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Butler was a fascinating writer and an inspiration to many. Raised by her mother and grandmother, she was born a black woman in 1947 California. As if they could be simply pushed away, Butler disregarded the social structures and ideologies potentially holding her back. At a young age, she was inspired to write science fiction novels and short stories, and so she did. The parables that Octavia E. Butler wrote reveal undeniable parallels to real-world power structures that we interact with on a daily basis. Among her long list of achievements is the MacAurthur Fellowship award, or "Genius Grant" awarded to Butler in 1995, the first science fiction writer to receive this award. Science fiction fan or not, these titles aren't your typical sci-fi books. In no particular order, I give you ten of Octavia E. Butler's best books and must- reads.
Parable of the Sower
A list of Octavia E. Butler's best books wouldn't be complete without Parable of the Sower. Set in California 2024, this book may be even more impressive now, 25 years after it was written, as many circumstances described in Butler's dystopia have begun to unfold before our eyes. Now that's some scary science fiction! This novel differs from many other science fiction books that we've often seen depict the new social order after an old society falls apart. Octavia E. Butler takes us right into the action. Parable of the Sower evolves around the pivotal transition point as the corrupt, unequal society destroys itself. Sound familiar, right?
Meanwhile, readers are engaged in an emotional journey of the protagonist, Lauren, as she leads a group of survivors towards her better vision of the world. Lauren's superpower is "hyperempathy" which causes her to experience other people's pains and pleasures as her own. The incredible character development intertwined with the action-packed tale of survival and renewal make Parable of the Sower a must-read for anyone who enjoys a good book. That's the beauty of Butler's masterpieces; the plots and characters echo so much of what we live today.
Chronologically speaking, Wild Seed is the first book in the beloved Patternist Series. A four book series that dates from Ancient Egyptian times to the far distant future; the books explore the secret and thrilling history of superhuman telepathic powers, extraterrestrial plagues, and several action-packed adventures. This first story explores the main character, Doro's attempts to create a superhuman race through selective breeding. Wild Seed is among Octavia E. Butler's genius parables; she writes a plot line that draws uncanny resemblances to some of the darker days of humankind.
Like many of Butler's books, Wild Seed just skims the surface of science, forcing readers to examine authorities in our own lives. Undoubtedly one of Butler's best books, Wild Seed captivates it's readers while interworking major themes like racial opposition, the clash between the sexes, and what it means to be human.
Mind of My Mind
Although compelling and distinctly interactive, Octavia E. Butler doesn't write feel-good novels. Mind of My Mind is a heavy novel, written mainly in a cynical tone. As the second Patternist series book, Butler dives into an atypical and gut-wrenching tale of becoming superhuman, acquiring psychic and telepathic powers. Unlike many other sci-fi books, Butler's narrative of transforming to a superhuman is the first step in losing your humanity; the pages are filled with pain and torment. So although it's not exactly a light read, Mind of My Mind is eerily enjoyable, paralleling many of the misfortunes and despairs that we have seen as a human race.
Like all of the Patternist series books, Mind of My Mind has an individual plot line, but expands upon the greater story and alternative world that Octavia E. Butler has created. The novel recounts how the Patternist society originated, taking readers along for an epic tale that follows Doro's efforts to create a group of superhuman telepaths.
Chronologically last in the Patternist series, Patternmaster was the first book to be published, in 1976. Although the book doesn't have as much social discourse as is Octavia E. Butler's usual style, it's still a compelling adventure story that's definitely worth a read! The story revolves around a distant land where the human race is divided between the superior, yet deeply flawed Patternists, who have created a race of telepaths through selective breeding, their enslaved mutes, and the diseased enemies. The tension-filled Earth has caused humanity to revert to many animal instincts, losing what we consider today to be many of the essential traits of being human. Think: empathy, love, kindness. Because of the complexity of the characters, the reader is forced to think outside of the box and finds some discomfort with sympathizing with any of the characters. However this quirkiness is what make Octavia E. Butler books so spectacular. In this coming of age story, Butler explores struggles with mortality, among other things, a flaw that greatly plagues many of us here on Earth.
