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Reading Your Way Through Octavia Butler

Aviv Gijsbers van Wijk •
Mar 29th, 2024

Why You Should Read Octavia Butler

If you’ve never read (or heard of) Octavia E. Butler, one of the greatest science fiction authors of the last century, there might be a few reasons. She’s criminally under-recommended, under-taught, and her impact on science fiction and speculative fiction, a genre traditionally dominated by white men, has been undervalued. Her work is more widely recognized for its contribution to movements like Afrofuturism, an artistic style that explores futuristic, sci-fi and fantasy themes by incorporating references to Black history and the African diaspora.

But Butler has been experiencing somewhat of a renaissance during the past few years, as readers begin to recognize that the future that she wrote about resembles the present we are now living in. After all, 2024 is the year that environmental catastrophe takes over the world in her Parable of the Sower, a landmark novel of speculative fiction. Revived interest in her work has inspired screen adaptations including a popular streaming FX series based on her novel Kindred, and a film of Parable of the Sower reportedly in development by A24.

Author and historian Tiya Miles recently stated Butler's relevance and value beautifully in The Atlantic:

"We need Butler’s historical insight, her way of imagining characters into disastrous moments where past and future touch, as we try to interpret the present and contend with what is to come. With this goal in mind, it is possible to read Butler’s novels as guidebooks, or how-to survival tales."

Perhaps the only reason you haven’t already cracked the spine on her novels is that there are quite a few of them, and sorting them out can be a bit of work. Especially given that over the years, her books have been published under a variety of series names.  Whatever the reason, now is the perfect time to begin reading her work, and we’re here to provide background into Octavia Butler's life and writing in order to help you figure out which books you'd enjoy diving into.

About the Author

Octavia E. Butler was born in 1947 in Pasadena, California. According to her own lectures, she began writing after seeing a B-list sci-fi movie, Devil Girl From Mars, and concluding that she could do a better job at storytelling. What she drafted as a child would become the basis for her Patternist novels. Butler would famously write at 2 or 3 o'clock in the morning while working jobs in factories or blue-collar temp jobs. Finally, in 1978, she was able to stop working and make an income from her writing. In 1995, Butler was the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship. Her last novel was published in 2005.

Her work explores dark and complex themes surrounding race and the legacy of slavery, power dynamics, gender, environmental destruction and human behavior. Her novels often center on marginalized communities grappling with real political events, oppression, the threat of societal collapse and the quest for agency amidst dystopian landscapes.

Standalone and Short Fiction: Where to Start

Octavia Butler’s short fiction and standalone novels are just as highly regarded as her series work. Her short fiction, at times, also serves as visible inspiration for her longer works, so it’s prized by true fans of her writing. If you’re new to science fiction or feel intimidated by a longer work or series, her short stories or Kindred, in particular, are a great place to start.

Our take: Many people recommend Kindred as a great introduction to Butler’s work, especially if you are a person who “isn’t into” or “doesn’t read” science fiction regularly, and we happen to agree. Additionally, this collection of her stories is a great anthology for you to dip into worlds that relate to her other series; plus, it includes an annotated chronology of her life and work.

Kindred (1979)

This celebrated time travel novel follows Dana, a young Black woman who is unexpectedly transported from 1970s California into the antebellum South, where she is forced to confront the horrors of slavery on a plantation. She finds herself flashing to a scene of a boy drowning in a lake, and tries to save him. As she realizes he may be connected to her own past, she feels torn between her present life and an obligation to her history.

Bloodchild and Other Stories (1995)

In the only collection of essays and short fiction that Butler chose to publish in her lifetime, each piece has a foreword written by the author. “Bloodchild” is one of her most famous stories and won the Nebula and Hugo awards in 1995. If you select the 2005 edition of this book linked here, you’ll get two additional stories: “Amnesty” and “The Book of Martha.” 

Fledgling (2005)

Butler’s last novel, published the year before her death, is a wonderful take on the vampire novel. The novel follows Shori, a 53-year-old who resembles a 10-year-old Black girl. She is a member of the Ina species, a nocturnal, long-living race that feasts on human blood to survive. In return, the venom of the Ina species boosts human immunity allowing humans to live for up to 200 years; however, if they do not get enough venom regularly, humans will suffer venom withdrawal and die. Fledgling upends the traditional vampire narrative through social commentary about racial identity and prejudice.

The Series

Lilith's Brood (AKA The Xenogenesis Trilogy) (1987-1989)

The series begins when Lilith, a Black woman, finds herself in a cell. She is asked questions by a mysterious voice, and senses this has happened before. She has fractured memories of nuclear war. As the series progresses, we learn that the human race is all but extinct, and Lilith realizes she has been saved, but is also essentially being held captive by an alien race. 

Our take: This series follows themes of human genetic alteration, post-war survival, and complex societal relationships between a marginalized group (humans) and their savior-captors (the alien race). It also explores facets of gender and identity. This series takes place both in space and on Earth, so don’t be scared off if you tend to avoid “space opera” narratives, as Earth becomes a focal point in the series before too long.

Dawn (1987)

Adulthood Rites (1988)

Imago (1989)

The Patternist Series

Spanning from the 17th century to the far future, this series builds on an alternative history where a small percentage of humans have developed powerful psychic abilities called "Patterns." The books explore bioengineering and genetic alteration of humans, and ideas of eugenics and racialized and gender-based violence. While this material sounds heavy, the books contain Butler’s beautiful blending of reality and sci-fi elements, especially in the first book following two immortals–one seeking a new body and one who is a healing shape-shifter.

It’s worth noting that Survivor, listed below, was disliked by Butler after publication, and it was not reprinted after its original run. It’s also excluded from the collected omnibus version published in 2007, Seed to Harvest.

Our take: You’ll notice that this series is listed in a reading order that is not its publication order. While Patternmaster was actually Butler’s first in this series, it takes place last in the series’ internal chronology, so we recommend reading them in this order.

Wild Seed (1980)

Mind of My Mind (1977)

Clay’s Ark (1984)

Patternmaster (1976)

➳ Survivor (1978) 

(Not available)


Set in the near-future in California, teenager Lauren Olamina has a condition called hyperempathy. Able to feel the pain of others—and sometimes the pleasure—she struggles with observing the victims of climate change, corporate greed, and wealth inequality including her own mother, who is addicted to prescription drugs. When an attack happens on her town, she goes in search of a place where she can build a utopia based on the idea of Earthseed, a religious concept that “God is Change.” 

The upshot: This storyline of a dystopian America set in our time now reads as prophetic. There's a climate crisis driving mass migration, rampant gun violence, an epidemic of drug use, and, notably, an authoritarian politician who promises to "make America great again." Readers report an eerie sensation when reading this book, taking to social media posts to declare that #OctaviaButlerKnew. But the series is also about hope and community, about how to thrive in a turbulent landscape.

This series features two books that are best read in order. The second book in the series, The Parable of the Talents features the same characters but also incorporates mixed points of view.

The Parable of the Sower (1993)

Octavia Butler’s work is, thankfully, becoming more popular and recognized again in the American cultural landscape. This is thanks, in part, to the thriving Afrofuturism and Black sci-fi genres of our time, and in part to the recent adaptations of her work. Perhaps most of all, her work resonates with a growing number of people who feel that dystopian fiction is a living reality.

Whether you found yourself unsure which Octavia Butler book to start with, what Octavia Butler’s books are about, or how to read Octavia Butler’s novels, we hope this list has stoked your reading curiosity. If you end up reading your first–or fifth–Octavia Butler novel, let us know what you think!

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