The expanding orbit of Seattle science fiction writer Octavia Butler

OCTAVIA BUTLER LIVED the last seven years of her life in a modest midcentury home in Lake Forest Park, a bedroom community northeast of Seattle. On a high hillside overlooking Lake Washington, the neighborhood comprises mostly comfortable, unshowy ranch-style houses buffered by big yards and gardens and marvelously tall trees. Butler’s former home is now painted gray on gray and occupied by a family of four. 

Knowing that an author who wrote unsparingly about humanity’s capacity for violence and oppression dwelled amid such picturesque Pacific Northwest ordinariness is comforting. This quiet, unremarkable place would suit a diligent recluse, which Butler reportedly was. Her stories, whether set on alien planets or fictionalized Earths, rarely depicted such nurturing environments. 

But the world beyond — besieged by man-made climate disasters, battered by an interminable pandemic, struggling to squelch a dangerous rise in neo-fascism — exists exactly as she imagined. She would not be surprised, and she would not be pleased. 

Butler wrote novels and short stories with dispassionate, almost clinical prose, then centered them on main characters driven by powerful, humane sensitivities. She’s renown equally for heady, multivolume interstellar sci-fi that explores startling alien cultures and for speculative fiction, stories that unfold on a recognizable Earth but are no less compelling in their imaginings. Even her most far-flung narratives were grounded in themes of bodily autonomy, hierarchical leadership, interdependence, genetics, evolution, sexuality, race, gender, power.

She was first published in the mid-1970s and kept on at a prolific pace — some 15 novels and a collection of short stories — pretty much until she died in Seattle in 2006 at 58 years old.

Butler belongs to that small class of authors — James Baldwin, N. Scott Momaday, Ursula Le Guin — who are appreciated for what they achieved as well as for who they were. Butler wasn’t the first Black science fiction writer, and she wasn’t the first woman science fiction writer, but she was the first Black woman science fiction writer to achieve at the highest heights of her field. 

In 1995, she was the first science fiction writer ever awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, aka “Genius Grant,” which brought a cash prize that helped her buy her Lake Forest Park home in 1999. Throughout the rest of her career, she racked up Nebulas and Hugos, science fiction’s most prestigious awards. She claimed that her fans came from three categories: Black readers, science-fiction fans and feminists. The fourth could be the person at the intersection of that Venn diagram — the socially conscious, liberation-minded nerd who’s more visible now, almost 20 years after Butler’s death, because she helped establish the archetype herself. 

IN FACT, ALL of mainstream culture is finally catching up with Octavia Butler. This arrival is partly due to the sad fact that the inklings of toxic nationalism, climate refugeeism and acute economic disparity she observed in her time and magnified in her books are now entrenched in our lives. Her oracular insight, especially in her 1993 masterwork “Parable of the Sower,” reads today like journalism, and has been iconified in the form of tote bags and T-shirts bearing the slogans “Octavia Butler tried to warn us” and “Octavia Butler knew.”

This moment is also the direct result of the precedent Butler set as an individual. Her brilliance planted the seed for others like her — daring, uncompromising Black visionaries — to exist, and now that seed is germinating. At least five adaptations of her stories are in the works for film and streaming TV, all involving celebrated Black creatives: the postapocalyptic alien-genetic-science story “Dawn” by Ava DuVernay’s production company for Amazon; “Wild Seed,” a centuries-spanning romantic drama involving immortal superhumans co-written by award-winning sci-fi novelist Nnedi Okorafor and produced by Viola Davis for Amazon; a feature film version of “Parable of the Sower” directed by Oscar-nominated documentarian Garrett Bradley for A24; an adaptation of Butler’s last book, the revisionist vampire drama “Fledgling,” produced by Issa Rae and J.J. Abrams for HBO; and a serialized take on the 1979 time travel/American slavery novel “Kindred,” created by fellow MacArthur Genius and playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, which premieres on FX/Hulu Dec. 13.

This Octavia Butler boom comes after not a single one of her stories was adapted to film or television during her lifetime. And it, too, she predicted. 

