Science Fiction Writer Octavia Butler, 58

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Octavia Butler, 58, one of the country's leading science fiction writers who as an African American woman brought themes of race, gender and power to the genre, died of an apparent stroke Feb. 24 at her home in Seattle.

Ms. Butler, who had lived in Seattle since 1999, wrote 11 novels and a collection of short stories and had published stories in anthologies and magazines. She was an award-winning storyteller whose writings defied the boundaries of one genre. The first black woman to make inroads in the mostly white and male science fiction sphere, Ms. Butler appreciated the genre's literary freedom, and she used it to tell cautionary tales about what could happen to our world.

Leslie Howle, a longtime friend and a senior manager at the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle, said Ms. Butler was "bigger than just being a science fiction writer."

"One of the things that made Octavia special was how deeply she cared. She wanted to make the world a better place, to make humanity better able to survive its own misbehavior," Howle said. "Her work took an unflinching look at poverty, race, gender, religion, the environment, politics and what it means to be human."

Ms. Butler, who knew she wanted to be a writer at age 10, received numerous rejections before "Kindred," her first novel and most popular work, was published in 1979. The story, based on slave narratives that she had researched, was about a black woman named Dana who traveled back in time to save the life of her white, slave-owning ancestor. "Kindred" has been used widely in college classes.

Subsequent work brought her high honors in her field. Her short story "Speech Sounds" won a Hugo Award for the best short story of 1984. That year, her novelette "Bloodchild" won the Nebula -- science fiction's highest award -- and in 1985, it received a Hugo.

In 1995, Ms. Butler became the first science fiction writer to be awarded a coveted "genius grant" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. She received the PEN West Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001.

Ms. Butler was once described as "one of the finest voices in fiction -- period" by The Washington Post. An astute observer of human behavior, she was known for her depiction of strong female characters. She was a writer, one critic said, with "a fine hand with lean, well-paced prose."

Six feet tall and a self-described happy hermit, Ms. Butler escaped easy definition. "I'm comfortably asocial," she once wrote, "a pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist, a Black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty and drive."

Octavia Estelle Butler was born June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, Calif., the only child that her mother carried to full term; four other children died before her birth. Her mother, also named Octavia, did domestic work, often taking her daughter with her. She knew her father, Laurice Butler, who died when she was young, only through the stories told by her mother and grandmother. After her father's death, her mother took in boarders to bring in extra money.

As a painfully shy child, she kept to herself and spent a great deal of time reading whatever she could find. She also had dyslexia, although it was not known at the time, and performed poorly in grade school. But by the time she was 10, she had written her first story, about horses, and by 11 she was penning romance stories. She produced her first science fiction story at 12 after seeing the film "Devil Girl From Mars" and believing that she could write a better story.

She received an associate degree from Pasadena City College in 1968 and studied at California State University at Los Angeles and the University of California at Los Angeles. She took classes with Harlan Ellison, an influential science fiction writer, at the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop, where she later taught.

Determined to make it as a writer, she worked a number of menial jobs while maintaining a rigid early-morning writing schedule. After "Kindred" sold, she was able to write full time.

Her other novels include "Patternmaster" (1976), "Mind of My Mind" (1977), "Survivor" (1978) and "Wild Seed" (1980). She had a seven-year period during which she could not finish anything that she attempted. Then she wrote her last novel, "Fledgling" (2005), about the Dracula legend.

In an interview with Essence magazine in October, she talked about the difference between "Fledgling" and other books she had written, such as "Parable of the Sower" (1993) and "Wild Seed."

"I had a long period of writing what I think of as 'save the world' novels," she said. " 'Fledgling' was a chance to play."

Her mother died in 1999, and she leaves no immediate survivors.

"The lovely thing about writing is, well, two things," Ms. Butler once said. "One, writing fiction allows us to bring an order to our lives that doesn't exist in real life. And two, it allows us to create human characters that we know better than we will ever know anyone in real life."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company