The Ink Pot

Why you should read… Octavia Butler

The internet loves lists. And readers love to write them.

It’s very easy to find articles that claim to tell us the 20 GREATEST FANTASY WRITERS EVER! or THE 100 BEST NOVELS OF ALL TIME! Google is full of them. And I, like everyone else, love to scroll through them, scoffing at picks I don’t agree with and nodding sagely at ones I feel are warranted.

The other day, after reading an article about last year’s Hugo Awards, I spent some time looking through the plethora of pieces entitled some variation of THE 15 BEST SCI FI AUTHORS. Usually, I’m pretty good at taking these lists with a pinch of salt and not getting too offended at omissions. But my curiosity—and then my ire—was piqued as I scrolled. In the pantheon of celebrated Sci-Fi greats—Le Guin, Adams, Asimov, Wells, Bradbury, Jemisen—one name was consistently absent: Octavia Butler.

Now, Butler is undoubtedly a famous name within the speculative fiction community. But even with 12 full-length novels published, a few short-story collections, a host of essays and speeches, and of course Hugo and Nebula winds under her belt, she has consistently been overlooked by the wider public. Butler didn’t make the New York Times Bestseller List until 2020, 14 years after her death. The book in question—Parable of the Sower—hit the list a staggering 27 years after publication. Her sales figures consistently underwhelmed throughout her lifetime, not even getting close to the numbers of contemporaries like Ursula Le Guin, Douglas Adams, or Orson Scott Card. And publishing companies failed to give her the same level of support and marketing promotion as other authors of the time, leading to uneven book release schedules.

Despite these obstacles, Butler wrote some of the most groundbreaking and important books of the genre. This post aims to give you three quick reasons why you should pick Octavia Butler as your next read. Trust me, you won’t regret it.

The Prose

I only really found out about Octavia Butler my junior year of college (so, way too late) after being assigned one of her most famous books, Kindred, as required reading for an elective I was taking. I finished it—no hyperbole—in four hours, skipping a lecture in the process. I didn’t even mean to skip the lecture. It just happened.

This is due in no small part to Butler’s intensely absorbing prose. Every book of hers I’ve read; I’ve finished in at most two days. And that’s because Butler’s writing style is superbly executed: contemplative and vivid, yet precise and straightforward. Butler draws you into her worlds with a strength of narrative voice that really makes you believe in the characters on the page:

“Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.”—Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents.

By focusing on an accessible writing style, Butler opened up her stories for everyone. She did not hide behind complicated you’ll have it figured out after 200 pages! worldbuilding or dense, flowery language. Her writing is to the point, precise, and unpretentious: dedicated to the story and the ideas it carries.

The Relevancy

Or perhaps even more accurately, the prescience.

Butler had a knack for tapping into the challenges and nuances of contemporary social issues and drawing attention to them through the lens of alternative timelines, worlds, and histories.  

Of course, this is a staple of science-fiction, but Butler not only performed it to a masterful level, she also wrote about overlooked topics. In a world dominated by white male authors, Butler centered Black characters, queer characters, and gender dynamics amongst a host of thought-provoking perspectives that were less mainstream in science-fiction throughout the 70s, 80s, and 90s.

As foundational texts to modern science-fiction writing, Butler’s books are fascinating—and often scary:  none more so than Parable of the Sower, her ninth novel. Taking place in—get this—2024, protagonist Lauren Olamina embarks on a journey to create a new religion in an America that is beset by lawlessness, eco-disasters, and identity crisis. In this book, Butler imagines a world of gated communities, semi-privatized police and subsequent rampant mistrust of law enforcement (no duh), a devastating storm that bounced around the Gulf (described in an uncannily similar way to 2018’s Hurricane Michael), and a brash, populist, neoconservative President. Oh, and in the sequel, Parable of the Talents, opposition leader and religious fundamentalist Andrew Steele Jarret runs for President on the slogan… you guessed it, Make America Great Again. The two books were published in 1993 and 1998 respectively.

That sense of relevancy permeates all of Butler’s books regardless of setting, plot, and cast. Her works are therefore exceptionally cathartic, directing the reader to confront very real, possible dystopias while also encouraging feelings of hope and determination. When you read Octavia Butler you will be treated to reflections on power, control, survival, adaptation, race, identity, gender, feminism, and visions of thriving Black culture, history, and spiritualism. You will come away from each book having learned at least one thing. And in science-fiction, a genre that bridges the known and the unknown, that is essential.

The Imagination

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Octavia Butler could write a damn good story. Her imagination was not only contained to twists on familiar, earthly settings, but also extended to the supernatural.

In the Xenogenesis series, human Lilith Iyapo awakes after a centuries-long sleep aboard a spaceship operated by creatures called the Oankali. These aliens, who from a distance look like humans but up close are covered in thousands of waving tentacles, are mysterious benefactors of the remaining human race, claiming that they want to heal planet Earth, cure diseases, and enhance human abilities. The spaceship they live on is itself alive: filled with organic, spongey material that forms itself into food, transportation; retracts and detracts to make doors, and secretes fluids that put living creatures in suspended animation.

The Patternist series traces two immortals, one a shapeshifter, one a telepath, over centuries. In these books, Butler explores psychic realms, alternative realities, superhuman races, and mutants. Perhaps her most famous novel, Kindred, dives into time-travel, and Speech Sounds imagines a pandemic that robs people of their ability to communicate verbally, leading to societal breakdown.

Octavia Butler’s books are brash, unapologetic, and colorful. They grip you from the first page and refuse to let go. She was a visionary who meticulously crafted immersive settings and built multifaceted, morally complex characters grappling with identity, power, and humanity.

In short, if you’re a science-fiction fan, or if you’re interested in science-fiction, Octavia Butler is simply essential.