Octavia Estelle Butler was born June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, California. Her father, who made his living shining shoes, died when she was very small. Her mother, also named Octavia, supported herself and her daughter by working as a maid in the homes of white people. Despite her own meager and sporadic education, Mrs. Butler made sure her daughter got a complete education.
School, however, was difficult for Butler. She was a tall and exceedingly shy girl, a loner who preferred books to people. Despite having a form of dyslexia, Butler was a determined reader of comics and science fiction, and she began writing stories when she was only ten. She decided to become a writer after watching the science fiction movie Devil Girl from Mars. Even at twelve years old, she knew she could write a science fiction story better than that—and get paid for it.
That Butler became an accomplished science fiction writer was partly due to the emphasis schools placed on science as she grew up. She attended school during the “space race” of the 1950s, and funding for science education filled classrooms with microscopes, telescopes, and other materials that brought science alive for Butler. Science—space travel, astronauts, rockets—was cool.
Butler graduated from John Muir High School in Pasadena in 1965. She worked during the day and took night classes at Pasadena City College to complete a two-year degree. Continuing to work at temporary, blue-collar jobs to support herself, she then attended California State in Los Angeles, then the University of California at Los Angeles. In 1970 she took a class with Harlan Ellison, a well-known science fiction writer, at the Screen Writers’ Guild Open Door Program. This experience, combined with her studies at the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop, opened the door to Butler’s first published stories.
Butler sold her first novel, Patternmaster, in 1976 and her second, Mind of My Mind, in 1977. These were the first two novels in her five-book Patternist series, which included Survivor (1978), Wild Seed (1980), and Clay’s Ark (1984). By the time Butler published Kindred in 1979, she was able to support herself solely through writing. She is known as the only black woman to make a living from writing science fiction. She is also the only science fiction writer to win the prestigious MacArthur “GeniusGrant” Fellowship, which she won in 1995. Butler’s other awards include two Hugo Awards (in 1984 for short story “Speech Sounds” and in 1985 for Bloodchild). Bloodchild also won a Nebula Award and a Locus Award, and her Parable of the Sower (1993) was a Nebula finalist and a New York times Notable Book of the Year. Its sequel, Parable of the Talents, (1998) won a Nebula Award.
Butler died in Seattle on February 24, 2006, at the age of 58.