`Matriarch' of black science fiction

Appreciation Octavia E. Butler

March 05, 2006|By JOCELYN Y. STEWART | JOCELYN Y. STEWART,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Octavia E. Butler's first creation in the world of science fiction was herself.

Before anybody ever told her that black girls do not grow up to write about futuristic worlds, Butler, the daughter of a shoeshine man and a maid, was already fashioning a place for herself in a white- and male-dominated universe. By remaining dedicated to her craft, sweeping floors and working as a telemarketer to pay the bills; by suffering the indignities that come with being first; and by eventually winning the coveted MacArthur "genius" award, Butler carved a place for herself - and helped write a new world into existence.

Butler, whose 12 stunning, thought-provoking novels of science fiction inspired new readers and writers to explore the genre, died Monday. Friends said Butler apparently suffered a stroke outside her home in Seattle. She was 58.

Over the years Butler, author of the seminal work Kindred, had earned the distinction of being the "first lady" of a small, tight-knit circle of black writers of speculative fiction - science fiction, horror and fantasy. "She was an utter inspiration," said writer Steven Barnes, a longtime friend and sci-fi writer who was the first African-American to write one of the Star Wars novelizations. "I don't know what would have happened to me had I not had her as an example."

Mystery writer Walter Mosley said Butler expanded the genre "by writing a kind of fiction that African-American women around the country could read and understand both technically and emotionally. ... She wasn't writing romance or feel-good novels, she was writing very difficult, brilliant work. For an African-American woman to somehow define herself as a science-fiction writer and to realize that dream is an extraordinary thing."

Kindred is the story of a 20th-century black woman who time-travels back to the antebellum South to save her great-great-grandfather, a white plantation owner. Though published under the general banner of fiction, it exemplifies Butler's use of speculative ideas to explore issues such as the relationship between the empowered and the powerless. In the worlds that Butler created, people of color were present and significant in ways they had not been in the genre before. That inclusion not only attracted readers, it allowed Butler to use the genre as a powerful means of speaking to a range of issues including race, gender, and the environment while also mastering the tenets of science-fiction writing.

Dan Simon, founder of the publishing house Seven Stories, said Butler's readers - a body as diverse as the worlds she created - felt a relationship with her work that was deeply personal and startling. "There was an intensity to the way people read her that is very unusual," Simon said. "You always feel when reading her that you're looking in a mirror that gives you an even truer reflection than any mirror ever could."

In a brief autobiography, Butler described herself simply: "I'm comfortably asocial - a hermit in the middle of a large city, 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."

She was born June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, Calif., and known to family and friends as "Junie." She spent part of her childhood on her grandmother's chicken farm near the desert community of Victorville, where there was no electricity, telephone or running water, but to Butler it was idyllic. Early in her life, Butler found refuge in her writing.

"The major tragedies in life, there's just no compensation," Butler told the Los Angeles Times in 1998. "But the minor ones you can always write about. It's my way of dealing, and it's a heck of a lot cheaper than psychiatrists. The story, you see, will get you through."

As a 10-year-old she was already putting those stories down on paper. By the time an aunt told her, "Honey, Negroes can't be writers," it was too late. A then 13-year-old Butler was already tapping out new worlds on a Remington portable typewriter that her mother had purchased.

As an adult she was a powerful presence, tall, striking, with a deep voice. As a child she suffered because of her size, towering so high over classmates that people wrongly assumed she had been held back from her appropriate grade.

The focus on writing paid off when, at 18, she earned a spot in a screenwriting program conceived by a group of writers that included Harlan Ellison, a legend in the science-fiction genre. Although her screenplay was awful, Ellison saw in it wonderful prose and encouraged her to write a novel. "She's one of my best discoveries," he told the Times in 1998.

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