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Butler, Octavia Estelle (b. 1947)
Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day. Ed. Richard Bleiler. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999. p147-158. From Gale Virtual Reference Library.
Copyright: COPYRIGHT 1999 Charles Scribner's Sons, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale
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Page 147

Octavia Estelle Butler (b. 1947)


Writing is difficult. You do it all alone without encouragement and without any certainty that you’ll ever be published or paid or even that you’ll be able to finish the particular work you’ve begun. It isn’t easy to persist amid all that.... I write about people who do extraordinary things. It just turned out that it was called science fiction. (Bloodchild, pages 143, 145)

I’ve been told... my characters aren’t “nice.” I don’t doubt it.... I don’t write about heroes,-I write about people who survive and sometimes prevail. (Mixon, page 12)

THE IMPORTANCE OF Octavia Butler in American writing is large and intriguing. Her books have appeared in many languages, and she has collected numerous major writing and achievement awards, in and out of the science fiction field, including the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards, and a $295,000 MacArthur Fellowship in 1995. She has been the guest of honor or its equivalent at numerous science fiction conventions since her first at WISCON in Madison, Wisconsin in 1980 and has received handsome writer-in-residence offers from a number of universities, although she has never wanted to teach. Instead, because she has wanted to give something back to the apprenticeship writing culture that helped her get her own start, she has made many appearances at writers’ workshops or in forums devoted to everything from contemporary American authors to race and gender studies to the Science Fiction Worlds of Octavia Butler at the University of Illinois, Urbana, 1986. She has made at least a dozen such appearances each year—not counting book tour and signing appearances. Meanwhile, she and her work have been the subject of at least eighteen doctoral dissertations and many chapters and articles in scholarly books and prestigious journals. Among the principal women writers of the modern era only Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ursula Le Guin, A. S. Byatt, and Margaret Atwood got significantly more scholarly attention than Butler did. The only African American woman who has written science fiction virtually exclusively, she is among a very small group of African Americans who have made a contribution to the genre. Her stories and books are about power and power fantasy, race, gender, love, longevity/immortality, apocalypse, hubris, addiction, genetics, medicine, aliens, family, motherhood, childhood, disease, incest, rape, slavery, education, ecology, social engineering, pain, ordeal, memory, history, and myth. Although a self-described loner, Butler has, as much as any modern writer, allowed herself, in interviews and conferences, to become engaged in discussions of her own life and the meaning of her stories and novels. In this fashion Butler herself achieved a celebrity equal to the high reputation given her writing.

Born 22 June 1947, in Pasadena, California, the last of five children of Laurice and Octavia Butler, Butler nevertheless grew up without her father and as an only child: her father died when she was a baby and her four brothers had died either at birth or soon after. These losses, Butler reflected, made her mother Page 148  |  Top of Article“tiresomely protective of me.” Raised by her mother, grandmother, and relatives, she recalled that, as a good Baptist child, she read the Bible. “The stories got me: stories of conflict, betrayal, torture, murder, exile, and incest. I read them avidly. This was, of course, not exactly what my mother had in mind when she encouraged me to read the Bible.” At first Butler’s mother read to her, but when Octavia was five, she began to read to her mother. Butler’s mother, who worked as a cleaning lady, had a passionate belief in education and brought home armloads and boxes of discarded books from the places she cleaned. Butler eventually read virtually all of them. At age six she discovered the Peter Pan Room of the Pasadena main library, where her reading was mostly fairy tales and horse stories. One of the most important children’s books to her was Felix Salten’s Bambi (1928) because Salten wrote about “animals as though they were human—more accurately, as though they were knowingly, although not always willingly, subject to humans. In Bambi, for instance, man is always referred to as ’He,’ with a capital letter, as in ’God.’ “She first read adult science fiction in magazines from the grocery store because she wasn’t allowed into the adult section of the library until she was fourteen. Butler attended Pasadena City College where as a freshman she won a collegewide short story contest. Afterward, she took a number of courses at California State University at Los Angeles. Though she received an associate of arts degree at Pasadena City College, she later said emphatically that she had earned no college degree.

Butler read widely among contemporary science fiction writers, particularly the “People” stories of Zenna Henderson, whose “gentle, psionic aliens are no doubt literary ancestors to my own ungentle, all-too-human Patternists.” She recalled that the very first adult science fiction story she read was the Ray Bradbury-Leigh Brackett collaboration “Lorelei of the Red Mist” (1946). Butler remembered telling herself stories from the time she was four and at ten she begged her mother to buy her a portable Remington typewriter. Soon after, Butler wrote her first stories, including the earliest versions of Pat-ternmastei. In 1969 she took a class with Harlan Ellison in the Open Door Program of the Screen Writers’ Guild. Ellison advised her to enroll in Robin Scott Wilson’s Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop in Pennsylvania. At this time she sold her first two stories—one to the Clarion anthology, and one to Harlan Ellison for his proposed Last Dangerous Visions, one of the most famous never-published science fiction volumes. In 1976, while she was taking a course with Theodore Sturgeon at the University of California, Los Angeles, Patteinmastei was published by Doubleday, and her career as a novelist was launched. In 1978 Butler quit the last of many temporary jobs to live on her writing. She also traveled to Maryland to do research for Kindred and in 1982 visited Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad with a group of American science fiction writers to meet Soviet writers. Then in 1985 she spent time in the Amazon rain forest, the Andes, Cuzco, and Machu Pic-chu, this time to do research for the Xenogen-esis novels. In 1997 she went to England to be an honored guest at Intervention, the United Kingdom’s national science fiction convention.

