Content Notes: Octavia Butler’s works address racism, sexism, trauma, xenophobia, and other prejudices. There are also situations of rape, sexual assault, and questionable consent.
Ever since we had the idea of doing author spotlights, I knew I wanted to do one on Octavia Butler; I just needed to read more of her books first. Well, now I have, and I just want to read more of them. Like, every single one. Including (maybe especially) the ones she never finished. But don’t worry, I’m not going to wait to read them all before giving you a preview to Butler’s writing.
My first introduction to Octavia Butler was Kindred. A friend was reading it as part of a book club and I was intrigued. I was also surprised, because I had never heard of Octavia Butler, but reading about her, it was clear that she was kind of a big deal.
Octavia Butler has won Hugo and Nebula awards, as well as receiving a MacArthur Genius Grant for her work in science fiction. She started publishing short stories in the 1970s and by the 80s was able to make a living writing full time. She has received a lot of praise for breaking down barriers for both women and writers of color in science fiction.
Every time I read anything about Octavia Butler, I’m motivated to read her writing. For example, her inspiration to write science fiction came when she was twelve. She’d just seen a sci-fi movie called Devil Girl from Mars and thought, “I can write better sci-fi than that.” Then she spent the rest of her life writing better sci-fi. Isn’t that awesome? To me, it’s super empowering, and it makes me want to read her fiction.
But there are lots of authors who seem like cool people, yet their writing just doesn’t hit home for me. Octavia Butler is not one of these authors.
When I read Kindred, I was in awe. I had never read anything like it. Kindred is partially set in 1976 California and follows Dana, who periodically and unexplainably gets transported back 1815 Maryland. She saves a boy, and realizes eventually that this boy is an ancestor of hers. Dana can’t control when she is taken from her time or when she returns, but she tends to return when her life is in danger. She spends years in the 17th century, living amongst plantation slaves, trying to help them when she can. Each time she returns, only seconds have passed in her time.
When I read it, Kindred was probably the most nuanced book I’d read centering race and slavery. The parts set in the 70s address ongoing racism and the realities of interracial relationships. The parts set in the 17th century are reminiscent of slave narratives and show several different perspectives of how some people justified slavery and how others were forced to endure it.
But Kindred didn’t really strike me as very “sci-fi-y.” It’s usually shelved in literature or African American literature sections in libraries and bookstores, and Butler herself said she saw it as more of a “grim fantasy” than science fiction (source). Since Octavia Butler is known for her sci-fi, I wanted to make sure the next book I read of hers fit that genre so I could get a better picture of her as a sci-fi author.
When I told my mom I was reading Kindred, she told me she had read the first book in Butler’s Xenogenesis series a long time ago. She didn’t remember everything about it, but she said it was really good. I ended up getting the whole trilogy in a single collection on Kindle. In 2000, the series was re-released as the Lillith’s Brood trilogy. I can’t find a reason why that decision was made, but it makes sense, as the main characters of the books are Lillith and her descendents.
Dawn begins with Lillith awakening from what we know is not a normal sleep. She’s being held captive, but doesn’t know by whom, or why. Soon, she is introduced to an alien being who tells her that she’s been in suspended animation for about 250 years, after humanity destroyed most of themselves and the earth. This alien species saved the humans they could and want to breed with them to create a new species. They are gene traders, manipulating genes to reduce flaws. The ship they live on is a living organism, as are all of their technological items and tools.
Lilliith has to come to terms with this new reality and try to navigate her limited choices to survive. She is chosen to awaken more humans and prepare them to return to Earth and begin their new society. Of course, many of the humans see Lillith as a traitor for cooperating with their captors.
The aliens, called Oankali, are covered in tentacles. There are males and females, but there is also a third gender known as Oolooi (pronoun “it”). Reproduction is achieved by Oolooi combining genetic material from their male and female mates. For their blending with humanity, each Oolooi has a male and female Oankali mate as well as a male and female human mate (imagine the size of THAT Punnett Square). The children that result are varying degrees of human and Oankali, both in appearance and biologically.
Adulthood Rites and Imago, the second and third books in the trilogy, each follow one of Lillith’s children. Akin, the protagonist of Adulthood Rites is kidnapped by human resistors as a child and lives with them for an extended amount of time. He tries to solve some of the conflicts between the humans and the aliens. This book probably has the most obvious parallels to other books about colonization, particularly the books I read in Middle School about Native Americans and settlers.
Imago follows Jodahs, another child of Lilltih’s. Oanakali children and human-Oankali constructs are ungendered until they reach sexual maturity. Construct children typically look male or female though and often identify as their projected gender. Jodahs grew up expecting to become male, but metamorphosis, makes clear that Jodahs is actually Oolooi, the first to be constructed from a human-Oankali pairing. This leads to all sorts of complicated issues, and Jodahs must find its place in the new world that its existence is helping to create.
