To celebrate what would have been Octavia E. Butler’s 71st birthday, Google created a doodle for the late science fiction writer, showcasing her immense contributions to the genre. Butler’s works not only stand out as dystopias with prescient commentary, but her characters offer diverse perspectives in a genre that historically relied on white male protagonists.
Born in 1947 in Pasadena, California, Butler was able to navigate much adversity throughout her career, not least of which included the institutional racism and segregation she would confront early in life. These experiences would later influence her writing, which would often explore social and political themes through the eyes of women and black characters, a rare example of diversity in an otherwise white-dominated genre.
“I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open,” Butler once said in an interview with The Indypendent. “I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.” Butler was able to create new worlds where the prejudices she faced could be reexamined, countered, and subverted. Her dystopias reflected the social issues plaguing modernity while also absorbing readers into a new world of possibility.
By challenging science fiction’s reliance on white protagonists, Butler successfully made the genre accessible to a greater audience. She often said her central audiences included black readers, feminists, and fans of science fiction, and each of these communities could connect with characters.
Whether just getting acquainted with Butler’s work or familiar with her complete canon, her dystopian stories have withstood the test of time and are in many ways more relevant today. These five books are a great starting point to connect with Butler’s most celebrated characters and their futurist fates.
Butler’s best-selling novel is considered a keystone for science fiction and black American literature. Kindred is also thought to be the book most directly inspired by Butler’s childhood.
The novel follows Dana, a black woman living in California in 1976 who is transported to the antebellum South. During multiple leaps in time, she confronts a dark history of slavery, systematic violence, and her own complicated views of her ancestors. The novel is not only a rare combination of slave memoir and fantasy fiction, but it offers a raw depiction of slavery in America and its ripple effects, aided by the use of time travel.
Bloodchild and Other Stories
Butler’s only collection of science fiction short stories is perfect to read in an afternoon, despite some of its gruesome themes. The title story Bloodchild won the Hugo Award, the Locus Award, the Science Fiction Chronicle Reader Award, and the Nebula Award for Best Novelette for its powerful commentary on race and gender.
Set on an alien planet, Bloodchild depicts human refugees as they navigate a planet controlled by an insect-like species. It’s best known for its use of role reversals, where the male narrator is forced to carry offspring and be subjected to painful deliveries and social oppression. This is just the first in Butler’s compendium of short stories that create dystopian spaces with powerful commentary.
Dawn is the first installment of what would later become the Xenogenesis trilogy, a series that begins with Lilith Iyapo, a black woman who finds herself on a spaceship orbiting Earth 250 years after the population was destroyed in a nuclear apocalypse. Human survivors who were saved by the Oankali aliens are expected to combine their DNA with the Oankali’s third sex in order to eliminate humanity’s self-destructive nature.
This intense drama explores humanity’s flaws through a series of complex relationships. Last August, it was announced that Dawn was being adapted for television. Ava DuVernay and Charles D. King’s Macro Ventures are set to produce the television series based on Butler’s story.
Parable of the Sower
In the 1990s, Butler published two novels that would later be known as the Earthseed series. The novels explore the struggles of the Earthseed community after environmental destruction and capitalist greed led to the political collapse of the United States.
Parable of the Sower is the first in that series and follows Lauren Oya Olamina in the year 2020. Lauren’s superpower of “hyperempathy,” which lets her experience other’s pain and joy as her own, helps her lead a group of survivors in a fallen country, resulting in an action-packed suspense novel.
Butler published Fledgling in 2005, one year before her death. Much like her earlier work, her last novel takes a classic theme and transforms it into a modern parable that challenges the readers’ perceptions of race, gender, age, and family.
Fledgling is equal parts a vampire story and a coming-of-age narrative that follows a young girl and vampire hybrid who belongs to the Ina species. Unlike most vampire stories, the young hybrid takes a path of self-discovery, navigating complex relationships and confronting issues of identity.
“My race and sex had a great deal more to do with what people believed I could do than with what I actually could do,” Butler once said. Not only did her success create a path for women and writers of color to break into the genre of science fiction, but Butler’s diverse, multi-dimensional characters served to dismantle the prejudices that tried to hold her back.