Butler’s slight dyslexia made reading slow and driving a car impossible. Even after acquiring a computer, she continued to use an old-fashioned manual typewriter. She loved writing while it was raining. Though she repeatedly insisted she was a solitary person, Butler discussed intimate topics in interviews. This self-revelation in her effort to know herself, regardless of what she might learn, was elementary Butler.

Butler’s published short stories are remarkable because, although she was not much motivated to write short fiction (she said, “I am essentially a novelist. The ideas that most interest me tend to be big.”), three of them have earned writing prizes. “Crossover,” a realistic story of a dysfunctional relationship, alcoholism, and hallucination, was her first sale, published in Robin Scott Wilson’s Clarion (1971). Page 149  |  Top of ArticleHer next short story, “Near of Kin,” a sympathetic tale of incest told by a daughter speaking to her father after the death of her mother, his sister, did not appear until 1979. For “Speech Sounds” (1983), she won the 1984 Hugo award for best short story. Set in a near future, crumbling California urban sprawl, it is the story of UCLA professor Valerie Rye, who can no longer read as the result of a widespread new disease that attacks the brain’s language center. The disease imposes a Tower-of-Babel-like situation on the city (this is perhaps a retrieval from Butler’s Bible reading). Indeed, the badness of the life engendered by this weird disease makes cooperation and relationships between people conflicted to such a degree that violent behavior becomes epidemic. Despite this Valerie meets and falls in love with Obsidian, who, crippled by an alternate symptom of the same disease, can read but no longer speak. Obsidian is an appealing male, a one-time member of the Los Angeles Police Department. Their love is joyful and intense, but interrupted soon and tragically when Obsidian is killed trying to stop a man from killing a woman. Valerie and the reader are stunned by this loss. Soon the dead woman’s children come looking for their mother. They have Valerie’s form of the disease. They can talk. Thus, Valerie can tell them she will care for them. Moreover, in spite of her loss, she has a treasure beyond price: she has known true love. The surprising benefits of “disease” are a motif in every major piece of Butler’s writing.

Butler’s most celebrated story is “Blood-child” (1984), for which she won the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards for best novelette. It concerns humans in a marooned colony on an extrasolar planet inhabited by a sentient insect species, the Tlic, who in a bizarre relationship with humans, lay their eggs for gestation in the reluctant humans’ bodies. Thus, love and horror combine when T’Gatoi (a female Tlic) and the human boy Gan lie down together so that she can skewer him and lay her eggs in him. The impact of the thematic dissonance of the story can hardly be overemphasized. Butler said she did not intend an allegory of the historical conditions of slavery, but rather a love story. In fact, both meanings are present. The frisson is almost unbearable. One possible interpretation is that slavery and love might be somehow connected.

A Hugo award nomination went as well to “The Evening and the Morning and the Night” (1987) in which a weird disease makes people brilliant and suicidal, until a victim of the disease evolves who emits a pheromone that neutralizes the suicidal urge, preserving the superintelligence so that it becomes a permanent characteristic of the species.

Butler’s novels are built on three platform fabulations: the surprisingly subtle psi-charactered Patternmaster stories; the post-apocalyptic, gene-trader Xenogenesis books; and the biblically inspired speculative naturalism of the Parable novels. In one sense her fables are trials of solutions to the self-destructive

Octavia Estelle Butler. © MIRIAM BERKLEY

Octavia Estelle Butler. © MIRIAM BERKLEY

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condition in which she finds mankind. In the Patternmaster world she investigates the potential of psionic abilities to enrich communication and will, which translate into pleasure and power, the sources of people’s happiness. In the Xenogenesis books she switches to the possibilities of genetic engineering—again taking for granted that existing humanity is morally insufficient. In the Parable novels she comes closest to an acceptance of humanity as it is, trying out a parar-eligious agenda to counsel people to value the experience of change, and to recognize that “God is power. God is change.” In the stories and novels the evolution of Butler’s art and thought are clear and the writing has been mature from the earliest of the published pieces, perhaps because her apprenticeship was long and intense. She rewrote obsessively, resulting in a narrative that is spare, a combination of Chinua Achebe, Ernest Hemingway, and Margaret Walker.

Common to all Butler’s universes is the importance of change: Transition in the Pattern-ist stories, metamorphosis in the Xenogenesis books, and simply Change or God is change, in the Parable novels. At the core of the lives of all her characters is initiation, apprenticeship, bildungs, erziehungs, experience,- the coming of age, the rite of passage, maturation, or apotheosis. They lead to madness, death, or, in fortunate cases, “adulthood.”

The fictive chronology of the Patternmaster novels begins with Wild Seed (1980) and runs through Mind of My Mind (1977), Clay’s Ark (1984), Survivor (1978), and Patternmaster (1976). Kindred (1979), Butler said, was intended as a Patternmaster story, but its writing demanded a realism she had suspended for the other books, so it stands alone.

