Today’s Google Doodle honors Octavia Butler, the visionary science fiction author whose work, including novels like Kindred and Parable of the Sower, deeply influenced both current Afrofuturist thought and genre fiction as a whole.
Born on this day in 1947, Butler was incredibly shy and was diagnosed with mild dyslexia as a child, but she nevertheless discovered a passion for reading. Her mother would bring home books that had been discarded at houses where she was cleaning, and she made frequent trips to her local library. Butler eventually found science fiction, with the novels of Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Frank Herbert, and others. As a teenager, after watching a TV show and realizing that she could write a better story than what she had just watched, she began submitting stories to science fiction magazines.
Her stories started selling in the 1970s, at the height of the civil rights movement. Her work brought a fresh, decidedly black perspective to a genre that had been dominated by white authors. Her stories and novels often dealt with issues of systemic racism; one of her best-known novels, Kindred, follows an African-American woman named Dana, who is transported from her home in Los Angeles in 1976 to a slave plantation in Maryland in the 19th century, where she meets one of her ancestors. Butler is also known for her two Parable novels, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. Both are set in a dystopian future California where protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina, who possesses the ability to experience the pain and feelings of others, must flee her home after her family is murdered, and she goes on to found a new religion. Interestingly, Parable of the Sower features an extreme, right-wing presidential candidate who campaigns on the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Butler was the first science fiction author to ever receive a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” Grant in 2005.
Sadly, Butler died at the age of 58, just one year after receiving the award. She left behind a legacy of groundbreaking work — both her fiction and the massive, deeply insightful collection of journals she kept over her lifetime — that exposed crucial flaws in society’s foundations and elevated the people confined to its edges. In an era like this, we would do well to heed her.