Callaloo 29.2 (2006) 245-248
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Octavia E. Butler
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| Figure 1 |
Octavia E. Butler
I feel that what people bring to my work is at least as important to them as what I put into it.
Octavia Estelle Butler was born in Pasadena, California, on June 22, 1947. Butler was raised primarily by her mother, as her father died when she was very young. To escape the boredom of poverty, Butler began writing at the age of 10. Despite her dyslexia, by the time she was 12, she had become an avid reader of science fiction. After seeing a science fiction film entitled Devil Girl from Mars, Butler decided to begin producing science fiction that did not ignore issues of race and gender. She studied at Pasadena City College, California State University, and UCLA, and participated in the Open Door Program of Screen Writers' Guild of America, West (1969–70), and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop in 1970.
Soon after her first short story "Crossover" was published in the Clarion's 1971 anthology, Butler began work on her first novel Patternmaster (1976). In brief, Patternmaster is an Arthurian tale of two brothers seeking the throne of their father. Amber, "a golden brown woman with hair that was a round cap of small tight black curls", guides the younger brother to success. Patternmaster is the first book in a series that follows the progeny of two shape-shifters known as Doro and Anyanwu. These two very important characters are not introduced until the 1980 publication of Wildseed, the first book in the series chronologically. Wildseed acts as a genesis/love story of a race of people who are not bounded by their physical identities. Doro wears the stolen bodies of people like clothing, discarding them when they have served his reproductive purposes. Anyanwu changes the shape of her body to mimic the identity of man, woman, child, or animal, regardless of race or gender. The offspring of these two godlike characters give birth to the pattern, which is a telepathic matrix that connects all of the children of Doro and Anyanwu. The pattern is revealed in the novel Mind of My Mind (1977). Clay's Ark (1984) and Survivor (1978) complete the Patternist Series.
Butler's most widely read and most solitary novel, Kindred (1979), is often mistaken as her first novel because of its popularity. The novel acts as a wonderful example of Butler's ability to blur the genres of science fiction, historical fiction, and slave narrative. Although the plot of this feminist novel focuses on time travel, the issues of race, gender, and survival are vital topics of discussion in the narrative.
The Xenogenesis Series, which includes Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989), comes very close to what has traditionally been thought of as science fiction—because [End Page 246] it involves aliens from other planets. The Oankali, or gene traders, are an "alien race" of nomads traveling through space seeking difference to amalgamate in order to survive. The matriarch of the series is Lilith, a headstrong woman-of-color intent on saving pieces of humanity by choosing to reproduce hybrid offspring with the Oankali. In Adulthood Rites and Imago, Lilith's children act as the ambassadors of goodwill and teach humanity that change is inevitable and survival is both relative and conditional.
Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) are both examples of the speculative element present in all of Butler's writing. Both novels act as cautionary tales that seek to warn readers about what might happen if they continue along their current path of destruction. In Butler's fiction, the highest goal for humanity is survival by any means necessary, but the means often illustrated is to accept difference and acknowledge the inevitability and omnipotence of change. The synchronization of humanity is not worthy of pursuit in Butler's narratives, primarily because "sameness" is not in Butler's definition of "better world." As her narratives suggest, conformity does not...