Butler began writing stories about the characters in Patternmaster when she was about twelve after seeing the movie Devil Girl from Mars (1954) and thinking that she could do better. The novel, set in a distant future Southern California, introduces the people of the Pattern, humans with parapsychological powers who are on the threshold of power over Earth’s remaining population of ordinary humans, called “mutes” because they cannot use psionic powers. Also present is a provisionally subhuman Clayark species, sentient and ambiguously sinister, who are treated sympathetically in Clay’s Ark.

The novel tells the story of the psionic Pat-ternists, organized in a neofeudal hereditary system, and the account of the struggle for control of the Pattern between Teray and Cor-ansee, the sons of Patternmaster Rayai and his principal wife Jansee. Jansee dies and Rayai is crippled in a Clayark attack, but not before Jansee demonstrates maternal concern for her sons and a ruthless resolution by Rayai secures his power. This is not an inevitable paradigm for Butler. Teray is the first of her compassionate male protagonists. He is linked to the protophysician Amber, who instigates and nourishes Teray’s disposition to care for people. This gives him the winning advantage in competition with his brutal brother. Teray has the reader’s sympathy and his victory seems to offer hope for mankind, especially when Teray has a nonhostile meeting with a Clayark near the end of the novel. But this resolution does not extinguish the feudal and hierarchical culture of the Patternists. Patternmaster is about power, and how people struggle to possess it, and the demented relations between those with power and those without it.

Butler says she started Mind of My Mind when she was fifteen because she wanted to know more about the characters in Patternmaster. This book unfolds in the late twentieth century and introduces the parapsychological vampire Doro who is nearly four thousand years old and the long-living, shape-shifting, heroically maternal Emma (who will become/have been Anyanwu in Wild Seed), as well as Doro’s daughter Mary who will become the first true Patternmaster after a life-threatening transition and her defeat of Doro. The history, further reported in Wild Seed, is Doro’s centuries-long struggle to retain control of his psionic children. He is brutal, but not malevolent. Moreover, in this novel he is curiously minor and pathetic and to reach her own maturity, Mary must commit patricide. Page 151  |  Top of ArticleEmma, even though she has been the consort of Doro, provides maternal support and the strength of a warrior ally that Mary must have. Mary’s destiny is to unite the Patternists in a web no single member can escape— a benevolent captivity (Butler never ignored the existential contradictions in the human condition) that coerces truthfulness (through the sacrifice of privacy), and puts the combined power and wisdom of all at the service of each. The service most required is support of the Patternists through the violent and often fatal experience of their psionic adolescence, when the individual’s latent powers emerge, in transition to early adulthood. Mary’s peremptorily imposed web of control provides this support. Future Patternists may endure and thrive,- all become parents to each. Here Butler has the hierarchical power of telepathy and telekinesis impose a regime of communal benefit, but Mary has had to kill her father to engender this program. Mind of My Mind ends with hope, but with many conflicts unresolved—or perhaps compounded by the paradox everyone experiences—like Al-dous Huxley’s problem of the individual versus the genetic pool of community and conformity, depicted in Brave New World (1932). Moreover, even in acts of love and support the use of power may corrupt its agent.

Butler reported that she completed a novella-length ninety-page version of Survivor when she was nineteen that was virtually unpublishable. It might never have been published, but the exigency of getting another novel sold and into print explains its appearance in 1978. Some critics’ reservations notwithstanding, Survivor has strengths as art and value as a specimen of Butler’s developing craft. The ordeals of adolescence, addiction and withdrawal, power and slavery, racial war, and gender roles are the subjects of Survivor. Loosely tethered in Butler’s Patternist society on Earth, it suspends Patternist history to tell the story of Afro-Asian Alanna Verrick, adopted child of white Christian missionaries Jules and Neila, who have founded a colony on the planet Kohn. On this world the Garkohn, ambiguous allies of the colonists, and Tehkohn, a morally superior race because its culture refuses addiction to the ubiquitous fruit of the meklah tree, are ancient enemies. Themselves addicted, the Garkohn require that the humans be addicted as part of the alliance in which they enjoy the Garkohn’s protection. Captured by the Tehkohn, Alanna is forced to withdraw from meklah, a withdrawal similar to that from heroin. She marries the Tehkohn leader Diut, and, in this ambassadorial identity, she assists in rescuing the missionaries from their addiction and their captivity by the Garkohn, though not before she is forced once more to become addicted to and withdraw from meklah. The missionaries move their colony to an uninhabited region, and Alanna remains with her Tehkohn husband.

Temporarily setting aside the Patternist story, in Kindred Butler undertook what she described as a painful and depressing engagement with the history of slavery in the United States. In the novel, writer protagonist Dana time-travels intermittently between 1970’s California and pre-1820 Maryland, where she lives the life of a slave on the plantation of Rufus Weyland, who will become her great-great-grandfather. She is drawn back to save him each time Rufus’s life is threatened. Rufus is as morally obscene as his slaveholder father, but Dana must help preserve his life when it is threatened so that he, through rape, can sire her great-grandmother Hagar. When Rufus dies in a fire, Dana returns permanently to the twentieth century. She has secured her ancestral lifeline, but in this final return to the present she is bizarrely mutilated when her arm is temporally incorporated into the wall of her living room, and must be amputated. The novel proposes that in order to secure our existence at all, we are complicit in the preservation of obscene moral orders and we are all, likewise, mutilated by our inescapable history. Butler has said that in Kindred she is indebted to the distinguished narratives of slavery in America including that by Frederick Douglass. Kindred is certainly another bildungsroman following the agenda Butler has pursued in all Page 152  |  Top of Articleher novels, but it also belongs to the genre of fictional slave narrative in which Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966), Alex Haley’s Roots (1976), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) are the best and most famous similar works. Butler’s theme of deterministically coerced complicity by slaves in their enslavement is, however, unique among these narratives and Kindred is by far her most widely read novel.

