By Ashly Moore Sheldon • September 14, 2023
That’s all anybody can do right now. Live. Hold out. Survive. I don’t know whether good times are coming back again. But I know that won’t matter if we don’t survive these times.
In 2020, as the world grappled with the competing crises of the global pandemic, the impacts of climate change, and widespread protests over social inequality, Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower shot to the top of the New York Times Best Seller list—nearly three decades after its original publication. Sadly the author wasn't alive to see it. Butler passed away in 2006 at the young age of 58.
Set in a near future U.S. that has fallen into chaos due to climate change, growing wealth inequality, and corporate greed, the book has been called prescient, even instructional, for our times. It is the story of Lauren Olamina, a Black teen with the power to feel the pain of others. After being displaced from her home, she becomes the leader of a community of people who adhere to her beliefs, which she calls "Earthseed."
The novel received much acclaim and won multiple awards. It has been adapted into an opera and a graphic novel. In 2021, it was chosen by readers of the New York Times as the top science fiction book of the last 125 years. Butler published a sequel in 1998 called Parable of the Talents. She began a third book to complete the planned trilogy, but died before completing it.
I began writing about power because I had so little.
Octavia Estella Butler was born in Pasadena, California, on June 22, 1947, the only child of Octavia Margaret Guy and Laurice James Butler. After her father's death when she was seven, she was raised by her mother, a housemaid, and her maternal grandmother, Estelle.
Butler was an extremely shy child, finding school and social situations difficult to navigate. Her awkwardness made her an easy target for bullies. Consequently, she spent much of her time at the library reading and writing her own stories. She became interested in science fiction at a young age and began submitting stories to sci-fi magazines as a teenager.
After graduating from high school in 1965, Butler worked during the day and took night classes at Pasadena City College. It was there that she won a college-wide short story contest. The prize money of $15 represented her first income as a writer.
As a female and as an African-American, I wrote myself into the world. I wrote myself into the present, the future, and the past.
Butler's mother pushed her to become a secretary, a job that would provide a steady income. Her aunt Hazel reportedly told her "honey, Negroes can't be writers." Despite these discouragements, Butler continued to pursue her dream, taking temporary jobs that allowed her the time and energy to write.
Butler met noted sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison while participating in a writing workshop. He was impressed by her writing and encouraged her to attend a six-week science fiction writing workshop in Clarion, Pennsylvania. There, she met Samuel R. Delaney, a fellow African-American author who became an important mentor and friend to her. It was during this time that she started selling her stories.
Over the next several years, she worked on the novels that became her Patternmaster series. In 1978, she began to be able to support herself on her writing income, alone.
Why aren’t there more Science Fiction Black writers? There aren't because there aren't. What we don't see, we assume can't be. What a destructive assumption.
Considered one of the frontrunners of the Afrofuturism movement, Butler was the first science fiction author to receive a MacArthur "Genius Grant" in 1995. She was a multiple recipient of both Hugo and Nebula Awards. In 2000, she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the PEN American Center and she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2010, four years after her death. These are only a handful of the accolades the author earned for her work.
More importantly, Butler's work (and the simple fact of her existence) empowered and inspired countless writers and artists who came after her including such notables as Nnedi Okorafor, Nisi Shawl, Janelle Monáe, Tananarive Due, Sam J. Miller, and Adrienne Maree Brown.
I was attracted to science fiction because it was so wide open. I was able to do anything and there were no walls to hem you in and there was no human condition that you were stopped from examining.
Beyond Parable of the Sower, If you're looking to explore more of Butler's work, here are our top picks.
There is nothing new under the sun, but there are new suns.
If you've run out of Butler titles to read, here are seven books that offer expansive and visionary worlds, ideas, and futures.