10 Reasons to Love: Octavia Butler

20th Jun 2014

10 Reasons to Love: Octavia Butler
Octavia Estelle Butler is the Hugo and Nebula award-winning author or Fledgling, Kindred, Lillith's Blood and many other great titles. Her work uses sci-fi and fantasy elements such as time travel, male pregnancy, aliens and more to critique many of our own society's key issues such as power relations, gender, race and sexuality.

On what would have been her 66th birthday, we want to celebrate the life of this fantastic feminist; a woman who excelled in a genre she loved as both a woman writer and writer of colour and created strong, believable protagonists…

1. Rising Star

Octavia Butler was destined to standout from an early age. By the age of fifteen she was six feet tall!

2. Taking good from the bad

Butler began writing at a young age (some reports say as young as twelve years old). She claimed the film, Devil Girl from Mars as the inspiration for her early stories, though not for the reason one may think:

“When I was 12, I had this big brown three-ring binder notebook that somebody had thrown away, and I was watching this godawful movie on television. (I wasn’t allowed to go to the movies, because movies were wicked and sinful, but somehow when they came to the television they were OK.) It was one of those where the beautiful Martian arrives on Earth and announces that all the men on Mars have died and they need more men. None of the Earthmen want to go! And I thought, ‘Geez, I can write a better story than that.’ I got busy writing what I thought of as science fiction.”

3. She’s a Genius

Her stats are quite impressive. In addition to a host of smaller—but no less noteworthy—awards, Octavia Butler is a two-time Nebula and two-time Hugo award winning author (science fiction and fantasy’s two most prestigious awards).

In 1995, she became the first, and to this date only, science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur “Genius Grant.”

In 2000, PEN America Center awarded Butler a lifetime achievement award and four years after her death she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

4. Writing with Dyslexia

Despite this genius status, Butler never considered herself smart, largely because she suffered from dyslexia, a learning disability marked by difficulties with word recognition and spelling. As a child, her teachers often accused her of plagiarism when presented with her creative stories.

However, a teacher recognised her talent and special gifts at the age of thirteen, encouraging her to submit a story to a magazine and thus fuelling her desire to become a published writer.

To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.

5. Her empowering words

“Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be lied to. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.”

(From Parable of the Talents. See here for an interview in which Butler recites these lines).

6. Library Lovin’

Butler would encourage you to get a library card and make good use of it:

“When I was six and was finally given books to read in school, I found them incredibly dull; they were Dick and Jane books. I asked my mother for a library card. I remember the surprised look on her face. She looked surprised and happy. She immediately took me to the library and got me a card. From then on the library was my second home.”

7. Making Your Own World

When asked, “What was it about writing for you?” by Charlie Rose, Octavia Butler had this brilliant—and telling—response:

“You got to make your own worlds. You got to write yourself in. Whether you were a part of the greater society or not, you got to write yourself in. So I wrote myself in.”

(For the complete Charlie Rose interview, see here and here).

8. Kindred

Octavia Butler had this to say about the inspiration for bestseller, Kindred:

“I thought about my mother, because she used to take me to work with her when she couldn’t get a baby sitter and I was too young to be left alone, and I saw her going in the back door, and I saw people saying things to her that she didn’t like but couldn’t respond to. I heard people say in her hearing, ‘Well, I don’t really like colored people.’ And she kept working, and she put me through school, she bought her house – all the stuff she did. I realized that he didn’t understand what heroism was. That’s what I want to write about: when you are aware of what it means to be an adult and what choices you have to make, the fact that maybe you’re afraid, but you still have to act.”

9. Her love of people

Advice for future writers?

“I’ve talked to high school kids who are thinking about trying to become a writer and asking ‘What should I major in?’, and I tell them, ‘History. Anthropology. Something where you get to know the human species a little better, as opposed to something where you learn to arrange words.’ I don’t know whether that’s good advice or not, but it feels right to me.”

10. Breaking Gender Barriers

Octavia Butler was at the forefront of breaking gender barriers and carving a space in sci-fi/fantasy for women writers. Take a look at what she has to say about not only who writers wrote about at the time of her emergence (and why she failed so miserably initially), but also how women writers began to claim space in the genre in this clip from the 1993 TV documentary “Brave New Worlds: The Science Fiction Phenomenon.”

We recommend you start with Bloodchild which is free in e-book format  and which won the Hugo, Locus, Nebula and Science Fiction Chronicle awards. And make sure you check out Fledgling and Kindred too!  

What are you favourite books by Octavia Butler?