Butler said that in Kindred she “couldn’t change history—at least not in the kind of book I had chosen to write. So my characters couldn’t realistically win much more than their lives. But in Wild Seed, a different sort of book, my characters could be powerful enough to move somewhat outside the ugliness of antebellum U.S. history even though they live through it. Their struggle is more male-female than Black-White.” Wild Seed is probably Butler’s best novel and tells the story of the origin of the Patternist universe. Its principal characters, Doro and Anyanwu, are epic and authentic, engaging the reader’s awe or admiration or sympathy on some level, though Doro is, as Anyanwu declares, “an obscenity.” In this novel Doro emerges as a more heroic and peculiarly sympathetic figure than he is in Mind of My Mind. He is well over three thousand years old when he encounters Anyanwu in West Africa, in the early years of the slave trade. He lives by taking, one after the other, the living bodies of people he chooses, who yield their consciousness to him when he takes their bodies, and die when he discards them. Doro’s condition is a paradox: his immortality requires the deaths of others.

Anyanwu herself is over three hundred years old. She survives because she is genetically self-renewing and a shapeshifter in the fullest sense. She can change herself at the mitochondrial level, throwing off sickness, healing wounds, or, spectacularly, becoming a panther, a dolphin, or an eagle. Doro’s power is sufficiently threatening to compel Anyanwu to leave her people in order to protect them from him, so the two leave aboard one of Doro’s ships for America in a trip that parallels the horrific middle passage of the slave trade. Thereafter, the history of American slavery is the immediate setting and a counterpoint for the narrative of Wild Seed. Over the next 150 years, Anyanwu is healer, mother to some of Doro’s children, and owner of a Louisiana plantation when she changes her body to that of a white male. At the end of the novel she migrates to California where she will become Emma in Mind of My Mind.

Wild Seed is a combination of Butler’s brilliant fable and real history. Her narrative captures the authentic voice of West African storytelling. Methodically accreting detail in relatively short sentences, it echoes the narrative of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. Like Kindred, Wild Seed is rooted in the collective record of slavery. The relationship between Doro and Anyanwu dramatizes a fundamental conflict between the affinity a solitary immortal male and female might feel for one another in a world of mortals, and the hatred Anyanwu must feel toward a being who kills people, including his own children, without remorse. Doro is macabre, wearing the bodies of his victims in an impious theft of their lives’ energy, and he can never be lovable. Yet the reader’s frustration that love between these two cannot flourish is enormous. They seem made for each other—each is immortal and each is heroically wise because of that immortality. But Doro is a cannibal vampire: He must kill to survive and will die only when he loses a conflict with a superior creature. No such creature appears in Wild Seed. Instead, Doro looms as a symbol of the perversity of male-dominated human history. A species modeled on Anyanwu would improve humanity’s destiny,- but there are no children like Anyanwu, and no prospect of them in Wild Seed.

The last written of the Patternist novels is Clay’s Ark, in which Butler tried to satisfy her curiosity about the Clayark species she introduced in Patternmaster. Set in the early twenty-first century in the American Southwest, it tells how African American geologist Elias Doyle, crew member on a tragic trip to Próxima Centauri Two, is the carrier of an organism that infects people, producing the Page 153  |  Top of ArticleClayark physiology and metabolism in the infected, and yielding a totally new species in their offspring. Ironically, as in other Butler stories, this disease gives humans super senses, strength, and health. Younger infected humans live; older ones die. Symptoms accompanying transformation also include heightened sex appeal and sexual appetite. The moral character of the transformed people remains as variable as in humans. Elias has children by three women and comes to terms with his fate. The novel ends with the prospect of the infection ravishing Earth.

With this story it is necessary retrospectively to revise the moral hierarchy of Pat-ternists, mutes, and Clayarks described in Patternmaster. Butler’s Clayark bioform is clearly a significant improvement over humans, and perhaps the Patternists as well. Humans have brought Earth to the brink of planetary catastrophe. A species such as the Clayark might do better. Butler spoke of adding to the Patternmaster novels but has only reproduced the settings and themes established in them in her later writing.

The Xenogenesis chronicle predicts that humanity will destroy itself by nuclear war and that its remnants will be salvaged by genetic augmentation in a more convincing version of the healing effect in the Hugo-winning They’d Rather Be Right (1954) by Mark Clifton and Frank Riley. In an interview for this essay, Butler commented on the Xenogenesis trilogy:

I got the idea for the trilogy slowly, in bits and pieces during the first Reagan administration. Reagan and his people were talking about winnable nuclear war and limited nuclear war and increasing our safety by increasing our nuclear stockpile. There was the Reagan-ite who believed that all an individual needed to survive a nuclear war was a hole, a door to throw over it, and some dirt to cover the door. There was the one who thought God would be ending the world soon, so why bother about preserving resources. There were any number of opportunists and idiots, all without foresight, without peripheral vision, without concern for anyone except themselves. They wanted to win. Whatever the game, they knew Americans—their kind of Americans—were best, and so their kind of Americans should win everything worth having, all the time. You see? I can still rant about it. With these people as my examples, I created the human contradiction. We are hierarchical and we are intelligent, and all too often, our hierarchical tendencies rule our intelligence and we one-up ourselves to death.

