When you read the story of Octavia E. Butler, there are so many ways she could have gotten her start. She got a Remington typewriter from her mother at 10 years old, a tool she could use to begin writing. She graduated from a California community college, a place she began her education as a writer, where she won her first writing contest and made her first income from words. She went to the Clarion West workshop, became friends with fellow legend Samuel R. Delany, and sold her first story to Harlan Ellison (who still hasn’t published that anthology). But none of them are where her story begins. The tale is her own, and she tells it on the inside cover of a spiral-bound notebook in her own hand.
Butler was not only a literary genius of the first water and a gifted storyteller. She had the grit to get her work published and read at a time when science fiction was treated as (but never truly was) the privileged province of white men. She pushed past the titanic efforts of publication and resisting obscurity and into the stratosphere of the greats: a Locus award, a Nebula, a Hugo, a MacArthur genius grant, the PEN Lifetime Achievement Award. That spiral notebook page is not just a series of demands of the universe. She’s not trying to feed short stories into an ATM and receive her crisp stack of laurels. She had the drive and the will to SEE TO IT. She saw to it.
In a time when we’re still arguing about anti-black racism in speculative fiction as well as in our nation’s character, now is a perfect day to pick up Kindred, Octavia E. Butler’s reckoning with the lasting effects of slavery, told brilliantly through the medium of time travel and an unflinching first-person relationship with one’s own oppressor.
When the news is a flaming outhouse and we are all struggling to resist the regime of an unhinged, dictatorial populist who ran on the slogan Butler predicted with chilling accuracy, “Make America Great Again,” today would be the best possible day to pick up Parable of the Sower. (Seriously, she predicted this in 1993. With climate change. And income inequality. And the stunning, unstoppable power of empathy.)
If you’re riveted by The Handmaid’s Tale and find yourself convinced that stories of reproductive futurism aren’t just a lesson for our time but for all times, today is the day you go and download Bloodchild, Butler’s story about human tendencies toward hierarchy and its effect on who has babies and how and whether we let them.
If you’re just discovering Octavia E. Butler, there’s good news and there’s bad news. The good news is you’ve just found a science fiction hall-of-famer who wrote prolifically, published all kinds of stories, and left an indelible mark on American literature. If your first sight of her was that spectacular Google doodle of her brilliant mind expanding into other people, other worlds, and ultimately to books, congratulations, chum! Good books await, and behind them, the story of an incredible mind and an iron will.
The bad news is that Octavia E. Butler’s brilliant career and extraordinary life were both short. Though today would have been her 71st birthday, she passed on in 2006. Once you come to the end of her body of work, there is no more. However, Butler would be the first person to remind us to always look to the future and to help writers like her reach their dreams and bring new stories to the world.
The Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship provides funding to a young writer of color to attend the Clarion workshop to get a start as she once did. Every year, people accepted to Clarion put up GoFundMe pages to ask for help. Many future writers start off as Butler did: with talent and dreams and drive pitted against structural inequalities that make their upward trajectory harder than that of other folks. If you wish there was more of this kind of work in the world, there is sadly no way to bring Butler back.
But you always have the option to sow a better future.