transforming both sides in the process.

10 years after the events of Dawn, Lilith has given birth to a son named Akin, the first male ‘construct’ to be born to a human woman. There are number of distinct groups in this newly reborn Earth – Oankali who d... Read More

Imago: Finally, we see the Ooloi perspective

Imago by Octavia Butler

Imago (1988) is the third book in Octavia Butler’s XENOGENESIS trilogy. It concludes the story begun with the human woman Lilith in Dawn (1987) and continued with her Oankali-human ‘construct’ son Akin in Adulthood Rites (1988). Imago takes the bold but logical next step by shifting the perspective to Jodahs, an Ooloi-human construct. The Ooloi are the third, gender-less sex of the Oankali, the alien race of ‘gene traders’ that saved the remnants of humanity on the condition that humanity share its DNA with them and be forever transformed in the process.

Once again Butler doesn’t hesitate to plunge us into the unknown, this time exploring the strangest aspect of the Oankali, the psychically-powerful Ooloi who can manipulate the DNA of living creatures directly... Read More

Parable of the Sower: A new religion born from societal collapse

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Parable of the Sower (1993) is the first book in Octavia Butler’s PARABLE (EARTHSEED) series. It is one of her most well-regarded novels, along with Kindred (1979) and Wild Seed (1980), and depicts a near-future United States that has collapsed due to environmental catastrophe into roving bands of thieves, drug addicts, rapists, murderers, scavengers, corporate towns that impose wage slavery, and gated communities protected by armed guards that strive to survive amidst the chaos.

It is an unforgiving world in which the strong, violent, and ruthless dominate the weak and powerless. The story centers around Lauren Olamina, a 17-year old girl born to a Black Baptist preacher and Hispanic mother. Due to drugs... Read More

Kindred: A complex exploration of the slave/slaver relationship

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Kindred
(1979) is Octavia Butler’s earliest stand-alone novel, and though it features time travel, it’s not really science fiction or fantasy. It’s an exploration of American slavery and its painful legacy from the eyes of a contemporary (well, circa 1976) young black woman named Dana. So don’t expect to learn why she keeps being pulled back in time to a pre-Civil War slave plantation in Maryland every time her ancestor, a white slave owner named Rufus Weylin, finds his life in danger. It’s a plot device that allows the reader to experience all the horrors of being a powerless black female slave in 1815 while retaining a modern perspective. So this book is firmly in the tradition of Alex Haley’s Roots (1976), Alice Walker’s The Color Purple Read More

Fledgling: Love and relationships examined through vampirism

Fledgling by Octavia Butler

In some ways there are superficial resemblances between Fledgling and the last vampire book I read, Let the Right One In: both books have as their star apparently pre-pubescent vampires who have ‘complicated’ relationships with their human companions. In John Ajvide Lindqvist’s case it was a Renfield-like adult who was enamoured of the vampire-child for whom he obtained blood and the young boy who becomes a part of her life. In the case of Butler’s book the vampire in question, Shori, isn’t even only apparently pre-pubescent… according to vampire physiology she is in fact still a child, though that still translates to her being much older than her appearance would suggest (around 52 years old in fact). Despite this fact the relationships she has with the humans around her bear all of the appearances of a pedophilic relationship, at least from the outside.... Read More

Unexpected Stories: Challenging science fiction

Unexpected Stories by Octavia Butler

The late Octavia Butler wrote brilliant, challenging science fiction along more or less the same lines as Ursula K. Le Guin: the speculations are often anthropological, and she's fascinated by how people interact. I read one of her XENOGENESIS novels years ago and found it the kind of powerful, disturbing book that I can only read occasionally. I was excited to hear that a couple of her unpublished stories had been found and published under the title Unexpected Stories.

They're very fine stories. They're beautifully written, with an easy competence that I see all too rarely, and the speculations themselves — particularly in the first story — are out of the ordinary way. I don't love them so much as to give them five stars, but that last half-star is nothing to do with the q... Read More