During the 150 years of the Xenogenesis chronicle, three possible fates for humans are presented. First, they may remain as sterilized résisters on Earth as a last generation of humanity. Second, healed and fertile humans could agree to be moved to Mars, and there, very probably, relive the doomed destiny humans had experienced on Earth. Third, a healed and augmented human male-female couple could become mates with three Oan-kalis, a male, a female, and an ooloi. The ooloi would be the genetic engineer for the five-member family, constructing not only children from the four DNAs but enabling a sharing of feelings bordering on telepathic clarity among the five mated individuals. The ooloi would also produce a neurochemical-based predisposition to an obsessive affinity for others—in other words, passionate love. The life span of the family members would be five hundred years. Such families would resume star travel, leaving Earth behind.

The volumes of the trilogy feature Lilith Iyapo (Mother), the African American survivor of a prospectively doomed Earth; Nikanj Ooan, her Oankali ooloi guide,- Ahajas Ty, her Oankali female co-parent; Dichaan Ishliin, the Oankali male co-parent; Akin, the son of Dischaan and Lilith; and Jodahs, their shape-shifting mutant ooloi child. In Dawn, the first book, Joseph (Father), their male human co-parent, is murdered by renegade humans and Lilith awakens in the starship habitat of the Oankali gene traders, who will heal her to a preternatural quality of health and proportional physical and mental strength. She is subjected to a radical re-education about the nature of relationships with sentient beings who are biologically alien. Thus enlightened, Page 154  |  Top of Articleshe elects to become the mother of children who are born with human and Oankali genes. With Oankali-enhanced health and knowledge of biology, Lilth will herself be a healer and a leader in the Oankali’s casual project to rejuvenate Earth with a program that will radically change humans so that they will no longer be human. The reader is asked to regard this prospect with approval. Humanity has virtually destroyed itself in a nuclear war with behavior that was the result of genetics that put high intelligence at the service of hierarchical behavior. Butler’s view is that because it is obsessively competitive, hierarchical behavior is inexorably self-mutilating and self-destructive. It is true that humans value cooperative behavior, but not nearly so much as they value competitive behavior.

The career of Lilith’s human-Oankali child, Akin, is the focus of Adulthood Rites, the second book in the Xenogenesis trilogy. Akin is a superchild. He can remember his gestation and heal himself by altering damaged cells, while his touch can deliver a lethal poison. He has, as well, all the powers of both his human and Oankali parents. The main purpose of his existence is as a preadapted human who can join the human résisters who will attempt to colonize Mars. The résisters are xénophobes who reject genetic alliance with the Oankali, rejecting as well the extraordinary biological enhancements to health, strength, and intelligence the Oankali offer. The résisters elect to remain antiquely human, restricting themselves to the brutishly limiting human gene pool. “Humans would carry their dislikes with them to be shut up together on Mars.” They will not be allowed to stay on Earth because, “To give you a new world and let you procreate again would ... be like breeding intelligent beings for the sole purpose of having them kill one another.”

The life and progress of Jodahs in Imago form the last part of the Xenogenesis trilogy. It forestalls the star-traveling destiny of Oankali-augmented humanity. Born of Lilith, Jodahs should have been male or female, but is instead a new creature, an Oankali-human ooloi whose powers include the ability to breathe in both air and water and to change its own DNA and therefore its bioform— making it in effect a shapeshifter. It can heal and regrow and alter not only its own body but those of other organic creatures, see in the dark, hear much more acutely than humans, exercise more strength than a human, possess an eidetic memory stocked with the encyclopedic knowledge that the star-roving Oankali have accumulated, enjoy a lifespan of five centuries, reorganize and reconstruct genes, and be the medium of almost telepathic communication between other Oankali and humans. Jodahs must find suitable human female and male mates before its adulthood and second metamorphosis; it finds mates in the brother and sister Tomas and Jesusa—this incest is familiar in Butler’s stories. Thereafter, Tomas and Jesusa support Jodahs through its second metamorphosis. Tomas and Jesusa then decide to return to their human village to help find human mates for Aaor, Jodahs’s sibling ooloi. They succeed despite great danger, and Jodahs and Aaor remain on Earth with their mates, to found a new town. Lilith has now reached the age of 150. She is a harbinger of change because of her years of initiation as a human mother of Oankali-engineered children, and even as she ascends to legendary status, she has become conservative and disapproving of Jodahs’s willful lawbreaking in taking mates from renegade humans. The future is still the stars, but the epilogue’s concern with a sojourn on Earth so the new species can try itself may have sentimental appeal for readers of Butler’s marvelous tale.

