Preeminent Black Sci-Fi Writer Dead at 58
Octavia Butler, widely considered the first and best Black female science fiction writer, died recently after an accident in her home outside Seattle. She was 58.
According to longtime friend Leslie Howle, an employee at the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle, Butler fell and struck her head on the cobbled walkway of her home. She died at Northwest Hospital that day. Butler suffered from heart problems and high blood pressure and couldn’t walk long distances without stopping for breath, says Howle.
In 1995, Butler became the first science fiction writer to earn a “genius” grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which amounted to $295,000 over five years. Her book, Parable of the Talents won the 2000 Nebula award, science fiction’s highest prize. In all, she produced about a dozen books and several essays and short stories. Many of the heroes of her stories were people of color, and she earned a reputation for subtly exploring racial and social issues like poverty, politics and religion in her stories.
“She is a world-class science fiction writer in her own right,” says Jane Jewell, executive director of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. “She was one of the first and one of the best to discuss gender and race in science fiction.”
Butler’s first novel, Kindred, followed a modern-day Black woman who travels back in time into the body of a pre-Civil War slave to save a White man. Her most recent book, Fledgling, was published last fall and examines the legend of Dracula.
She began writing at age 10 after seeing a terrible B-movie called “Devil Girl from Mars,” says Howle. Butler decided she could write a better story, and began sending manuscripts to publishers two years later. Raised in Los Angeles, she took a bus trip to East Lansing, Mich. in 1970 to attend a fantasy writers workshop. Kindred was released nine years later.
“For being a Black female growing up in Los Angeles in the 1960s, she was attracted to science fiction for the same reasons I was: It liberated her,” says fellow Seattle-based science fiction writer Greg Bear. “She had a far-ranging imagination, and she was a treasure in our community.”
Butler was also a deeply private woman. She moved to Seattle from Los Angeles after her mother’s death in 1999 and lived alone. She described herself in 1999 as an “A hermit in the middle of Seattle — 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.”
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