It’s difficult to choose your favorite author, especially if you can only pick one. I want to name at least five! But if I’d really had to narrow it down to one person, I’d name Octavia Estelle Butler. Butler was a black, female author of science-fiction who passed away in 2006 at the age of 58. She was a rarity: not many women are appreciated in the world of sci-fi, especially not in the 20th century, and especially not African-American ones! In her life she has collected a Hugo and a Nebula award, and she received the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant –the first time this grant went to a science fiction author. Her books are fantastic, and the awards are (in my very valid fan-opinion) totally deserved.
Butler published several series, short stories and a few stand-alone novels. It can be overwhelming to know where to start, especially if you don’t know what book will best fit your tastes. Here I’ll take you through her collection of works. Hopefully you’ll be convinced to try at least one of them!
Kindred is one of Butler’s most well-known novels. It’s a stand-alone historical novel with a time travel element. Dana is a young African-American woman who gets thrown from the 1970’s into pre-Civil War Maryland. After saving a slaveholder’s kid from drowning, she returns to her modern times, only to be transported back again every time this mysterious boy requires her assistance in his life. Refusing to protect him will mean that her great-grandmother will never be born… Being black, Dana doesn’t stand much of a chance in these times of slavery. This is a violent book, and Dana’s story is gruesome. I think I’ve never felt this angry while reading a book. If you’re easily intimidated by sci-fi books, Kindred might be a good place for you to start with Butler’s works. If you enjoy graphic novels, you might want to pick up the graphic novel adaptation by Damian Duffy and John Jennings.
Xenogenesis is a trilogy containing the following books: Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago. The three are often sold in a bind-up called Lilith’s Brood. Dawn was the very first book of Butler’s that I read and it blew my mind! I quickly continued on to book two and three, and soon after felt that sinking emptiness you experience when a book series that has been with you for so many hours is finally over.
The first book is about Lilith. After a war destroys much of the earth, the leftover humans struggle to survive until a strange alien ship arrives. The humans are kept in stasis for a long period of time, until slowly they are being woken up to adjust to their new alien counterparts: the Oankali. Lilith functions against her will as a kind of diplomat between the two species. This trilogy is a shining example of Octavia’s morally grey stories. In book one I was angry with the humans, but not as much as I was with the aliens. That all changed in book two. But then the third book came along and well… You better see for yourself.
Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents together form the Earthseed duology. Olamina lives in North America, 2025. The world has become a chaotic place: corporations have more power than ever, climate change has wreaked havoc on the earth, religious extremism is on the rise and surviving outside of gated communities has become almost impossible. Yet, that is exactly what Olamina must do after her village falls and her family is killed. Equipped with only a debilitating condition called hyperempathy and a notebook with her developing philosophies, she sets out into the world to create her very own community. Really, what could go wrong?
Did you see the banners during the women’s and climate marches after Trump’s election that said “Octavia knew”? They refer to this duology, one which is frighteningly close to the reality that has been developing right under our own noses. From corrupt presidents screaming “Make America great again!” to looking the other way when conservative neo-Nazis march and try to reinstate slavery –these books have it all. Alternate reading this duology with watching lots of cat videos.
The Patternmaster series consists of four main works: Wild Seed, Mind of My Mind, Clay’s Ark, and Patternmaster. They’re also sold as one bind-up called Seed to Harvest. The books have not been released in chronical order, but I’d advice you to pick the chronological order over the publication order: it makes a lot more sense that way.
These books are a ride! You’ll start of long, long ago in Africa, when there was a woman called Anyanwu who could change shapes and a man called Doro who could change bodies. When these two meet, the world is changed forever. Doro is obsessed with breeding a perfect race of humans and the books will take you through thousands of years to see how this plays out. It’s a very violent and bleak story that will often pull your heartstrings. Like always, I eventually did know what character to support. Some will have good intentions, but horrible actions… yet others will be the other way around. I could not stop reading these until I’d finished the series completely.
You might have encountered Fledgling before on my blog, in my post about black vampires. Fledgling is Octavia E. Butler’s last novel. I didn’t think much of it when I initially read it, but soon after it kept coming up in my mind and eventually I couldn’t stop thinking about it. In this book vampires are a species completely separate from humans. It’s impossible to turn a human into a vampire and vice versa. However, the two live in a questionable symbiosis. We follow a genetically modified 53-year-old vampire who looks like an eleven year old black girl. She wakes up in an unusual situation and can’t remember who she is and how she got there. Exploration ensues. This book, like most of Butler’s books, is written to be morally grey. At times it will make you squirm, and other times you’ll be able to sympathize with things you might have never imagined. At the end, I didn’t know how to feel. Would I want to be in the position of the characters? Could these things ever be ethical? I’m still not sure. However, I do know for certain that this is a very interesting read that I’ll be rereading several times.
If you want to read all of Octavia Butler’s short stories, you can find them collected in two books: Bloodchild and Other Stories, and Unexpected Stories. The first one is a collection of all stories that Butler got published in her lifetime. The second one is a collection of three stories that were found and published postmortem.
Would you want to be a host for alien reproduction? What would you suggest if God would take one of your ideas and put it into practice to help humanity? What if people couldn’t speak anymore? What if you were to negotiate a relationship between alien invaders and humans? Butler’s stories explore such interesting concepts. They remain with you for a long time.
More about Butler
If you want to know more about Butler, I’d recommend reading Octavia E. Butler by Gerry Canavan. Canavan is a scholar who dove not only into all of her works, but also in all of her papers that have been saved in an archive not open to the general public. It’s a fantastic read for any Butler fan. It carefully analyses her work (novels, short stories and even essays), talks about her unpublished and unfinished works and also gives us a look into her life and mind. However, don’t pick this one up if you haven’t read all of Butler’s works yet! There are many spoilers.
Another recommendation is a book called Conversations with Octavia Butler. It does what it says on the tin: it’s a collection of conversations and interviews with Butler. They are a treat to read for anyone who yearns for more by Octavia Butler. I especially liked the interview with Charles Rowell in 1997.
Can’t get enough?
If you still can’t get enough, there’s always more to be found. Adrienne Maree Brown is a good name to look up. She has edited a collection called Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. It is a collection of futuristic short stories, written by activists, inspired by Butler.
Recently I stumbled upon two books that I’ve not read yet. One is called Luminescent Threads: Connections to Octavia Butler, a book that promises us a bunch of essays about the themes in Butler’s works. The other is Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices and Octavia E. Butler. If that title doesn’t excite you as a Butler fan, I don’t know what will. It’s another collection of essays about Octavia Butler’s books and the topics she has dealt with in them. Can’t wait!
Do you know of any more related works? Have you picked up a book by Butler yet? Do let me know in the comments.