The message of the Xenogenesis trilogy is that there is a genetic conflict in humans between intelligence and hierarchical behavior that will doom the species. Butler ornaments this by having apples become extinct in the nuclear war in which humanity extinguishes itself; perhaps the elimination of this tragically fateful fruit symbolizes a hope for a replacement species. Other less tragically symbolic fruit survives where humanity does not: there is no redemption from its fall from grace. A surviving no-longer-human species will prosper because it joyfully pursues the new and the different. It loves variation and change.

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The Parable novels speculate on how mankind might avoid total catastrophe without the deus ex machina interpolation of psionic abilities or extraterrestrial interdiction. In Parable of the Sower (1993) Butler abandons speculative science in favor of a naturalistic futurism that bears a significant similarity to the writings of Theodore Dreiser, Frank Nor-ris, and Stephen Crane. Covering the three-year, three-month period from 24 July 2024 to 1 October 2027, it is a story told in journal form beginning with the fifteenth birthday of African American Lauren Olamina. It records the inexorable disintegration of civilization in her Southern California hometown, the walled community of Robledo, and the conditions of her survival. Each of the twenty-five chapters begins with a short piece of poetry that represents a new religion Lauren is constructing, Earthseed, whose fundamental tenet is “God is Change.”

The novel begins with the account of three years of increasingly deprived life in Robledo, ending with the death of Lauren’s family, including her Baptist minister father (Lauren stopped believing when she was twelve, though she once gives a sermon to her father’s congregation), her stepmother Corazón (“Cory”), who is a teacher, Lauren’s brothers, and all her friends. Marauders burn much of their enclave and kill many of the inhabitants. Lauren escapes with her survival pack, which she has put together in anticipation of the end of civil order and against the wishes of her father. In the last third of the novel, from 2 August to 1 October 2027 the record is of Lauren’s progress to northern California (although her original destination was Canada) in the company of a number of survivors. Of principal importance is the fifty-seven-year-old doctor Taylor Franklin Bankole whom Lauren loves and eventually marries, and who is the age Lauren’s father would have been had he lived. Their destination turns out to be property owned by Bankole, where with ten other fellow travelers, they establish a communal farm called, with hope, Acorn. Lauren’s development of the precepts of Earth-seed continues at story’s end. An excerpt from the New Testament from the authorized King James version of the Bible, Luke 8:5-8, ends the narrative: “A sower went out to sow his seed:... And other [seed] fell on good ground, and sprang up, and bore fruit an hundredfold.” With practice, survival and some happiness may be achieved. Butler’s works present a moral agenda, but it is not a reconstituted Christianity. It reconciles propositions that advise variously “We must find the rest of what we need / within ourselves, / in one another, / in our Destiny”; “Create no images of God”; “Learn or die”; “A victim of God may, / Through learning adaption, / Become a partner of God” “To get along with God, / Consider the consequences of your behavior”; “All successful life is / Adaptable, / Opportunistic, / Tenacious, / Interconnected, / and Fecund”; and “Kindness eases Change.” This agenda is a combination of Darwinism, pantheism, Taoism, and Zen.

There is in Lauren a great deal of would-be shaman, wizard, guru, soothsayer, and priest—as there appears to be, however unwillingly, in Butler. Butler said that ecology, especially global warming caused by profligate use of fossil fuels, is almost a character in Parable. On the stage of a postmodern, postindustrial, postrevolutionary world—a world in which capitalism is devolving into feudalism—in Parable a search for “good ground” begins. It is a world of chaos wherein, unnoticed, the seed of a new order and polity might flourish sufficiently to begin an age of magnanimity that is not self-destructive. Lauren’s Earthseed religion and the effort to make a communal farm and a new life are starkly vulnerable to quick extinction before they have had much chance to grow. But they represent an agenda of stubborn hope for mankind, and for Butler.

Parable of the Talents (1988), by its title and Butler’s report, is a sequel to Parable of the Sower. Butler says of it that it continues to engage the problems presented in Parable of the Sower but that it gives alternative propositions for repair of the wreck the human species has made of its world.

Butler is not principally a futurist. Her vision is rooted in the present, the familiar, the common, and the real. It projects a frightening Page 156  |  Top of Articleprospect for humans. There is also a tough kernel of irrational hope. Associated with these meanings, one of the dominant metaphors of her writing from the beginning has been biblical. Her themes were in an Old Testament mood until the Parable novels. These, in spite of their New Testamnet reference as “parables,” are subtly and ironically antimes-sianic, peopled with Old Testament characters, both male and female. They defer the traditional deus ex machina New Testament events and search for moral resources in a postmodern humankind whose divinity must be found in itself. That there will be new Parable novels seems likely, perhaps with historical settings, as well as others with tales contemporary with Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. She has also, at her publisher’s suggestion, begun writing a memoir. In any case, Butler has the pleasantly challenging task of maintaining the standard she has set in her brilliant writing.

Selected Bibliography


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Wild Seed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1980.

“Speech Sounds.” Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, 7 (1983): 26-40.

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Currey, L. W. “Octavia E[stelle] Butler in ’Work in Progress.’ “New York Review of Science Fiction, 32 no. 3 (1991): 23.

Weixlmann, Joe. “An Octavia E. Butler Bibliography.” Black American Literature Forum 18 (1984): 88-89.


Alaimo, Stacy. “Cartographies of Undomesticated Ground: Nature and Feminism in American Women’s Fiction and Theory (Women Writers).” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois, Urbana, 1994. DAI 55 (1994): 9A.

