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Fiction of Octavia E. Butler

April 19, 2021

Spurred by a question I was asked in March—“are you an expert on Octavia Butler?” I recently finished rereading everything she wrote that is still in print. The question came after I delivered a presentation at a virtual conference on climate change predictions in Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. Those two novels are her best, I think, although rereading all of her fiction doesn’t make me an expert. It does make me—and will probably make you—an even more devoted fan of her work.

The process of rereading produced a couple of unexpected pleasures. I owned only three out of four of the “Patternist” series novels, so I found a copy of Clay’s Ark, third in the series, and read it for what seemed like the first time. (There was a fifth novel written for the series, Survival, but Butler disavowed it and it’s no longer in print.) And although I’d read the prize-winning story “Bloodchild” before, I didn’t remember reading the other stories in Bloodchild and Other Stories.

I enjoyed reading the Patternist novels in order: Wild Seed, Mind of my Mind, Clay’s Ark, Patternmaster. Clay’s Ark is about a family living in isolation for fear of starting a worldwide pandemic, so rereading it now is timely. I loved the foreshadowing at the beginning of the novel when a parent “had gotten into the habit of reassuring her without really listening to her fears; there were so many of them.” I remember doing that with my daughter.

The ark of the title is a spaceship, one created by Clay Dana, who “feared turn-of-the-century irrationality—religious overzealousness on one side, destructive hedonism on the other, with both heated by ideological intolerance and corporate greed. The Dana faction feared humanity would extinguish itself on Earth.” Ironically, the ship returns to Earth with microbes that rewrite human DNA, and the infected humans produce sentient offspring, the creatures called clayarks in Patternmaster.

I really enjoyed rereading what has come to be called the Xenogenesis series in order: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago. They are good science fiction, with complicated and interesting aliens.

Kindred is, of course, a stand-alone masterpiece, close behind the Parable novels in terms of being one of Butler’s best. I didn’t like Fledgling, the vampire novel, as much this time around; it’s a fine story but it seems like vampire stories are a dime a dozen these days.

What’s great about Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents is the way we see that belief in change helps prepare the protagonist, Lauren, to survive, as she sees that those who look to the past—to some possibility of living the way we used to–perish. Parable of the Talents was published in 1998 as a sequel to the events in the Parable of the Sower (1993), and it describes the election of a president who “insists on being a throwback to some earlier, ‘simpler’ time. Now does not suit him. Religious tolerance does not suit him. He wants to take us all back to some magical time when everyone believed in the same God, worshipped him in the same way, and understood that their safety in the universe depended on completing the same religious rituals and stomping on anyone who was different” (18). The fictional president actually uses the phrase “make America great again” (18).

Many of Butler’s other predictions from these two novels have come true. Readers may well wonder how much farther we have to go until we’re living, armed and homeless, in the world of the Parable of the Sower and the Parable of the Talents, after a “period of upheaval…from 2015 through 2030” (PT, 8).

The last public gathering I attended was a performance of an opera entitled The Parable of the Sower by Toshi and Bernice Johnson Reagon at Royce Hall, UCLA on Saturday, March 7, 2020. There was a sing-along in the middle, and everyone clapped in time to songs about change. Change has overtaken us more suddenly than anyone thought it might; reading Octavia Butler’s fiction might help you come to terms with some of it in the present and prevent the worst dangers she saw coming for us in the future.

26 Comments leave one →
  1. April 19, 2021 12:15 pm

    I’ve only read Dawn and a couple of Butler’s short stories. I need to read more. I got to meet Butler once and I feel bad that I didn’t get to make more of that opportunity. She spent the afternoon with my Clarion West writing group.

    • April 19, 2021 12:20 pm

      Wow! You do need to read more…start with Parable of the Sower.
      I’m envious that you got to meet her. There are so many things I find to identify with in her characters, most particularly her tall, sturdy women.

