Before dystopian fiction like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” reflected an increasingly diverse society, there was Octavia E. Butler, one of few African-American authors to become a prominent name in the white-dominated universe of science fiction.
Butler featured people of color in battles for control against aliens and hybrid species, opening a world of possibilities to readers who had been excluded from the genre. Her work helped define the literary cornerstone of Afrofuturism, then an emerging movement that draws from science fiction and fantasy with a socially conscious bend.
By the time she died of a stroke at age 58 in 2006, Butler had amassed international acclaim among fans of speculative fiction, a combination of science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Her fan base continues to grow as a new generation discovers her 12 novels and short stories – most recently her 1979 novel “Kindred,” the basis for a new series streaming on Hulu. The book is about a contemporary Black writer who finds herself transported back in time to a 19th-century plantation, where she must confront the horrors of slavery.
Writing became a refuge for Butler when she was young
Born in 1947 to a domestic worker and a man who shined shoes, Butler sought refuge in writing from her isolated existence as a tall, awkward black girl growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. She received little encouragement from her mother or grandmother, who helped raise her after her father died. Their attitude was understandable for the era, when few people of color – and even fewer women – pursued careers as writers.
Butler prevailed, graduating from Pasadena City College in 1968. She went on to study at the Screen Writers Guild Open Door Program and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop, where she found a mentor in science-fiction great Harlan Ellison. She took a series of temporary jobs on factory assembly lines and elsewhere while honing her craft.
After the success of “Kindred,” she was able to support herself writing full time and went on to capture top literary accolades. In 1995, she became the first science-fiction writer to win a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” fellowship.
“Her characters are mostly black women or brown people living in a world that is deeply problematic, and it’s a different underbelly than you would get in the typical L.A. crime novel,” said Julia Meltzer, founder and director of Los Angeles arts organization Clockshop.
Her books combine science fiction with social commentary
Butler researched life in the antebellum South for “Kindred’s” story of a black woman in California who goes back to pre-Civil War times to rescue an ancestor, the White son of a plantation owner.
“What she has done is prefigured the young-adult literature market,” photographer Connie Samaras said. “What’s profound about Butler’s work is, she talks about cultural differences and social differences and people, but it’s always in a way to look at human connectivity.”
For the “Xenogenesis” trilogy (now published as the “Lillith’s Brood” books), a post-apocalyptic tale of human-alien genetic blending, Butler dived headlong into human anatomy and molecular biology.
As one biologist noted, her vision was “remarkably consistent with modern molecular biology, even predicting developments that have occurred since the novels were written.”
Aside from mastering the science of her subject matter, Butler built worlds that included people often left out of history and popular culture.
“She had a deep commitment to science fiction, and she wrote many wonderful books, but her talent was in worldbuilding,” said mystery writer Walter Mosley, a friend and contemporary.
“And underneath that was a social and political fever which spoke so loudly and clearly to women in the black community.”
Those worlds and the characters’ struggles are just as relatable today, film curator Erin Christovale said, making Butler’s work ripe for new audiences.
“Her work is extremely cinematic; I’m waiting for the day something gets adapted,” Christovale said in 2016. “It shows the possibility of experimental black film by stepping away from stereotypes put on people of color in the film industry and focusing on personal narratives.
“It brings the larger idea that there’s not one way of existing, and we don’t have one singular identity.”
Butler’s inclusiveness – and the struggles of those communities – is what makes her work resonate among the latest generation of activists.
“Octavia’s Brood” is an anthology of fantastical science-fiction stories written by American organizers and activists, published in 2015. It’s since become a community of writers, artists and activists who see aspects of Butler’s work as a blueprint for organizing.
“Our realities are not utopian or dystopian, they are realistic and hard, but hopeful,” “Octavia’s Brood” co-editor Walidah Imarisha wrote in an email. “And that is what (Butler) pulls out in her work. As much as the inclusion of marginalized characters at the center, the principles and values which embody positive change have so many lessons to teach us.”
The social and political themes underlying her stories continue to resonate with broader audiences, Butler biographer Ayana Jamieson said.
“People on the margins – black people, women, science-fiction readers, feminists, queer folks, variously abled and gendered folks – find parts of themselves in her work.
Indeed, Butler’s chosen genre allowed her to make the fantastical relatable.
“What science fiction does is, it creates a future for the readers, and black people, especially black women, are less considered in the future than almost anybody in this country,” Mosley said.