“I shall be a bestselling writer,” reads the first line of a handwritten note she penned on the back cover of a spiral notebook in 1988. “My books will be read by millions of people. So be it!” Thirty-three years later, in November 2021, “Parable of the Sower” finally made it to The New York Times bestseller list. Once again, Butler wrote the future. 

And she wrote herself into the future — a stylistic choice that puts her squarely at the forefront of the aesthetic movement known as Afrofuturism. She not only envisioned her real-world success as an author but made many of her protagonists Black women, complex and fallible, strong-willed and durable. They appeared on interstellar spaceships and antebellum plantation homes, as juvenile vampires and shape-shifting healers — settings and forms that seldom had included Black people. At the beginning of her career, these characters were hidden by publishers that intentionally kept cover art neutral in skin tone and body shape to avoid any indication of race, though Butler wrote clear racial identities. Today it’s exactly these identities that are gaining more and more screen time across all genres, and specifically in sci-fi, fantasy and superhero stories. 

Similarly, network television and the film studio establishment of the ’80s and ’90s had little motivation to connect Black storytellers to broad audiences. Over the past 20 years, a new generation of Black creators and audiences has joined the conversation, amassing power and influence through financial success and cultural ascendance. The demand for these stories is greater than ever, and the prominence of streaming allows for more means to present them. 

In many ways, the world is finally ready for Octavia Butler. Which is a blessing, because the world needs Octavia Butler. 

BUTLER’S STORIES SERVE as cautionary tales, warning us away from the worst aspects of human behavior and their ramifications, while her empathy offers an example of how we can and should live. She wrote characters who were innately attuned to the nurturing and relationship-building required to thrive in community with others, especially amid apocalyptic circumstances.

Lauren Olamina, the 15-year-old protagonist of “Sower,” is afflicted by a condition called hyperempathy that causes her to literally feel other people’s pain. In a story that was published in 1993 and takes place in 2024, she leads a ragtag group from climate-ravaged, economically fractured Southern California to a safer life up north. Set amid the transatlantic slave trade, “Wild Seed” tells the story of Anyanwu, an ageless woman who can heal other living beings and even transform into them by tasting their cellular composition — another form of enhanced empathy. The Ina, the vampire-like race in “Fledgling,” engage in mutually supportive relationships with their bite victims. 

According to friends and colleagues, Butler herself held a bone-deep concern for others as well as for the natural world. She never married, had no children and lived alone, but she connected intensely with the few friends she kept and tended to impact those she encountered even briefly. Her home was full of books and magazines through which she sustained a reading practice as disciplined as her writing practice, and she was an avid patron of NPR. She loved the landscapes of Washington, from the coast to the Cascade Mountains, and was so enamored of Mount Rainier that she’d take out-of-town visitors in a hired van on pilgrimage-like trips. She doted on other people’s pets. 

The extremes of admonishment and compassion in Butler’s writing, along with the dignified but caring way she carried herself, add up to a kind of stern, sanguine humanity. This persona contributes to the almost saintly reverence Butler elicits from fans, scholars and fellow artists around the world. That the Pacific Northwest inspired her, and that its people were in turn inspired by her, is a badge of honor for this region. The years she spent here forge a unique, localized intimacy with both the woman and her work.

BUTLER FIRST VISITED from her hometown of Pasadena in 1985, when she was an instructor at Seattle’s renowned Clarion West writers workshop. (Over the years, Clarion West instructors have included George R.R. Martin, Frank Herbert, N.K. Jemison, Ursula Le Guin, Neil Gaiman and many more luminaries of sci-fi and fantasy.) After ramping up her career, Butler reportedly sought to relocate to a small community with good public transportation and a bookstore she could walk to, as she never drove, within proximity to a big city. Third Place Books opened its first store in Lake Forest Park in 1998, at which point the enclave checked all of Butler’s boxes. 

She arrived shortly before receiving the Nebula Award for “Parable of the Talents,” the follow-up to “Sower,” and immediately found herself suffering from writer’s block. According to interviews and personal journals, she made many fits and starts toward her next book, none of which gained momentum. Though the “Parable” series was critically acclaimed, the tale itself is rather bleak, and the process of writing it had sent Butler into a funk. The dulling effects of the hypertension medication she took added to her frustration. Maybe the disruption caused by the move contributed, as well. If so, it was also the solution. 

