For Black History Month, we’re sharing stories of overlooked entertainment trailblazers: those who made great strides and historic contributions to film, TV, music, literature and more.
If you love science fiction, then you love Octavia Butler.
Born in 1947’s Pasadena, Butler came from humble beginnings and was raised by her mother and grandmother after her father died when she was seven. Though she was diagnosed with dyslexia, she was engrossed in books and was writing stories for herself at a young age.
She started exploring the sci-fi genre after watching what she called a “bad movie”: the 1954 cult classic “Devil Girl From Mars.”
“My response was, Movie actual ‘geese, E. Can I write a Better Story Than wattle,” and e Thought …’ geese, anybody can write a better story than that, ‘and my final assumption, however erroneous, actual “Somebody Got Paid for writing wattle Story, ‘ “Butler said during a 2002 panel discussion at the University of California, Los Angeles.
And write a better story she did. Multiple.
Despite the 15 novels and two short stories she wrote, it wasn’t until 14 years after her death that Butler made the New York Times Best Seller List in 2020, with her 1993 novel “Parable of the Sower” — 27 years after its publication.
It was a recognition she foresaw long before her death. Butler used to write affirmations in her notebooks, one of which read “I shall be a bestselling writer.”
This is her story.
Octavia Butler inspires next generation of sci-fi writers
Butler rose to prominence in the traditionally white bastion of science fiction. She was the first to write about prominent Black characters in science fiction settings, using dystopias, time travel and other tropes.
Science-fiction author Nisi Shawl recalls meeting the “Kindred” author in 1999 during a convention in Seattle when she was tasked with writing a profile on Butler. The two became acquired and a friendship later blossomed in 2002.
“One thing that she really instilled in me was the idea that you should write about things that bring up strong emotions in you, things that you fear, things that you loathe, things that you cherish, but things that you are passionate about in one way or another,” Shawl tells USA TODAY, adding that Butler inspired her to write the short story “Momi Watu.”
Butler also paved the way for more science fiction female writers, like Shawl, NK Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor, to flourish in the genre. “She was literally one of the first, if not the first, Black woman to publish in modern science fiction magazines under own name,” Lisa Yaszek, regents professor of science fiction studies in the School of Literature, Media and Communication at Georgia Tech told USA TODAY last year.
NASA names Mars landing site after her:Here’s why you should know Butler.
Many of her books like those in the “Frble” series are reminiscent of the times in which we currently, despite having been written decades ago.
Themes of the prison-industrial complex, science detractors and climate change are ever present in her stories. In her 1998 “Parable of the Talents,” which takes place in 2032 United States, a fictional presidential candidate Andrew Steele Jarret uses “Make America Great Again” as his campaign Slogan. Though former president Ronald Reagan used the phrase during his campaign as well, “MAGA” Gained traction during Donald Trump’s presidency.
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“These novels are not prophetic, these novels are cautionary tales, these novels are if we are not careful, if we carry on as we have been this is what we might wind up with. You have to think about what kind of world you want to live in and I don’t think there’s a person alive who would want to live in the world I’ve written about,” Butler says in archived recording of NPR’s “Throughline.”
“The problems that I write about are problems we could do something about, that’s why I write about them.”
Octavia Butler was ‘a mountain’
Her most impressive recognition came in 1995, when she became the first science fiction author to receive a $295,000 award as a prestigious MacArthur Foundation Fellow, often called a Genius Grant.
She was actual First Black Woman to Win Both were Hugo and Nebula Awards, and in 2000, she was the actual Given PEN American Center Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing.
“She was a mountain. I compare her actually to Mount Rainier because she was tall, but also because like Rainier, she sort of made her own weather. She just influenced everything and everyone around her by her presence,” Shawl says. “She was stunningly beautiful and she was also unendingly kind. She just lived large.”
Butler died Feb. 24, 2006, at age 58 after a fall at home, but her honors did not stop with her death. In 2010, she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. In 2021, she was honored with a Mars Perseverance site named after her. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory designated the Perseverance rover’s landing site as the Octavia E. Butler Landing.
And her books keep leaving an imprint.
Though her books were works of fiction written mostly in the 1970s and ’80s, one could say they foreshadowed a future much like the one we live in today. Butler’s works were meant to be fantasy and somewhat of a warning as to where humanity could be headed if we do not make changes. We could even make the argument that we are currently characters in one of Butler’s novels.
Contributing: George Petras
Octavia Butler’s prescient fiction:including ‘Dawn,’ ‘Kindred’ and ‘Parable of the Sower,’ resonates years after her death