Octavia Butler was one of the few female African-American science fiction writers, and her novels featured black women protagonists, rare in science fiction. But even more importantly, her books were genuinely moving, frequently thought-provoking and sometimes harshly critical of her fellow human beings. Butler was the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, and she also received a lifetime achievement award from the PEN American Center. Unfortunately, she died in 2006, cutting her spectacular career short.
Her first novel to be published, Patternmaster (1976), actually ended up being the fifth novel in her Patternist series. In that series, Butler began exploring themes she would later flesh out more fully, of a dystopian future in which American society completely breaks down and of aliens interbreeding with humans to produce a new species. The Patternist series was collected in the book Seed to Harvest (2007): Mind of My Mind (1977); Wild Seed (1980), which is actually the first book chronologically; Clay’s Ark (1984); and Patternmaster. Butler declined to bring the fifth book in the series, Survivor (1978), back into print because of her dislike for it.
Butler followed the Patternist series with the much stronger Xenogenesis series, later collected as Lilith’s Brood (2000): Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989). In this series, Butler imagines a far future after Earth has suffered an apocalyptic nuclear war. The only remaining humans were rescued by aliens called Oankali and kept asleep until the planet recovered. The first human to be awakened, Lilith, develops a special bond with some of the aliens. She is also given the responsibility of transitioning the other awakened humans and letting them know the conditions for their release back on Earth: to either cross-breed with the aliens and create a new species altogether, or to give up any chance for reproduction.
Butler also published a standalone time travel novel, Kindred (1979). A modern American black woman, Dana, uncontrollably travels several times to antebellum Maryland, where she must live for long periods as a slave. Kindred is Butler’s version of the traditional slave narrative, yet told through the voice of a contemporary character.
Butler’s best works were her two Parable novels: Parable of the Sower (1993) and its sequel Parable of the Talents (1998). Set in a near future in which American society has broken down due to extreme poverty and environmental destruction, the Parable books are both unflinchingly brutal and quietly hopeful. Lauren Olamina, the heroine of the series, invents a new religion called Earthseed, which posits that humankind’s only hope is to spread out into the universe and sow new societies, like seeds. Parable of the Talents won the Nebula Award for best novel.