Butler and friends such as Leslie Howle and Nisi Shawl — local writers she met over the years and worked with at Clarion West — dined at restaurants, saw plays and films, hiked mountains and trails to waterfalls, and explored Washington state by car. Along with Ray Bradbury, Steven Spielberg and others, she was part of the inaugural advisory committee of the Science Fiction Experience, an early wing of the multivalent museum today known as MoPOP. She taught workshops and mentored students at Clarion West, which is located in Lake City, and gave occasional readings at the University of Washington and elsewhere. She befriended her only Black neighbor in Lake Forest Park. 

Living in the Pacific Northwest rekindled her creative spark. In 2005, she published “Fledgling,” a sci-fi horror story set in the Cascade foothills that recast standard vampire mythology in the context of race, sexuality and power dynamics. Another critical hit, it was her last book. 

In February 2006, a neighbor found Butler prone and unconscious on the front walk of her house. She was taken by ambulance to Northwest Hospital on the UW campus, where she was treated for internal bleeding in the head due to a fall, perhaps after a stroke or heart attack. Two days later, she died. Her memorial at the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, today known as MoPop, attracted hundreds of friends, fans and admirers from around the world. This year she would’ve turned 75. 

OCTAVIA BUTLER WAS an extremely private person. Most of what we know about her past, her interior life and her writing habits is gleaned from a dozen or so interviews she gave and essays she published. Since her death, her papers have been collected in an archive at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. Among the manuscripts, personal notes and correspondence is the unfinished draft of the third book in the Parable series, “Parable of the Trickster,” which begins with an epigram that has been attributed to Butler herself. Conveying a poignantly Butlerian mix of pragmatism and hope on a cosmic scale, it reads, “There is nothing new under the sun. But there are new suns.” 

Butler points her readers toward new suns. Her work inspires other artists, not just via direct adaptations but also in music, visual art, literature, even opera. It’s studied in high schools and universities across America. Speculative fiction, visionary fiction, Afrofuturism — ways of seeing that she helped establish that since have seeped into the collective consciousness — are the channels through which all of us can envision new and better futures. Futures that are ours to determine, that include humanity in all its diversity, that are built on the reciprocal care for each other and the Earth that Butler’s characters struggled for. Futures that inevitably will confront the most consequential global challenges humankind has ever faced.

Among all of Butler’s books and stories, perhaps her most profound contribution is Earthseed, the fictional religion devised by the teenage hyperempath Lauren Olamina in “Parable of the Sower.” Each chapter of the novel begins with a passage from Lauren’s Earthseed journals, which she calls The Books of the Living. The first spells out Earthseed’s core belief:

All that you touch
You change.

All that you change
Changes you. 

The only lasting truth
Is Change. 

God 
Is Change. 

Talk about new suns! Here is an entirely new way of picturing humanity’s place in the universe: If humans understand god as the only eternal truth, and the observable universe tells us that the only eternal truth is change, then the notion that “god is change” is axiomatic. It is logically provable and also feels right at a cellular level. According to Earthseed, the highest power is not a supreme being but an inexorable process. 

With this foundational concept, Earthseed posits adaptability — the tendency toward change despite its difficulties and discomforts — as the human characteristic that can save us from ourselves. It won’t heal the damage we’ve done to each other and the planet, but it can ease us into the very uncertain future, and help us shape that future to ensure everyone is cared for.

Earthseed spawned a new form of real-world social organizing known as emergent strategy, which asks that we embrace change as a discipline as we transition out of our harmful, competitive way of life into something more collaborative and more sustainable. It might be the only way we survive as a species and achieve Earthseed’s ultimate goal: ensuring humankind’s future by voyaging into the stars.

That voyage is yet another story by Octavia Butler, who certainly would have words for the oligarchs who direct humanity’s contemporary space explorations. 

Butler’s legacy is ever-present, living and evolving after her death. We’re tuning into it at the last possible moment, at the edge of the precipice she saw us inching ever closer to, while it maybe can still do us some good. How very human.

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