Octavia Estelle Butler was born on June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, California. Her father, a shoeshiner, died when Butler was an infant. Butler’s mother, Octavia, and grandmother raised her. From an early age, Butler watched her mother work to keep the family afloat and heard her grandmother’s tales of suffering and misery. Octavia worked as a housemaid in the homes of white people who treated her as if she were less than human. Butler’s grandmother had been a slave in Louisiana, forced to work in the cane fields. These women, who endured oppression and supported their families, informed Butler’s stories. She said that the misery of her female relatives’ lives inspired her to spin fantasy worlds into which she could escape.
As a child, Butler was known as “Junie,” possibly to distinguish her from Octavia, who shared her name. Butler was a quiet, extremely shy child. Although she suffered from dyslexia, she found solace in books. At age ten, Butler began writing. At age twelve, she developed an interest in science fiction that was to last for the rest of her life. Butler aspired to write science fiction featuring characters who, like her, felt disconnected from society. Through the fantasy societies she created, which were peopled by aliens, vampires, and other nonhumans, Butler was able to explore real-world problems of isolation, cruelty, and racism.
In 1968, Butler earned an associate’s degree from Pasadena City College. She enrolled at California State University, but she left before earning her degree. Later, she took classes at the University of California, Los Angeles. Harlan Ellison, the renowned science fiction writer, taught Butler at the Clarion writing workshop. Butler supported herself by working odd jobs. She got up every morning at two to write.
Kindred is one of very few works of science fiction about slavery, and its first-person narrative makes it unique among books about slavery. Butler said that the idea for the novel came to her as she listened to a male classmate at Pasadena City College complain about how his parents held him back and how he wanted to kill off older generations of African-Americans. Butler wanted to write a story in response, one that would illustrate African-American history in a visceral way. In the novel, Butler tries to depict slaves as individuals, rather than lapsing into typecasts. She also attempts to portray the slaveholders with equity, showing not only their cruelty but also their humanity.
Butler is often hailed for her success as a black woman writer of science fiction, a genre dominated by white men. She said that her experience as a black woman in a hostile society made her singularly capable of writing about dystopias. She also said that she was writing not for other people, but for herself. Although she was glad if her work helped others, she said that writing each of her works forced her to grow in new ways, and that she wrote to create herself.
Most of Butler’s fictional creations are aliens and other nonhuman characters, but all of them have complex human traits. Her first novel, Patternmaster (1976), was the first published in the Patternist series, which explored a society run by a race of telepathic people who were attempting to create a superhuman race. Butler wrote twelve novels, including Parable of the Sower (1993), Parable of the Talents (1998), and Fledgling (2005). She also published a short story collection called Bloodchild in 1995.
In 1995, Butler won the MacArthur fellowship. She was the first science fiction writer ever to receive the award. Among other awards, Butler won two Hugo Awards from the World Science Fiction Society and two Nebula Awards from the Science Fiction Writers of America.
Octavia Butler died on February 24, 2006, after falling near her home in Lake Forest Park, Washington.