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 of which take place in Southern California, where Butler lived for most of her life. Political and social justice activists in particular are taking an interest in her work for the way it intertwines themes of racism, misogyny and class struggles with alien abduction, time travel and parallel universes.
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 her novel “Kindred” in 1979, 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. “Just because of who she was and what she experienced, she writes about L.A. in a different way than you would get in a Raymond Chandler novel.”
Butler researched life in the antebellum South for “Kindred,” the story of a black woman in California who goes back in time 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. “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. Many of her works are coming-of-age tales where people are testing out and discovering who they are. That transformational process, along with the growing pains, joys and shock that go along with it, really grabs people,” said Jamieson, founder of the Octavia Butler E. Legacy Network.
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. “The simple answer is that her legacy is her readers; what she has done is, she opened a door of possibility.”
This story is based on 2016 CNN reporting.