Science Fiction Writer’s Fame Grows Years After Death

FILE - In this Feb. 4, 2004 file photo, author Octavia Butler poses near some of her novels at University Book Store in Seattle, Wash. (Joshua Trujillo/ via AP, File)

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Science Fiction Writer’s Fame Grows Years After Death

Writer N.K. Jemisin was young the first time she read a book by Octavia Butler. Nothing had prepared her for it.

Butler wrote science fiction, creative writing about events set in a future time.

The book Jemisin read was called “Dawn.” It is the story of a black woman who awakens 250 years after a nuclear disaster.

“I remember just kind of being stunned that a black woman existed in the future, because science fiction had not done that before,” says Jemisin. Her book “The City We Became” is selling very well.

Octavia Butler was a revolutionary voice in her lifetime. She is even more popular since her death 14 years ago.

Her former literary agent and the manager of her work, Merrilee Heifetz said Butler’s novels sell more than 100,000 copies each year. Toshi Reagon has made Butler’s novel “Parable of the Sower” into an opera. Actors Viola Davis and Ava DuVernay are among those working on a new television show based on her work.

Grand Central Publishing is putting out all of her novels again. She has been included in the Library of America.

This combination of book cover images released by Grand Central Publishing shows, "Wild Seed," from left, "Parable of the Sower," and "Parable of the Talents," by Octavia e. Butler. (Grand Central Publishing via AP)

Now a generation of young writers say, she has been a large influence on them, including Jemisin. Writer Nnedi Okorafor is now writing a film based on the Butler novel “Wild Seed.” It will be made by the film company owned by Davis and her husband, Julius Tennon.

In an interview with The Associated press, Davis said she began reading Butler about 30 years ago.

“I felt included in the narrative in a way I had never felt reading anything before,” said Davis, who has a deal with Amazon Studios. “There is something about seeing yourself…that opens up your world.”

Alys Eve Weinbaum is a professor of English at the University of Washington. She said Butler broke in the science fiction world that had been almost completely dominated by “white men and white readers.”

She is now considered a visionary writer because her work deals with the things that concern us today, from climate change to politics. In her 1998 novel “Parable of the Talents,” she writes about a president in the year 2032.

“Religious tolerance does not suit him,” Butler wrote. “There was never such a time in this country. But these days when more than half the people in the country can’t read at all, history is just one more…unknown to them.”

“She (Butler) seems to have seen the real future coming in a way few other writers did,” said Gerry Caravan. He is an associate professor at Marquette University. Caravan is among those preparing Butler’s work for the Library of America. “It’s hard not to read the books and think ‘How did she know?’”

Born in Pasadena, California, Butler was black, poor and nearly two meters tall.

“I believed I was ugly and stupid…and socially hopeless,” she once explained. Lonely, she began reading and writing about her feelings of isolation. This led her to reading and writing science fiction and other stories.

Her first novel, “Patternmaster,” came out in 1976. Some remember that the first book cover for her novel “Dawn” showed a white woman in order to appeal to buyers.

Through the 1980s and ’90s, her readership and fame grew. She became the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur “genius grant,” an award given to top artists and scientists.

Okorafor was among her many admirers.

“She was really kind and she was funny…I just wish she were here now to see how much more she is being honored.”

I’m Anna Matteo.

The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


Words in This Story

stun – v. to surprise or shock someone

novel – n. a long written story usually about imaginary characters or events

narrative – n. a story that is told or written

opera – n. a kind of performance in which the actors sing the words to music

dominate - adj. controlling or being more powerful or important than all others

visionary – n. having or showing clear ideas about what might happen in the future

parable – n. a story that teaches a moral or spiritual lesson

genius grant - n. an award of money that is given to a person who is considered very talented so they can study a subject