Octavia E. Butler, who overcame dyslexia and social anxiety to become one of the most acclaimed science fiction writers of all time, is honored by Google with the June 22, 2018, Google Doodle on what would have been the author’s 71st birthday. Butler reached the top of the science fiction genre, a field dominated by white men, becoming not only perhaps the greatest African-American writer in science fiction, but one of the greatest women, and lesbian, writers in the genre as well.
But Butler considered herself a perfect fit for a career in speculative fiction, saying in a 1998 interview, “I’m black, I’m solitary, I’ve always been an outsider,” according to her New York Times obituary. Born on June 22, 1947, Butler died in 2006 after suffering a fall in her Seattle, Washington, home.
An only child raised by her mother and grandmother after her father — who shined shoes for a living — died when Butler was just seven years old, Butler realized her calling at an early age. According to a bio on The Portalist pop culture site, Butler was 12 years old when she watched a science fiction movie on TV, a cheesy sci-fi “B” flick called Devil Girl From Mars.
“I saw it when I was about 12 years old, and it changed my life,” she recalled. “As I was watching this film, I had a series of revelations. The first was that ‘Geez, I can write a better story than that.’ And then I thought, ‘Gee, anybody can write a better story than that.’ And my third thought was the clincher: ‘Somebody got paid for writing that awful story.’ So I was off and writing.”
That would have been 1959. But, as Newsweek reported, it wasn’t until 1976 that Butler published her first novel, Patternmaster, which turned out to be the first in her five-book Patternist series in which Butler imagined a secret history of the world extending from Ancient Egypt into the distant future.
The novel that permanently established Butler as one of the greats of the genre, however, came three years later, in 1979. Kindred, her fourth book, was directly inspired by the racism she saw her own mother experience as Butler grew up in Pasadena, California, in the 1950s and 1960s. In the novel, a black writer named Dana travels back in time to the slavery-era South, meeting her own ancestors and being forced to adapt and compromise to survive as an enslaved person herself.
“Kindred was kind of draining and depressing, especially the research for writing it,” she told In Motion Magazine in 2004. “A lot of my reason for writing it came when I was in preschool, when my mother used to take me to work with her. I got to see her not hearing insults and going in back doors, and even though I was a little kid, I realized it was humiliating. I knew something was wrong, it was unpleasant, it was bad. I remember saying to her a little later, at seven or eight, ‘I’ll never do what you do, what you do is terrible.’ And she just got this sad look on her face and didn’t say anything.”
Unlike many science fiction authors, Butler’s work gained mainstream acclaim and in 1995 she became the first writer in the genre to receive a MacArthur Fellowship, sometimes known as the “genius grant.”
Her best-loved works came in the late 1980s, with her Xenogenesis Trilogy — later retitled Lilith’s Brood — the story of humanity’s survival after a nuclear holocaust, when an alien race known as the Oankali “rescues” humankind — but for reasons that may not be altogether good.
“Butler explores issues of consent and manipulation in her first book (in the trilogy), Dawn,” explained the feminist site Bitch Media. “Some of the outcomes are upsetting. As the trilogy continues, readers see how Lilith’s decisions have affected future generations of humans and ooloi as they navigate a renewed planet.”
Butler’s family posted a message on the June 22, 2018, Google Doodle page.
“Our family is grateful and honored by the opportunity to invoke the memory of Octavia E. Butler. Her uniqueness emerged at an early age when she expressed a strong interest in the written word. It was clear, even then, that Octavia had found her destiny — she decided to pursue a career as a professional writer,” the Butler family wrote.