Allison, Dorothy. “The Future of Female: Octavia Butler’s Mother Lode.” In Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology. Edited Henry Louis Gates Jr. New York: Meridian, 1990:471-78.

Antczak, Janice. “Octavia E. Butler: New Designs for a Challenging Future.” In African-American Voices in Young Adult Literature: Tradition, Transition, Transformation. Edited by Karen Patricia Smith. Me-tuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1994:311-336.

Armitt, Lucie. “Space, Time and Female Genealogies: A Kristevan Reading of Feminist Science Fiction.” In Image and Power: Women in Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Edited by Sara Sceats and Gail Cunningham. London and New York: Longman, 1996: 51-61.

Barr, Marleen S. “Octavia Butler and James Tiptree Do Not Write about Zap Guns: Positioning Feminist Science Fiction within Feminist Fabulation.” Lost in Space: Probing Feminist Science Fiction and Beyond. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993:97-107.

Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann. “Femininity Unfettered: The Emergence of the American Neo-Slave Narrative (African American, Women Writers).” Ph.D. dissertation, University North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1996. DAI 57 (1996): 5A.

Blaine, Diana York. “’Are They Simply Going to Leave Her There?’: Dead Women in the Modern American Novel.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 1995. DAI 56 (1995): 10A.

Bogstad, Janice Marie. “Gender, Power and Reversal in Contemporary Anglo-American and French Feminist Science Fiction (Role Reversal, Felice, Cynthia; Tep-per, Sheri; Vonarburg, Elizabeth; Slonczewski, Joan; Page 157  |  Top of ArticleButler, Octavia).” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Wisconsin, Madison, 1992. DAI 54 (1992): 2A.

Bonner, Frances. “Difference and Desire, Slavery and Seduction: Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis.” Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, 48 (1990): 50-62.

Boulter, Amanda. “Polymorphous Futures: Octavia E. Butler’s Xenogenesis Trilogy.” In American Bodies: Cultural Histories of the Physique. Edited by Tim Armstrong. New York: New York University Press, 1996:170-185.

—. “Speculative Feminisms: The Significance of

Feminist Theory in the Science Fiction of Joanna Russ, James Tiptree, Jr., and Octavia Butler.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southhampton, United Kingdom, 1996. DAI 58 (1997): 2C.

Brande, David J. “Technologies of Postmodernity: Ideology and Desire in Literature and Science (Pynchon, Thomas; Gibson, William; Butler, Octavia; Acker, Kathy).” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Washington, 1995. DAI 56 (1995): 7A.

Burwell, Jennifer. Notes on Nowhere: Feminism, Utopian Logic, and Social Transformation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.

Coleman, Letetia F. “Octavia E. Butler’s Patternist Series: A Cultural Analysis (Science Fiction).” Ph.D. dissertation, Temple University, 1997. DAI 58 (1998): 6A.

Covino, Deborah A. “The Abject Body: Toward an Aesthetic of the Repulsive (Body Criticism, Octavia Butler, Julia Kristeva).” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois, Chicago, 1996. DAI 57 (1996): IIA.

Crossley, Robert. “Introduction” to Kindred. Boston: Beacon Press, 1988:ix-xxvii.

Davis, Hilary Elizabeth. “Recuperating Pleasure: Toward a Feminist Aesthetic of Reading.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Toronto, 1993. DAI 55 (1993): 3A.

Doerksen, Teri Ann. “Octavia E. Butler: Parables of Race and Difference.” In Into Darkness Peering: Race and Color in the Fantastic. Edited by Elisabeth Anne Leonard. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997:21-34.

Donawerth, Jane. Frankenstein’s Daughters: Women Writing Science Fiction. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1997.

Falc, Emilie Oline. “An Analysis and Critique of the Vernacular Discourse in Selected Feminist Science Fiction Novels (Octavia Butler, C. J. Cherryh, Vonda Mcintyre, Anne McCaffrey, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough).” Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio University, 1997. DAI 58 (1998): IIA.

Foster, Frances Smith. “Octavia Butler’s Black Female Future Fiction.” Extrapolation, 23 (1982): 37-49.

Friend, Beverly. “Time Travel as a Feminist Didactic in Works by Phyllis Eisenstein, Marlys Millhiser, and Octavia Butler.” Extrapolation, 23 (1982): 50-55.

Gant-Britton, Lisbeth. “Women of Color Constructing Subjectivity Towards the Future: Toni Morrison, Octavia Butler, and Cynthia Kadohata.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Los Angeles, 1997. DAI 58 (1998): 10A.

Govan, Sandra Y. “Connections, Links, and Extended Networks: Patterns in Octavia Butler’s Science Fiction.” Black American Literature Forum, 18 (1984): 82-87.

—. “Homage to Tradition: Octavia Butler Renovates the Historical Novel.” MELUS, 13 nos. 1-2 (1986): 79-96.

Green, Michelle Erica. “’There Goes the Neighborhood’: Octavia Butler’s Demand for Diversity in Utopias.” In Utopian and Science Fiction by Women: Worlds of Difference. Edited by Jane L. Donawerth and Carol A. Kolmerten. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1994:166-189.

