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Spotlight on Octavia E. Butler

Julia G, Librarian, Frances Howard Goldwyn - Hollywood Regional Branch Library,
Octavia E. Butler seated by her bookcase, 1986
Octavia E. Butler seated by her bookcase, 1986. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. © Patti Perret

Temperatures are rising, the environment is suffering, and income inequality is widening. Amidst the confusion, a charismatic politician takes the presidency with the promise to, “Make America great again.”

Sound familiar? The scenario’s not what you think. It’s the premise of Octavia E. Butler’s 1998 speculative novel Parable of the Talents, in which Lauren Olamina, a refugee from a ransacked community in Los Angeles, struggles against climate change, economic exploitation, and religious zealotry to lead a colony of her followers to the stars.

How was Butler so prescient 20 years before the election of the current president? To her, Parable of the Talents and its prequel, Parable of the Sower, were meant to be cautionary tales, not prophecies. She built the world of the Parable novels by following the news and making an educated guess as to how things would pan out if nothing changed. It turns out her guess was startlingly accurate.

Butler was one of the pioneers of Afrofuturism, an art and literary movement that fuses African and African Diaspora culture with science fiction, and she was known for writing stories about women, people of color, and others often relegated to the margins of science fiction. If you’re looking for mind-bending stories that don’t shy away from the problems we face as a society, Butler’s books won’t disappoint. Here are a few to get you started. And if you’re curious about other stellar science fiction writers, we've got those too.

Stellar Science Fiction

Book cover for Dawn: Xenogenesis
Dawn: Xenogenesis
Butler, Octavia E.

Lilith Iyapo wakes up on an alien spaceship—and finds out that she’s been asleep for 250 years. The ship’s occupants, the Oankali, have saved her from nuclear war and want to help her recolonize earth. The catch? They plan to genetically merge with humans to create a race of alien hybrids, whether Lilith likes it or not.

Book cover for Patternmaster
Butler, Octavia E.

A race of telepaths has taken over the earth, with the most powerful telepaths oppressing and enslaving everyone else. Coransee, son of the Patternmaster, wants to take his father’s place ruling the world, but must defeat his brother Teray first.

Book cover for Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation
Kindred: A Graphic Novel Adaptation
Butler, Octavia, E., Duffy, Damian, Jennings, John

Dana, a black woman living in 1970s Los Angeles, travels back in time to a pre-Civil War era plantation, where she saves a young white boy’s life. She learns that the boy is destined to become one of her ancestors, and as she’s pulled back and forth between her own time and the Antebellum South, she becomes dangerously entangled in the lives of slaves and slaveholders.

Book cover for Binti
Okorafor, Nnedi,

Binti is the first of the Himba people to be accepted to the prestigious Oomza University, far across the galaxy. But to get there she must lie to her parents to board the ship, and then get past the Meduse, a nightmarish alien race at war with Oomza.

Book cover for On the Edge of Gone
On the Edge of Gone
Duyvis, Corinne.

A comet is headed for the earth, and much of the population has taken refuge in permanent underground shelters or starships headed for new worlds. Those less fortunate are left to wait out the blast in temporary shelters, which won’t protect them from the floods, dust clouds, and other cataclysmic effects of the comet. Denise, an autistic teen, is assigned to a temporary shelter with her mother and sister, but when she finds out there’s one last starship that might accept her family as passengers, she’ll do anything to get them on board.

Book cover for Astra: Lost in Space: Vol 1, Planet Camp
Astra: Lost in Space: Vol 1, Planet Camp
Shinohara, Kenta, 1974- author, artist.

Aries Spring and seven other teens are excited to spend a week camping on planet McPa, where they’ll practice survival skills without any adult supervision. But when a mysterious orb transports them to an empty ship in the middle of space, they have to figure out what’s going on and how to get home.

Book cover for The Fifth Season
The Fifth Season
Jemisin, N. K,

Essun struggles to survive in the only world she’s ever known: the dangerous, ever-shifting Stillness, a continent plagued with geologic catastrophes. Just when she’s managed to carve out a quiet life for herself, her world is shattered with the coming of a Fifth Season: a disaster so large that it threatens to blot out all life on the planet. And it seems that Essun is the only one who can stop it.