Writer Octavia Estelle Butler was born in Pasadena, California, on June 22, 1947, later breaking new ground as a woman and an African American in the realm of science fiction. Butler thrived in a genre typically dominated by white males. She lost her father at a young age and was raised by her mother. To support the family, her mother worked as a maid.
Butler studied at several universities and began her writing career in the 1970s. Her books blended elements of science fiction and African American spiritualism. Her first novel, Patternmaster (1976), would ultimately become one of the installments in the four-volume Patternist series. Butler went on to write several other novels, including Kindred (1979) as well as Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998), of the Parable series. She continued to write and publish until her death on February 24, 2006, in Seattle, Washington.
As a child, Butler was known for her shyness and her impressive height. She was dyslexic, but she didn’t let this challenge deter her from developing a love of books. Butler started creating her own stories early on, and she decided to make writing her life’s work around the age of 10. She later earned an associate degree from Pasadena City College. Butler also studied her craft with Harlan Ellison at the Clarion Fiction Writers Workshop.
To make ends meet, Butler took all sorts of jobs while maintaining a strict writing schedule. She was known to work for several hours very early in the morning each day. In 1976, Butler published her first novel, Patternmaster. This book would ultimately become part of an ongoing storyline about a group of people with telepathic powers called Patternists. The other related titles are Mind of My Mind (1977), Wild Seed (1980) and Clay’s Ark (1984). (Butler’s publishing house would later group the works as the Patternist series, presenting them in a different reading order from when they were chronologically published.)
In 1979, Butler had a career breakthrough with Kindred. The novel tells the story of an African American woman who travels back in time to save a white slave owner—her own ancestor. In part, Butler drew some inspiration from her mother’s work. “I didn’t like seeing her go through back doors,” she once said, according to The New York Times. “If my mother hadn’t put up with all those humiliations, I wouldn’t have eaten very well or lived very comfortably. So I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people have had to live through in order to endure.”
For some writers, science fiction serves as means to delve into fantasy. But for Butler, it largely served as a vehicle to address issues facing humanity. It was this passionate interest in the human experience that imbued her work with a certain depth and complexity. In the mid-1980s, Butler began to receive critical recognition for her work. She won the 1984 Best Short Story Hugo Award for “Speech Sounds.” That same year, the novelette “Bloodchild” won a Nebula Award and later a Hugo as well. In 1995, Butler received a “genius” grant from the MacArthur Foundation — becoming the first science-fiction writer to do so — which allowed her to buy a house for her mother and herself.