Biography of Octavia E. Butler

Octavia Butler was one of the most prolific 20th-century writers, known for her works that crossed genre boundaries of science fiction, African American literature, and feminist and historical works. Her heroines tend to be independent and intelligent African American women.

Butler was born in Pasadena, California on June 22, 1947. She was raised by her mother and grandmother in a strict Baptist environment and demonstrated a love for reading and writing at an early age. She was shy, very tall for her age, and dyslexic; she spent much time on her own. Although Pasadena was an integrated and diverse city, she witnessed racial discrimination firsthand when she accompanied her mother to work cleaning white people's houses and had to enter through the back door, often being spoken to rudely.

She attended Pasadena City College in 1968 and won a short story contest, but it was at UCLA’s night school where she studied creative writing and began publishing numerous short stories in science fiction magazines. At the urging of famous science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, whom she met through an Open Door Workshop at the Screenwriters’ Guild of America, she attended the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop in Clarion, Pennsylvania in 1970.

Butler’s most famous novel, Kindred, was published in 1979. Throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s she worked on the “Patternist” series, in which a young woman works to defeat her tyrannical telepath father in a narrative spanning past and present. Butler had actually written an early draft for this series when she was a very young woman. The Xenogenesis/Lillith's Brood Trilogy concerns sex, race, genetic engineering, and sociobiology. The Earthseed Series of the early 1990s focuses on the desire for the stars. Her last book was 2005’s Fledgling, a science-fiction/vampire novel.

In 1984 she won the Hugo Award for the short story “Speech Sounds,” and in 1985 won the Nebula, the Locus, and the Hugo again for “Bloodchild.” In 1995 Butler received the MacArthur “Genius” Award, the first science fiction writer to do so, and in 2000 she was awarded the PEN Center West Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2005 she was inducted into Chicago State University’s International Black Writers’ Hall of Fame.

In September 2020, Butler's Parable of the Sower, which was published in 1993, entered the New York Times Best Seller List for the first time in her career. Her agent, Merrilee Heifetz, tweeted: "Octavia E. Butler, who died in 2006, is a NYT Bestselling Author. This was one of her life goals. Thank you all for making it happen!"

Butler died on February 24th, 2006 at age 58 from an accidental fall. Her work has attracted numerous scholarly and critical writings, and she has been almost universally praised. The critic Burton Raffel praised her prose as “crystalline, at its best, sensuous, sensitive, exact, not in the least directed at calling attention to itself” and the Houston Post referred to her as “among the best SF writers, blessed with a mind capable of conceiving complicated futuristic situations that shed considerable light on our current affairs.”

Study Guides on Works by Octavia E. Butler

Clay’s Ark is the last of five novels which comprise Octavia Butler’s Patternmaster series of science fiction tales. The series that commence in 1976 was brought to a close with a book which gestated and was born during a very difficult period for...

Octavia Butler published Dawn in 1987. It centers on Lilith Iyapo, who has been kidnapped by an alien race called the Oankali. The human race has nearly killed itself off in a nuclear war. The Oankali picked up the surviving humans and placed them...

Kindred is science fiction writer Octavia Butler’s most famous work. A genre-bending novel, it includes explorations time travel, antebellum slavery, and feminism, told in gripping and immediate prose. It has been referred to as a work of...