There’s a lot going on in this series. The Oankali are portrayed as well-meaning, but they are very controlling. They are colonizers and they don’t really have a concept of consent or human rights. Humans are full of potential, but there is a lot of violence and xenophobia to contend with. As I was reading, there were definitely some really uncomfortable moments. Butler poses a lot of questions that don’t have easy (or possibly any) answers. None of the characters are perfect; no one’s intentions are pure.
I knew from a lot of quotes I have seen from Butler’s work that I also wanted to read Parable of the Sower (which always autocorrects to Parable of the Shower when I text Bethany. Maybe we’ll have to do something with that concept some day). I see quotes and excerpts from this book all the time on Twitter and in articles about and by people inspired by Butler’s work.
Parable of the Sower starts in 2024 America, which is falling apart. Climate change and economic inequality have resulted in people living in armed neighborhoods or losing their homes altogether and being forced to travel to find work just to survive. Companies are offering people work in exchange for room, board, and very little pay, eventually forcing them into unending slave labor to pay off the resulting debts.
Our main character is Lauren, a hyper-empathetic 15 year old who believes that humanity’s only hope lies in space. We follow her difficult life in her neighborhood for a few years, until a violent attack forces her on the road to find a new home. She heads north, collecting people to help her survive along the way.
Lauren has a unique belief system she calls Earthseed that basically boils down to “God is change.” She cultivates this belief system among the people she travels with, hoping to eventually build a community where people learn together and support each other – with the ultimate goal of attaining the “heaven” of life amongst the stars, on a planet that hasn’t been destroyed like Earth.
I just finished Parable of the Sower and can’t wait to read it’s sequel, Parable of the Talents. I currently have it on hold at my library. There was supposed to be a third book in the series, but Butler didn’t get to finish it before her death in 2006. Parable of the Sower was published in 1993 and feels like it could have been written today. The future Lauren lives in feels like a possible reality in light of today’s political and economic turmoil. The prejudices shown are the same ones that exist today, mainly centered around gender and race.
As I read all of these books, I was mostly focused on the relatable characters and engaging plots. Of course, there is a lot beneath the surface to explore. All of the main protagonists are women of color (though the original release of Dawn portrayed Lillith as white on the cover, despite her description in the book), and the casts are diverse. I loved how the Xenogenesis series had a third gender and brought up some interesting ideas about sexuality. But all of that was just the cherry on top of the bad-ass characters and exciting stories.
I definitely plan to read all of these books again some day to explore some of the themes more deeply. Kindred was probably the hardest read because the pain people suffered was directly based on pain people suffered in real life. Dana is our modern lens, and even as a black woman, she has a lot to learn about the realities of slavery. Parable of the Sower was probably the most engaging read, as I found the main character so relatable and moral questions are a little less uncomfortably ambiguous than in Xenogenesis.
I don’t read a ton of hard science fiction, and I was a little bit afraid that I might be bored by Butler’s super sciency sci-fi. Fortunately, I was wrong. Xenogensis has SO MUCH science in it, but even as an English Major who never took super advanced science courses, I was never intimidated. After finishing the third book, I read a biologist’s review of the series, which explored the plausibility of the genetic concepts Butler introduces. All of them have some sort of basis in genetics, from how cancer mutations can be used in useful ways, to the way the Oankali manipulate and use the genes of other species.
Parable of the Sower obviously has a lot of religious commentary, which I was a little wary of going in. I’m happy to say that I think religious and non-religious people alike can enjoy this book. Lauren’s ideology is well-explained and is not meant to be used as a control mechanism over people’s lives. I’ve read the synopsis of Parable of the Talents, and of course, people come along to try to manipulate Earthseed to control people. I’m excited to see how that progresses, but also dreading the parallels I’ll see to today’s world.
I’ve read sci-fi with female main characters before, but never so deeply focused on the realities of oppression and prejudice, especially while keeping strong characters. Butler’s characters are victims, but they are also survivors. They do what they need to do to survive, and they are morally complex. I think I could probably read and re-read Butler’s books for years and find new depths every time. If you like sci-fi at all, I definitely recommend Xenogenesis. If you like dystopian fantasy, the Earthseed series will be right up your ally. I’ve also heard great things about her short stories and her Patternist series, which are now very high on my to-read list.
I can see why Octavia Butler gained so much respect and acclaim in the sci-fi community. She wrote from a very personal lens, a lens that had not been common in sci-fi up to that point. She accomplished a lot of “firsts,” not only as a black author, not only as a female author, but also as a science fiction author – she was the first sci-fi author to receive a MacArthur “Genius” grant, for example. I recommend you read Octavia Butler at any time, but if you need a timely excuse, February is Black History Month, so now’s perfect time to dive deep into her influential works.
Are you an Octavia Butler fan? What’s your favorite book or short story of hers?