Science fiction writer Octavia Butler was the recipient of numerous awards, including a MacArthur “Genius” Grant, a PEN Lifetime Achievement Award, and both Nebula and Hugo Awards for her writing. According to a biography of her on the Women’s History Museum’s website, the library was her “second home” growing up, and she started to write her own stories at ten years old. She published her first novel in 1976 and went on to write 12 novels and short story collections before her death in 2006. Octavia Butler’s books have become a pillar of the Afrofuturism subgenre, and Butler is considered a pioneer in science fiction in general, especially for subverting the typical white and male-centric narrative, instead putting Black women and their experiences at the forefront of her dystopias and sci-fi stories. In 2012, she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Her novels often explored racism and injustice, global warming, and women’s rights, no matter where or when they were set.
With such a prolific writer, though, where should you start? Whether you’re a short story lover, a series aficionado, or a standalone-only kind of person, there are some perfect Octavia Butler books to jump into her sharp prose and strong sense of character. Here are five options to get you started.
Kindred by Octavia Butler
Dana just turned 26 and is living a happy life with her husband in California when her first jump through time happens, landing in 1815, where she, now an enslaved person, saves a drowning boy. Over the next 20 years, she deals with these jumps through time, knowing she has to survive the horrors of the past to get back to her husband in the future.
Why you should read this first: It’s arguably Butler’s most famous novel for good reason: it’s a live-wire, fast-paced exposure to her unflinching writing style and themes to see if you’ll leave the book wanting more. It’s lighter on the science fiction, so if the genre isn’t your favorite, I’d still give this a shot. It’s also a standalone, for those who don’t want to jump into a series off the bat!
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
Hyper-empathetic 18-year-old Lauren lives in an isolated neighborhood in a future version of 2025, constantly aware of the impending global warming catastrophes and corruption that abound outside their compound. When a fire destroys their safety, she’s forced out into the society left behind. With ideas for a better new society, she must survive the chaotic new world.
Why you should read this first: This is one of the best dystopian books out there, spot on with its spotlight on global warming, corruption, and capitalism. It’s some of her best worldbuilding, if that’s what you’re after. There are two books in the series (with a third planned but not published before her death), but each does a good job wrapping up without leaving too many loose ends.
Dawn by Octavia Butler
After nuclear war ravishes Earth, human Lilith Iyapo is in a prison-like cell being asked questions over and over again by not-quite-human creatures. She learns she was one of a few humans saved from the no longer habitable Earth by an alien race in the middle of a war. As Lilith bonds with one of the alien species, she learns about their ways, and they learn from her, too.
Why you should read this first: This one’s a trilogy for all you series lovers out there! It’s equally a horrifying look at free will and consent while also showing in exquisite detail the power of love and humanity.
Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler
Looking for more bite-sized introductions to Butler’s writing? Bloodchild and Other Stories has seven beautifully crafted science fiction short stories with added author context and insight at the end of each one that shows just how incredible of a writer she was.
Why you should read this first: Short stories are a great, non-committal way to get into an author, and Butler is no exception. The added insight from the author herself and the two essays on craft/writing give readers a better understanding of who she was and how she thought which, in my eyes, only adds to how strong and sharp her fiction is.
Wild Seed by Octavia Butler
The first in the Patternmaster series, Wild Seed follows an immortal African woman with healing powers, Anyanwu, and her complicated battle against and relationship with Doro, a man who can overtake people’s bodies, which kills them. Their relationship changes over the century; they know each other, reckoning with their powers and long life spans.
Why you should read this first: This is the first chronologically of the Patternist series, totaling five books, all dealing in this world in which some humans have elevated powers. A TV series developed by Viola Davis is also in the works, for those who love to jump back into the same story once the pages are closed!
No matter where you start with these Octavia Butler books, you’re sure to enjoy her sharp take on the world and the delightful storytelling she uses to express it. You might also be interested in reading about her life and literary legacy. If you’re looking for more authors to dig into, check out this reading pathway for Isaac Asimov or this one on Ursula K. Le Guin!