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Cheering for the Astronomical Excellence and Latest Accolades of Octavia E. Butler!

By Christian Coleman

Octavia E. Butler
Author photo: Nikolas Coukouma

It’s another fest of firsts for Octavia E. Butler! The multi-award-winning author and MacArthur fellow is having a moment, or rather a series of rolling moments that’s been gaining speed over the last few years, and we hope it keeps going!

One of the goals Butler wrote about in her journal was to become a New York Times best-selling author. In September 2020, fourteen years after her death, she finally became one for the first time.

Her bestseller status owes itself to Parable of the Sower, the first in her Parable duology in which America dives off the dystopian deep end in a way that rings too true for the last four years. Butler explained in her Democracy Now! interview, her final television appearance, that she wrote the duology as a cautionary tale. Readers have been turning to it as a prophetic reflection of our society during one of our peak turbulent times on record, and it’s alerting them to the genius and wonder of her other fiction.

Where to start if you’re fresh off the rush of the Parable novels? Critic and reporter Stephen Kearse charted a reading guide of Butler’s entire output for the New York Times, beginning with her time-travel classic, Kindred. Because of its crossover appeal and “controlled and precise” depiction of American slavery, Kearse recommends it for readers who swear that they’re not fans of science fiction. They will be once they read it.

NPR’s Throughline produced an hour-long feature about her career, “How Octavia Butler’s Sci-Fi Dystopia Became a Constant in a Man’s Evolution.” It features commentary from her former editor Dan Simon; writers Nnedi Okorafor, Ayana Jamieson, and adrienne maree brown; and readings from her books. The first part covers Kindred. About her intentions in writing it and her innovative approach to the time travel trope, she’s quoted as saying:

“I wrote Kindred to make people, I hoped, feel history as opposed to merely knowing facts of history. It seemed important to me to get . . . the awareness of what it might have been like to be a slave, to feel it on your own skin, so to speak. And to understand the lack of control of your own fate that a slave suffers.”

In his extensive New Yorker piece, “How Butler Reimagines Sex and Survival,” Julian Lucas singles out Kindred as the novel that kicked off the neo-slave narrative as a genre. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Water Dancer are its direct descendants. Lucas goes on to remark that Kindred’s “enduring power lies in how it forces [protagonist] Dana not simply to experience slavery but also to accept it as a condition of her own existence.” And in a time when Black women are being lauded for saving the country from itself, its “premise feels newly mordant.”

The Library of America enshrined Kindred’s literary legacy in the first ever volume of Butler’s collected work, released this January. Edited by writer Nisi Shawl and scholar Gerry Canavan, the LOA’s Butler volume includes her other stand-alone novel, Fledging, as well as her short stories and selected essays. She joins Ursula K. Le Guin, Philip K. Dick, and Ray Bradbury as science-fiction writers whose work has been recognized for its cultural significance to American letters. In signature Butler fashion, she’s the first Black science fiction author to have a full volume of their work added to the canon. Always a first. Always a trailblazer.

All trailblazing paths begin somewhere, and Butler’s began in her hometown of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Times mapped out her literary landscape and the old haunts where she wrote in their interactive feature for us to explore.

Her path opened the way for today’s newest generation of writers, like N. K. Jemisin, Tochi Onyebuchi, Nnedi Okorafor, and adrienne maree brown. In particular, brown centers much of her work on Butler’s. On Democracy Now!, she talked about Butler’s impact as a deeply feminist writer on her:

“I think one of the things that was so powerful to me when I first picked up Octavia is that she wrote these strong Black feminine characters, these protagonists, who now you might look back and see the nonbinary, see the queerness, see other things in them, but at the time, she was writing these characters, and it was like, ‘Oh, there’s young Black women, and they’re leading.’”

The National Women’s Hall of Fame took notice of Butler’s feminist influence too. This October, they will induct her in the class of 2021, and in an announcement noted that “the issues she addresses in her Afrofuturistic, feminist novels have become more obviously relevant.” Here’s what else they had to say about her:

“Her life and works have been highly influential in science fiction, the literary world and popular culture, especially for people of color and marginalized communities. Scholars note that Butler’s choice to write from the point of view of characters in these communities expanded the science fiction genre to reflect the experiences of disenfranchised people.”

Her fellow inductees include poet Joy Harjo, NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, and former First Lady, Michelle Obama.

On the anniversary of her passing this year, Symphony Space hosted an evening of readings and conversation to celebrate her fiction. Such literary superstars as N. K. Jemisin, Walter Mosley, and our very own Imani Perry were part of the extraordinary roster that read selections from her work. It’s so heartening to see other writers and fans outside of science fiction fandom hopping on the Butler bandwagon.

Just like Earthseed, the godless religion Butler invented for her Parable novels, her name has been taking root among the stars and worlds far from our planet. In 2018, the International Astronomical Union named a mountain on Charon Butler Mons to honor her. The year after, Asteroid 7052 Octaviabutler, discovered by American astronomer Eleanor Helin at Palomar Conservatory in 1988, was named in her memory. And this year, on March 5, NASA named the Mars 2020 Perseverance rover landing site after her. She would have loved this.

Mars Perseverance Rover - Octavia E. Butler - Landing Site In Jezero Crater - March 5, 2021
Mars Perseverance Rover - Octavia E. Butler - Landing Site In Jezero Crater - March 5, 2021. Photo credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

There’s another Mars connection here. Butler started writing science fiction because she went into competition with Devil Girl from Mars, the kind of campy, post-war B movie that ghettoizes science fiction for its adolescent traits, like laser guns—pew pew pew!—and sexy yet dangerous women from outer space. “I could write something better than that,” she thought to herself as a precocious twelve year old after watching it. If NASA had this in mind when naming the landing site, hats off to them for the nod!

By stars, we’re not just referring to astronomical objects. Last December, Dolly Parton gave the best shout-out to Kindred in the New York Times. And soon, stars of the small screen will bring the characters of the novel to life. FX Networks ordered a pilot for the TV adaptation of it. Yes, please! A screen adaptation of Butler’s work was long overdue.

There’s only one thing missing in all the great news: Octavia E. Butler herself. It’s a shame she’s not here for this. We wish she were here to see how much she and her visions of the future mean for so many people.

Octavia E. Butler

About the Author 

Christian Coleman is the associate digital marketing manager at Beacon Press and editor of Beacon Broadside. Before joining Beacon, he worked in writing, copy editing, and marketing positions at Sustainable Silicon Valley and Trikone. He graduated from Boston College and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. Follow him on Twitter at @coleman_II.