Perhaps one of her most well known books, Kindred is the novel that was most directly inspired by Octavia E. Butler's childhood. The story interworks a time-travel tale with a slavery narrative as it follows the protagonist Dana, an African-American woman living in California in 1976 who is shuttled back in time to a pre- Civil war plantation where she becomes entangled with the complicated history of her ancestors, a rotten white slave owner and the proud black free woman who he has forced back into slavery. As Dana becomes more deeply entrenched in the dark history, the reader is taken on a compelling, emotional journey. Octavia E. Butler certainly invokes a fierce empathy among her readers, as she highlights raw depictions of slavery, black heroines, complex interracial relations, and the long-lasting legacy of slavery on America today. Particularly with today's lively discourse on race in our society, Kindred is an ever important literary work.
Bloodchild and Other Stories is the only collection of science fiction essays written by Butler. Winner of the Hugo Award for the Best Novelette an the Nebula Award for the Best Novelette, the title story "Bloodchild" is an unusual, gruesome story that explores the reversal of gender roles with a powerful struggle between two races. Like many of Octavia E. Butler's best works, "Bloodwork" offers a first seemingly radical idea of a world where the conventional male narrator is the carrier of an alien offspring and is oppressed with grotesque punishment, painful "birth" and general injustice. An intriguing reversal of roles, this parable is a must-read for anyone looking to expand their perspective.
The first book in the Lillith's Brood/ Xenogenesis trilogy, Dawn is yet another product of Octavia E. Butler's genius. The main character, Lilith, is a black woman who wakes up in a space ship orbiting the Earth 250 years after a nuclear devastation that killed close to the entirety of the population. In an exceptional plot, Butler invites the reader into a dramatic story filled with vivid characterization. Through the reader's attachment to the unusual characters and the many complex relationships, Dawn explores needs that we consider to be essential to us as human beings, and what happens when those ideas are threatened.
Even more prevalent now with the increasingly noticeable detrimental effects of human beings on the planet, Dawn sets up the groundwork for the inevitable crisis more fully explored later in the series: the destruction of humankind, created and led by humans. In the series, the alien species, Oankali, work hard to rehabilitate the Earth to acceptable living conditions but are also adamant to not let humans repopulate and ultimately kill off another generation. This creates an interesting, dramatic dynamic between characters, that also doesn't seem too out of this world.
Adulthood Rites is the sequel to Dawn but can still be read as a stand-alone story. As you might guess from the title, this coming of age book is relatable, yet still uniquely stamped with the brilliance of most Octavia E. Butler books. The story follows Akin, the son of Lilith, as he navigates through his convoluted search for identity, something we can all understand. However for Akin, a child of five parents representing three genders and two species, it's a bit more complicated. Before your eyes Butler brings to life a story of adulthood and identity entangled in the context of colonization, xenophobia, desire, and tolerance. Humans and the alien species Oankali are living together on earth, each with their own distinct ideas of how the world and more importantly, how their interactions should look. Although much of the story revolves around the clash between the two very different species, in time many characters prove capable of growth and understanding.
In the third and final Octavia E. Butler book in the Xenogenesis series, Imago, we learn the story of the Jodahs, the latest human/ Oankali hybrid child. As a hybrid ooloi child, Jodahs defy gender. The first of its kind, Imago introduces a whole new classification where this powerful child of the Earth and stars is born with the power to mix pure DNA within its own body. Jodahs are born with great power because of its great healing abilities. But simultaneously, Jodahs can cause considerable destruction and mutation through simple carelessness. Through this paradox, Butler tells a story of dependence and isolation, gripping the reader with the anxiety Jodahs feel from his exclusion from the society. And of course, Butler ingeniously examines race, prejudice, fear, and other very recognizable human ideas into the parable.
After a seven year break, Fledging was the last Octavia E. Butler book gifted to our Earth before her death in 2005. Her last novel did not disappoint; it tells a captivating and unordinary vampire story. Rather than the classic vampire stories, Butler completely transforms the usual tales into a twisted parable that intimately considers the fundamental ideas of race, family and freedom. The fast paced novel tells the story of a 53-year-old vampire, who appears to be a 10-year-old black girl, on her dangerous adventure of self-discovery and survival. Through the intricacies of the plot, Butler weaves in an intense relationship between humans and vampires, allowing the reader to almost look at the complex relations through a sociological lens. Similar to all of Butler's writing, she presents an alternate social reality that seems to be alien and far-fetched. As the story unfolds in Fledging, the reader is naturally forced to reflect on the nature of our own lives, from a new, wider perspective. Well done, Octavia E. Butler, well done.