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The life and legacy of Octavia Butler — and 5 stories you should read

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The California native was the first black woman to achieve international fame as a writer in the sci-fi genre.

It’s been a decade since science fiction writer Octavia Butler passed away.

The California native fell in love with storytelling as a kid at the Pasadena Library, and later grew up to be the only sci-fi writer to receive a MacArthur Genius Fellowship. She was also the first African American woman in the genre to achieve international fame.

According to her friend and fellow writer Steven Barnes, Butler anticipated the challenges of presenting black characters in her stories. 

“In her early novels, they would put green people or aliens on the covers of her books,” Barnes said.

“Or blond, white women,” added Tananarive Due, also a friend of Butler’s.

As a teacher and another African American female author, Due knows firsthand how influential Butler’s work is.

“I wish I had discovered Octavia's work when I was a learning writer,” Due said. “When I wrote my first novel, I had no idea whether or not there would be an audience for speculative fiction — speculative fiction being science fiction, fantasy or horror novel — with black characters, you know, not necessarily intended for black readers.”

Barnes said that science fiction’s paucity of African American writers and its nature of extrapolating where society is going had an impact on Butler’s love for the genre. 

“I also think that she had a nutty sense of humor and enjoyed watching aliens kill people,” he said.

Butler published 15 novels and two short story collections over her lifetime. Here are just five of her works that you need to read: 

1. "Bloodchild"

Butler’s 1985 novella, a story set in a world where aliens dominate and humans are subjugated, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards. 

2. "Parable of the Sower"

"If there is one thing scarier than a dystopian novel about the future, it’s one written in the past that has already begun to come true. This is what makes The Parable of the Sower even more impressive than it was when first published," wrote Gloria Steinem about Butler's Nebula Award-winning novel. It's about the powerful, middle class and homeless coexisting in a future California. 

3. "Speech Sounds"

Butler's rise to fame began when she won a Hugo Award for the shorty story "Speech Sound" in 1984. 

4. "Kindred"

This  time-travel-cum-historical-fiction addresses the theme of slavery. Butler became a full-time writer after the novel was published in 1979.

5. "The Evening and the Morning and the Night"

This won the Science Fiction Chronicle Award for Best Novelette in 1988.

Butler's life will be celebrated all year by a series of events by Clockshop in Frogtown, starting tomorrow night with a talk at the Los Angeles Public Library: Octavia E. Butler's Los Angeles. Click here for more information, and watch the videos below.

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