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The Spectacular Life of Octavia E. Butler

The story of the girl who grew up in Pasadena, took the bus, loved her mom and grandmother, and wrote herself into the world.

A story set in a dystopic near future in which a pandemic degrades people’s ability to communicate, “Speech Sounds” came out of a depressive period for Butler. It was the early ’80s, and she was languishing with a new novel, Blindsight, which she felt was a “thin and impoverished” version of Mind of My Mind. (It would go unpublished.) Her friend Phyllis was dying of multiple myeloma at the time, and every week, Butler would bring her a new chapter of Clay’s Ark, the fifth Patternist book she was working on, to read. Butler’s Uncle Clarence had recently died, and another friend attempted suicide. Her house had been burgled and the thieves took her typewriters, tape recorders, TV, and radio — something that happened multiple times. She worried about her safety and told Barnes she wanted to take martial-arts classes. “The main thing I felt was wronged,” she wrote after one burglary. “As though I expected the world to be a fair or a sensible place where people see the folly as well as the ‘injustice’ of robbing the poor. I thought, Why did they do it? I had so little.”

Meanwhile, she felt the world was in a state of regression. Butler was a self-professed news junkie with a keen interest in political leaders going back to the Nixon-Kennedy debates. She wanted to understand how their words held sway over people. “Bigotry is easing back into fashion,” she wrote shortly after the presidential election of Ronald Reagan. His attack on social-welfare programs and environmental regulations and the funny math of Reaganomics all filled her with dread. “Reagan is the tool of utterly self-interested, fatally shortsighted men — men who deem it a virtue to be indifferent to human suffering,” she wrote. “We will probably go on solving our problems by borrowing from the future until we are forced by the consequences of our own behavior to change.” She would filter her misgivings into her next series: the Xenogenesis trilogy, which she sold to Warner Books in a three-book deal in 1985. The contract — $75,000, to be divided out around the submission of each installment — was the strongest she had yet received and was buoyed in part by publishers’ renewed interest in science fiction. She sent her mother some money and bought herself a plane ticket to Peru to location-scout for the books.