Why Isn’t Octavia Butler a Household Name?


“All that you touch, you change; all that you change, changes you.”

--Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower

I have always loved science fiction and speculative fiction. When I was still in elementary school, I complained that the Sweet Valley High books I had read were not challenging enough. My mom took me to the library and handed me George Orwell’s 1984. My life was never the same.

Throughout my reading life, I have consumed books by Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, and Vonnegut. In college, I discovered Margaret Atwood and began to read her entire bibliography. Over time, each of these books has helped to shape my identity.

When the Hulu adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale was set to premiere, I read this list of dystopian novels recommended by Margaret Atwood herself. Many of them, like Huxley's Brave New World and 1984, I had devoured at a young age. But, one book stood out among the others.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler I had heard writer Octavia Butler's name mentioned a few times over the years, mostly in relation to her death in 2006 and that fact that she had no children. Why had I never read her books? Her titles were published as far back as the mid-70s, so why wasn’t she on the sci-fi lists with Bradbury, Heinlein, and Atwood?

At last, I picked up Parable of the Sower and quickly devoured it. Then, just as rapidly consumed its sequel, Parable of the Talents.

While working my way through the books, I learned that award-winning Selma director, Ava DuVernay, is a woman who doesn’t currently have children (but I’m uncertain if she would consider herself a NotMom). She is planning to bring Octavia's Lilith's Brood series to TV, starting with the book, Dawn.

As soon as I was done with Parable of the Talents, I immediately downloaded Dawn to my device. I read it as fast as a starving person wolfs down a meal, and am now munching through its sequel.

What I am left wondering is, “Why now?” Why weren’t Octavia's books required reading for sci-fi and speculative fiction fans like myself? Why didn’t my friends recommend her books to me like they did A Stranger in a Strange Land or Slaughterhouse 5?

Why didn’t I hear the name, "Octavia Butler", until I was an adult?

What I know now is that Octavia E. Butler brings social, racial, and economic concerns to life with her fiction much like Margaret Atwood writes about women’s issues and environmental disaster. Parable of the Sower, published in 1993, eerily predicts the rise of a politician who will “make America great again” in the 2020s. It creates a world where poverty is rampant and the protagonist, Lauren, has the resolve to change not only her own circumstances, but those of the entire world and beyond.

Was it my upbringing in a predominantly white suburb of Detroit the reason that Ms. Butler and her black, female protagonists weren’t part of my world growing up? If had even lived just 10 or 15 miles closer to the city, would I have been introduced to her fiction as a teenager?

I don’t want to believe that even in the 80s and 90s this was a reality in our country, but sadly, it was.

And not only was it real then, it’s real now. The economic divide, rise of powerful religious zealots, and rampant racism that Ms. Butler wrote about in Parable of the Sower feels frightening real today, in a way very similar to the uncomfortable feeling of reading The Handmaids Tale knowing that women’s rights are still under fire.

Even if this is the first time you've heard Octavia E. Butler’s name, you know it now. Her legacy is strong, even if it’s quiet, so don’t let her down.

Read Octavia's books. Recommend her books. Let’s keep this NotMom’s work alive because what is remembered lives.

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