Octavia Butler (born 1947) is best known as the author of the Patternist series of science fiction novels in which she explores topics traditionally given only cursory treatment in the genre, including sexual identity and racial conflict. Butler's heroines are black women who are both mentally and physically powerful.
Butler grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood in Pasadena, California. Her father died while she was very young, and her mother worked as a maid to support the two of them. Butler has written memoirs of her mother's sacrifices: buying her a typewriter of her own when she was ten years old, and to paying a large fee to an unscrupulous agent so Butler's stories could be read. Butler entered student contests as a teenager, and after attending workshops like the Writers Guild of America, West "open door" program during the late 1960s and the Clarion Science Fiction Writer's Workshop in 1970, Butler sold her first science fiction stories. This early training brought her into contact with a range of well-known science fiction writers, including Joanna Russ and Harlan Ellison, who became Butler's mentor.
Four of Butler's six novels revolve around the Patternists, a group of mentally superior beings who are telepathically connected to one another. These beings are the descendants of Doro, a four thousand-year-old Nubian male who has selectively bred with humans throughout time with the intention of establishing a race of superhumans. He prolongs his life by killing others, including his family members, and inhabiting their bodies. The origin of the Patternists is outlined in Wild Seed, which begins in seventeenth-century Africa and spans more than two centuries. The Novel recounts Doro's uneasy alliance with Anyanwu, an earth-mother figure whose extraordinary powers he covets. Their relationship progresses from power struggles and tests of will to mutual need and dependency. Doro's tyranny ends when one of his children, the heroine of Mind of My Mind, destroys him and united the Patternists with care and compassion. Patternmaster and Survivor are also part of the Patternist series. The first book set in the future, concerns two brothers vying for their dying father's legacy. However, the pivotal character in the novel is Amber, one of Butler's most heroic women, whose unconventional relationship with one of her brothers is often interpreted in feminist contexts. In Survivor, set on an alien planet, Butler examines human attitudes toward racial and ethnic differences and their effects on two alien creatures. Alanna, the human protagonist, triumphs over racial prejudice and enslavement by teaching her alien captors tolerance and respect for individuality. Kindred departs from the Patternist series yet shares its focus on male/female relationships and racial matters. The protagonist, Dana, is a contemporary writer who is telepathically transported to a pre-Civil War plantation. She is a victim both of the slave-owning ancestor who summons her when he is in danger and of the slave-holding age in which she is trapped for increasing periods. Clay's Ark (1984) reflects Butler's interest in the psychological traits of men and women in a story of a space virus that threatens the earth's population with disease and genetic mutation. In an interview, Butler commented on how Ronald Reagan's vision of a winnable nuclear war encouraged her to write more dystopic material. This shift in focus is most evident in Parable of the Sower (1994), a novel which depicts a religious sea-change, set against the backdrop of a strife-ridden inner city in 2025.
Critics have often applauded Butler's lack of sentimentality, and have responded favorably on her direct treatment of subjects not previously addressed in science fiction, such as sexuality, male/female relationships, racial inequity, and contemporary politics. Frances Smith Foster has commented: "Octavia Butler is not just another woman science fiction writer. Her major characters are black women, and through her characters and through the structure of her imagined social order, Butler consciously explores the impact of race and sex upon future society."
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