Correction to This Article
The Feb. 28 Style appreciation of Octavia Butler misspelled the name of author Samuel R. Delany.
Appreciation

Octavia Butler, A Lonely, Bright Star Of the Sci-Fi Universe

Octavia Butler was a pioneer as a black female writer in the white-male-dominated sci-fi field.
Octavia Butler was a pioneer as a black female writer in the white-male-dominated sci-fi field. (By Joshua Trujillo -- Seattle Post-intelligencer Via Associated Press)

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By Marcia Davis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 28, 2006

What must it have been like to be Octavia Butler?

There she was, this woman of great intellect, of immense talent, of tremendous passion, and, it seems, so very much alone. Her death on Friday after falling and hitting her head outside her home in Seattle has rattled those who loved her work. She was 58.

There she was, a tall, awkward and shy black girl thinking that she wanted to write science fiction, of all things. A young woman who believed the genre could deal with more than ray guns and transporters, and that she had a right to create fiction that tackled race and class and what it meant to be human in worlds where humanness had all but been obliterated. Publisher after publisher must have been puzzled. How could science fiction be set on a plantation?

Octavia Butler showed them how.

She was an African American woman claiming her space in a literary universe dominated by white men. After years of rejection, she eventually won science fiction's most prestigious awards, the Nebula and the Hugo. She picked up other honors along the way, too, including a PEN West Lifetime Achievement Award and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.

Her following was loving and loyal -- protective even -- for they seemed to know instinctively how precious and powerful and simultaneously tender and fragile a spirit like hers had to be.

"That's terrible, terrible, terrible news," my mother kept saying over and over at word of Butler's death. A die-hard science fiction fan, she is one of those people who gobbled up many of Butler's 11 novels. I was proud of myself for having turned her on to Butler's first work, "Kindred." Soon she was devouring the other works, among them "Dawn" and the highly regarded "Parable of the Sower."

Over the years I had heard Butler speak at literary conferences, listened as she engaged the audiences and patiently indulged those eager young writers with their sometimes doting questions. She was always warm, always gracious. She was easy with people, a strong public presence who seemed so comfortable in her open and direct way.

But that was Octavia Butler's public presence. Those who knew her, as well as anyone could, knew that she was a very private and shy person.

Black science fiction trailblazer Samuel Delaney, 63, remembers teaching Butler as a 23-year-old student at the Clarion Science Fiction Workshop. She was, he says, incredibly shy, a student who spoke only when she had something to say, but someone who obviously had great talent.

It was years later, however, after she had published "Kindred," that he saw what she had become. "It was wonderful to see how she had bloomed and gained so much self-confidence and become a really extraordinary public speaker," Delaney says. She also was a pathblazer in a genre where once you could count the black writers on one hand.

Tananarive Due, a successful novelist, might be described as one of Butler's literary daughters. She and her husband, Steven Barnes -- who was part of that rare original club of black sci-fi writers -- were close to Butler.


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