Best Octavia E. Butler Novels – The Mary Sue

Kindred, Hulu’s adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s classic time travel novel, is now streaming on Hulu. If you’ve already finished all eight episodes of season 1 and you’re wondering what to do with yourself until you find out if the series has been renewed, good news! You can head straight for the source material and read some of Butler’s novels.
If you’re new to Butler, you’re in for an unforgettable experience. Widely regarded as one of the greatest science fiction authors of all time, Butler explored themes of domination and control in her work, while using genetic modification and alien adaptations to question what it means to be human. Her novels and stories are fascinating, unsettling, and sometimes downright macabre, and she manages to dig into serious philosophical questions while writing fast-paced, engrossing yarns.
Her body of work isn’t as massive as those of some authors—tragically, she died of a stroke when she was just 58—but it can still be tough to choose where to begin among her 15 novels and short story collections. Here are my personal favorite books to help get you started.
The 2022 Hulu series is good, but the novel Kindred is a completely different experience. Like the series, the novel focuses on Dana, a writer in Los Angeles who finds herself pulled backwards in time to save her white ancestor Rufus. The book has all the best parts of the series—the danger of surviving in the Antebellum South, Dana’s grim determination to survive, the mind-bending implications of involuntary time travel—but the pacing of the story has a much more urgent feel to it.
A young girl named Shori wakes up with no memory of who she is. However, strange abilities and a craving for blood lead Shori to an Earth-shattering discovery: she’s actually a genetically modified vampire. Now Shori has to find out who exactly she is. Fledgling explores vampire myths through a scientific lens, while also using Shori’s vampirism as a metaphor for race and racism.
This duology tells the story of Lauren Olamina, a teenager who grows up in a decaying society ripped apart by climate change and income inequality. Lauren is afflicted with hyper-empathy, which causes her to feel the pain of anyone around her, and she’s forced to flee her community when it’s destroyed in an attack. As she travels north and eventually founds her own community, Lauren starts a religion called Earthseed, which revolves around the belief that God is change. Together with her followers, Lauren tries to prepare humanity to leave Earth and start a new civilization in the stars.
Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents are alarmingly prescient—for example, they include a presidential candidate whose slogan is “Make America Great Again.” Sower can be slow at times, but stick with it. It sets up Talents, where the story really picks up.
Wild Seed is the first novel in the Patternmaster series, even though it was one of the last Patternmaster books Butler wrote. Anyanwu, a woman who has the ability to change her body into any form she chooses, meets Doro, a man who can leap from body to body. Doro has spent generations forcing people to breed as he attempts to build a race of superhumans, and Anyanwu agrees to join him to keep him from kidnapping her family. The next book in the series, Mind of My Mind, is also good.
Dawn is my personal favorite Octavia E. Butler book—and one of my favorite novels, period. Lilith Iyapo wakes up on an alien spacecraft 250 years after Earth has been decimated in a nuclear holocaust. Lilith learns that she’s been kept alive by the Oankali, a race of aliens who “trade” genetic traits with other species that they encounter. The Oankali tell Lilith that they need her help to save humanity, but it soon becomes clear that the Oankali are going to do it on their terms. Read Dawn if you want a page-turner that will make you miss your subway stop. It’s the first book in a trilogy collectively called Lilith’s Brood.
(featured image: Hulu)
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Julia Glassman (she/her) lives in Los Angeles, where she reads tarot and watches Marvel movies. You can check out more of her writing at linktr.ee/juliaglassman, or find her on Twitter at @juliaglassman.
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