  2. April 19, 2021 12:22 pm

    I am ashamed to say I have never read anything by Octavia Butler. I have a copy of The Parable of the Talents. Would that still make sense without having read Kindred?

  3. April 19, 2021 12:26 pm

    I‘m far from completist for her work. Her collection, yes, plus some novels. But I pledge to read more from her.
    Btw did you check for a complete bibliography?

    • April 19, 2021 12:34 pm

      I did not; I notice that list includes Survivor and a book of short stories no longer in print. Someone interested in essays and interviews might find it useful, though. Thanks!

      • April 19, 2021 1:11 pm

        „Unexpected Stories“ is in print at Subterranean. It has one story from the never published anthology „Last Dangerous Visions“ by Harlan Ellison.

  4. April 19, 2021 2:03 pm

    Its been years since I read any of Butler’s works, though I read a lot of them in the early 2000s. The two Parable novels were my favorites, though I did enjoy Wild Seed (did I read the sequels? I don’t remember!) and the Xenogenesis novels.

    • April 20, 2021 1:22 pm

      That’s a little how I was…I didn’t remember which I’d read and which I hadn’t read, and I’m pretty sure I had previously read a few of them out of order! The Wild Seed is the first of what is now called the Patternist series.
      I highly recommend rereading them all, at some point. They’re so good.

  5. April 19, 2021 3:00 pm

    I need to reread all of her fiction, too. I’ve been wanting to do this over the last couple of months. Hopefully I’ll start this summer.

    • April 20, 2021 1:24 pm

      I think it started with the eerie prediction of her fictional president saying “make America great again,” but she’s been enjoying quite a well-deserved renaissance this year.

  6. April 19, 2021 3:04 pm

    Love the Xenogensis series, those were the first Butler books I read. then I picked up one of the Patternist books, Mind of My Mind maybe, not knowing it was part of a series and it was so confusing but I still liked. The Parable books are amazing. Started listening to Kindred on audio in the midst of lockdown last year and I couldn’t concentrate so never finished it. Must get back to it.

    • April 20, 2021 1:25 pm

      Oh my, I think Kindred would be even more upsetting on audio. I tend to read quickly over the parts that are difficult.

      • April 20, 2021 3:05 pm

        Yeah, it was hard, especially with the civil unrest happening at the same time. Just couldn’t keep going because it was too close.

  7. April 19, 2021 3:12 pm

    I’d previously been advised to start with Kindred as an introduction to her work, but you present a cornucopia of riches here, particularly the two Parable titles, so I’m a bit stalemated as to where to start.

    • April 20, 2021 1:30 pm

      You could start by reading Dawn, or by reading Parable of the Sower. I wouldn’t recommend Kindred as your first one!

  8. April 19, 2021 3:26 pm

    I’ve read Kindred and Bloodchild and Other Stories, but haven’t tried her others. I just listened to an excellent podcast episode about her work and life, though (with interviews of her included) – Throughline podcast from NPR.

    • April 20, 2021 1:32 pm

      Most of the others take the kind of thing she does in Bloodchild and add characters and a bigger worldview. They’re fun.
      Thanks for the podcast episode link!

  9. April 20, 2021 9:45 am

    I loved Kindred so much. I am apparently in the minority in that I didn’t care for either Parable book (and have reread the first one recently). But Kindred was amazing.

    • April 20, 2021 1:32 pm

      It is amazing. Also very dark (so no wonder it’s your favorite).

  10. April 22, 2021 6:06 pm

    Reading your amazing post made me realise how ignorant I am about Octavia Butler and her books. I didn’t progress further than her Kindred and now want to check out some others. Clay’s Ark sounds very topical and I want to start there!

    • April 22, 2021 6:10 pm

      I’m so glad I made you want to read some of her novels! Clay’s Ark is a fine place to start. It can be fun to read the Patternist books in order (starting with The Wild Seed) but each is a mostly independent story so there’s no reason not to start with the one that is most topical.

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