OCTAVIA E. BUTLER was an American science fiction author born on this date (d: 2006); A multiple recipient of both the Hugo and Nebula awards, she became in 1995 the first science-fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Fellowship.
Butler was born in Pasadena, California. After her father died, she was raised by her widowed mother. Extremely shy as a child, Octavia found an outlet at the library reading fantasy, and in writing. She began writing science fiction as a teenager. She attended community college during the Black Power movement, and while participating in a local writer’s workshop was encouraged to attend the Clarion Workshop, which focused on science fiction.
She soon sold her first stories and by the late 1970s had become sufficiently successful as an author that she was able to pursue writing full-time. Her books and short stories drew the favorable attention of the public and awards judges. She also taught writer’s workshops, and eventually relocated to Washington state. Butler died of a stroke at the age of 58. Her papers are held in the research collection of the Huntington Library. A black woman and a lesbian, but a loner, Octavia Butler stood out in a field dominated by white men, but her talent as an author made her famous.
Butler’s first work published was “Crossover” in the 1971 Clarion Workshop anthology. She also sold the short story “Childfinder” to Harlan Ellison for the anthology The Last Dangerous Visions. “I thought I was on my way as a writer”, Butler recalled in her short fiction collection Bloodchild and Other Stories. “In fact, I had five more years of rejection slips and horrible little jobs ahead of me before I sold another word.”
Starting in 1974, Butler worked on a series of novels that would later be collected as the Patternist series, which depicts the transformation of humanity into three genetic groups: the dominant Patternists, humans who have been bred with heightened telepathic powers and are bound to the Patternmaster via a psionic chain; their enemies the Clayarks, disease-mutated animal-like superhumans; and the Mutes, ordinary humans bonded to the Patternists.
The first novel, Patternmaster (1976), eventually became the last installment in the series’ internal chronology. Set in the distant future, it tells of the coming-of-age of Teray, a young Patternist who fights for position within Patternist society and eventually for the role of Patternmaster.
Next came Mind of My Mind (1977), a prequel to Patternmaster set in the 20th century. The story follows the development of Mary, the creator of the psionic chain and the first Patternmaster to bind all Patternists, and her inevitable struggle for power with her father Doro, a parapsychological vampire who seeks to retain control over the psionic children he has bred over the centuries.
Know the past.
Let it touch you.
—From “Earthseed: The Books of the Living,” Parable of the Talents.
The third book of the series, Survivor, was published in 1978. The titular survivor is Alanna, the adopted child of the Missionaries, fundamentalist Christians who have traveled to another planet to escape Patternist control and Clayark infection. Captured by a local tribe called the Tehkohn, Alanna learns their language and adopts their customs, knowledge which she then uses to help the Missionaries avoid bondage and assimilation into a rival tribe that opposes the Tehkohn. Butler would later call Survivor the least favorite of her books, and withdraw it from reprinting.
After Survivor, Butler took a break from the Patternist series to write what would become her best-selling novel, Kindred (1979), as well as the short story “Near of Kin” (1979). In Kindred, Dana, an African-American woman, is transported from 1976 Los Angeles to early 19th-century Maryland. She meets her ancestors: Rufus, a white slave holder, and Alice, a black freewoman forced into slavery later in life. In “Near of Kin” the protagonist discovers a taboo relationship in her family as she goes through her mother’s things after her death.