Influential African-American SF Writers of the 20th Century: Octavia E. Butler


I began writing about power because I had so little, Octavia E. Butler once said. Butler’s life as an African American woman–an alien in American society and among science fiction writers–informed the powerful works that earned her an ardent readership and acclaim both inside and outside science fiction. Gerry Canavan offers a critical and holistic consideration of Butler’s career. Drawing on Butler’s personal papers, Canavan tracks the false starts, abandoned drafts, tireless rewrites, and real-life obstacles that fed Butler’s frustrations and launched her triumphs. Canavan departs from other studies to approach Butler first and foremost as a science fiction writer working within, responding to, and reacting against the genre’s particular canon. The result is an illuminating study of how an essential SF figure shaped themes, unconventional ideas, and an unflagging creative urge into brilliant works of fiction.

Octavia E. Butler by Gerry Canavan

Published: November 1st 2016 by University of Illinois Press

Source: ARC via Netgalley


Butler’s creative and critical work demonstrates that science fiction was never really a straight, white, male genre, despite its pretensions to the contrary, blackness, womanhood, poverty, disability, and queerness were always there, under the surface, the genre’s hidden truth.

This is an accessible academic read that delves into Octavia E. Butler’s influential science fiction work in addition to highlighting her writing process with references from her documents as preserved in The Huntington Archive. From this book, I learned more about how Butler approached her own challenges in writing and the prejudices around black writers in the science fiction field. Butler’s perception of the publishing landscape and its emphasis on marketability is touched upon here.

Like other readers, I was also amazed to learn that Butler early drafts were often much darker than her published work. (Many fans know how dark her published work can be considering how relevant her Earthseed books are to the political climate today). It was also fascinating to read about how the heroine from Parable of the Sower was an almost morally questionable Doro-like figure (readers of Wild Seed will never forget Doro) in an early draft.

I was even more intrigued by her early discarded draft of The Justice Plague and it’s link to the idea of hyper-empathy later in Parable of the Sower.* I appreciated how each section of this book focused on a different work. The perspectives on how the Oankali are not necessarily Utopian alien beings in the Xenogenesis trilogy due to their imperialistic tendencies also stuck with me.

Though I did pause reading the literary analysis section to pick up and read Butler’s Patternmaster series at one point because I wanted to be familiar with it first. Therefore, I recommend this book to readers who are at least partly familiar with some of Octavia Butler’s work and/or impact on science fiction in order to fully appreciate the thematic discussions. (That being said, unfamiliar readers might still be inspired to pick up her books through reading this one.)

The extracts and summaries from The Huntington Archive are well placed and make me wish I had access to the archive to read her Octavia E. Butler’s manuscripts. (Side-note: it’s still fun to browse through The Huntingtin’s Library Tumblr page for extracts). The inclusion of her essay ‘The Lost Races of Science Fiction’ in the appendix is also worth reading as it is still relevant to discussions around marginalised identities in science fiction publishing today.

The Monophobic Response (a reprint of Butler’s PEN speech that is partly referenced here) is also prescient:

We write about aliens, she says, because we can’t stop creating them out of each other. We want aliens to be real so that we are not ‘alone in a universe that cares no more for us than it does for stones or suns or any other fragments of itself. And yet we are unable to get along with those aliens who are closest to us, those aliens who are of course ourselves.’

Random notes:

*Clay’s Ark is the only Butler book that I took breaks from reading in the past due to how dark/graphic that story became in parts. Though she wrote that book at a difficult time too.

*I can’t wait to re-read Parable of the Sower for #DSFFBookClub.

*The Monophobic Response also reminded me of Le Guin’s essay ‘American SF and the Other.’

*Books I’ve reviewed by Butler so far: Parable of the Sower, Kindred and Wild Seed. I’ve also read Dawn, Bloodchild and Other Stories (Why don’t I have a copy of this book?) and the Patternmaster series)

*Canavan’s book is a well-researched one (note: not own voices) but it does reference many works by African American writers and scholars. For Black History Month, here’s a few related books that are already on my TBR:

*Related releases: Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation. Also, a boxset of Parable of the Sower & Parable of the Talents is to be published later this month.

*Related articles: #BlackSpecFic: A Fireside Fiction Company special report (currently nominated for a Hugo Award) also gives an insight into the systemic challenges that are still in place in SF publishing today.


*For more book reviews, support with coffee at Ko-Fi.

5 thoughts on “Influential African-American SF Writers of the 20th Century: Octavia E. Butler

  1. I must admit, I’ve never read any of her work at length but like most readers are aware of the contribution she made to science fiction. She really did shatter that glass ceiling for women and African-American authors, blending cultural elements throughout her work. I think I’d read once that she was dyslexic which makes her story all the more remarkable. I must hunt a few of her titles. Brilliant review Glaiza, absolutely loved it ❤


    1. Thanks Kelly! Many writers I admire identify as dyslexic too. I also remember reading about how Butler identified as dyslexic. I recommend starting with either Kindred or Parable of the Sower with her work. I agree that her impact on the SF field as a black writer is such an enduring one. Though #BlackSpecFic: A Fireside Fiction Company special report (nominated for a Hugo Award) gives an insight into the systemic challenges that are still in place in SF publishing today:

      *Might add it to the list of notes!


  2. This was a beautiful post. It was enlightening and very engrossing. I’ve read a few excerpts from her books, but never the whole books themselves. I’m kicking myself for that right now. My goal is to make her a priority author for me this year. Thank you for sharing this.


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