Helford, Elyce Rae. “Reading Space Fictions: Representations of Gender, Race, and Species in Popular Culture (Jardine, Alice; Butler, Octavia; Star Trek; Science Fiction).” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Iowa, 1992. DAI 54 (1992): 2A.

—. “‘Would you really rather die than bear my young?’: The Construction of Gender, Race, and Species in Octavia E. Butler’s ’Bloodchild.’” African American Review, 28, no. 2 (1994): 259-271.

Johnson, Rebecca O. “African-American, Feminist Science Fiction.” Sojourner: The Women’s Forum, 19, no. 6 (1994): 16-19.

Lee, Judith. “’We Are All Kin’: Relatedness, Mortality, and the Paradox of Human Immortality.” In Immortal Engines: Life Extension and Immortality in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Edited by George Slusser, Gary Westfahl, and Eric S. Rabkin. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996:170-182.

Lindsay, Creighton. “The Rhetoric of Modern American Pastoral (Ernest Hemingway, Ken Kesey, Wallace Stegner, Cormac McCarthy, Octavia Butler, Annie Dillard, Barry Lopez).” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oregon, 1996. DAI 57 (1996): 7A.

Love, Monifa D. “Down Came the Rain (novel).” Ph.D. dissertation, Florida State University, 1997. DAI 58 (1997): 4A.

Maida, Patricia. “Kindred and Dessa Rose: Two Novels that Reinvent Slavery.” CEAMAGazine: A fournal of the College English Association, Middle Altantic Group, 4, no. 1 (1991): 43-52.

McKible, Adam. “’These are the facts of the darky’s history’: Thinking History and Reading Names in Four African American Texts.” African American Review, 28, no. 2 (1994): 223-235.

Miller, Jim. “Post-Apocalyptic Hoping: Octavia Butler’s Dystopian/Utopian Vision.” Science-Fiction Studies, 25, no. 2 (1998): 336-360.

Mitchell, Angelyn L. “Signifyin(g) Women: Visions and Revisions of Slavery in Octavia Butler’s ’Kindred,’ Sherley Anne Williams’s ’Dessa Rose,’ and Toni Morrison’s ’Beloved’ (Butler, Octavia; Williams, Sherley Page 158  |  Top of ArticleAnne; Morrison, Toni; Women Writers).” Ph.D. dissertation, Howard University, 1992. DAI 53 (1992): 8A.

Mixon, Veronica. “Face to Fact: Futurist Woman: Octavia Butler.” Essence, 9 April 1979.

Morrill, Cynthia Anne. “Paradigms out of Joint: Feminist Science Fiction and Cultural Logic (Film, Jack Arnold, Octavia E. Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ).” Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Riverside, 1997. DAI 58 (1998): 5A.

“Octavia E. Butler: SF in the Age of Anxiety.” Locus, 21, no. 10 (1988): 5, 82.

Paulin, Diana R. “De-Essentializing Interracial Representations: Black and White Border-Crossings in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever and Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” Cultural Critique, 36 (1997): 165-193.

Peppers, Cathy. “Dialogic Origins and Alien Identities in Butler’s Xenogenesis.” Science-Fiction Studies, 22, no. (1997): 165-193.

—.“Of Goddesses and Cyborgs:Contemporary Feminist Origin Stories (Jean Auel, Octavia E. Butler, Leslie Marmon Silko).” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oregon, 1997. DAI 58 (1998): 12A.

Pfeiffer, John R. “Octavia Butler Writes the Bible.” In Shaw and Other Matters: A Festschrift for Stanley Weintraub.. Edited by Susan Rusinko. Selinsgrove, Pa., and London: Susquehanna University Press, 1998:140-152.

Raffel, Burton. “Genre to the Rear, Race and Gender to the Fore: The Novels of Octavia E. Butler.” The Literary Review, 38, no. 3 (1995): 454-461.

Rody, Caroline Margaret. “The Daughter’s Return: Revisions of History in Contemporary Fiction by African-American and Caribbean Women Writers.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Virginia, 1995. DAI 56 (1995): 9A.

Rushdy, Ashraf H. A. “Families of Orphans: Relation and Disrelation in Octavia Butler’s Kindred.” College English, 55, no. 2 (1993): 135-157.

Salvaggio, Ruth. “Octavia Butler and the Black Science-Fiction Heroine.” Black American Literature Forum, .2 (1993): 135-157.

—. “Octavia E. Butler.” Susy McKee Chamas, Octavia Butler, Joan D. Vinge. Edited by Marleen S. Barr. Mercer Island, Wash.: Starmont House, 1986:1-44.

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Shinn, Thelma J. “The Wise Witches: Black Women Mentors in the Fiction of Octavia E. Butler.” In Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spill-ers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.

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Williams, Sherley Anne. “Sherley Anne Williams on Octavia E. Butler.” Ms., March 1986.

Zaki, Hoda M. “Utopia, Dystopia, and Ideology in the Science Fiction of Octavia Butler.” Science-Fiction Studies, 17, no. 2 (1990): 239-251.


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Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition) 
Pfeiffer, John R. "Butler, Octavia Estelle (b. 1947)." Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day, edited by Richard Bleiler, 2nd ed., Charles Scribner's Sons, 1999, pp. 147-158. Gale Literary Sources, Accessed 24 June 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX1386300024

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