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Octavia Butler, 58; Author Opened the Galaxies of Science Fiction to Blacks

Times Staff Writer

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

Before anybody 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-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 among the first; and eventually winning a MacArthur Foundation grant, 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 Saturday. Friends said Butler apparently suffered a stroke outside her home in Seattle. She was 58.

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Over the years, Butler, author of the seminal work “Kindred,” earned the distinction of being the first lady of a small, tightknit circle of African American writers of speculative fiction -- science fiction, horror and fantasy.

“She was an utter inspiration,” said Steven Barnes, a longtime friend and science fiction author who was the first African American to write one of the novels based on “Star Wars.” “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,” he said in an interview Monday.

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“Kindred” is the story of a 20th century African American woman who travels in time 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, African Americans and other people of color were present and significant in ways they had not been 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,” said Simon, who was Butler’s editor. “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.”

Butler was born June 22, 1947, in Pasadena and known to family and friends as Junie. She spent part of her childhood on her grandmother’s chicken farm near 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 -- a place where there was freedom from whatever troubled her. “The major tragedies in life, there’s just no compensation,” Butler told The 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.”

At the age of 4 she created stories about a magical horse; she was the horse. 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. At 13, Butler was already tapping out new worlds on a Remington portable typewriter that her mother had purchased.

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

Donna Oliver, a childhood friend, told The Times in 1998: “She wasn’t the outgoing type. She was very, very shy and always seemed to be writing instead of playing.”

The focus on writing paid off when, at the age of 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 whose work includes scripts for “Twilight Zone,” “The Outer Limits” and “Star Trek.” Although her screenplay was awful, Ellison saw wonderful prose in it and encouraged her to write a novel.

“She’s one of my best discoveries,” he told The Times in 1998.

Early on, she developed a rigorous writing schedule, working from 2 to 5 every morning. She sold two stories, but that success did not last. After a lull, she used previous works to piece together a novel titled “Patternmaster,” the tale of a future in which humanity is divided into a telepathic ruling class of “Patternists” and “Clayarks,” four-legged creatures contaminated by a disease brought back from outer space.

But in the 1970s, being an African American writer of science fiction was a lonely endeavor, dominated by Butler and her contemporary Samuel R. Delaney. Early on, some publishers placed images of white people or aliens on the covers of her novels, though the characters were black, Barnes said.

In 1979, Doubleday published “Kindred,” which became one of her bestselling titles. By 1995, Butler had written 10 novels, including “Parable of the Sower,” and won the nation’s two top prizes for science fiction writers. That year, the MacArthur Foundation awarded Butler a $295,000 grant.

“It means a chance to write my novels without worrying about how I’m going to earn a living,” she said.

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For Butler, the grant was also an opportunity to buy a home for herself and her mother, with whom she shared a close relationship. After her mother’s death in 1996, Butler moved to Seattle.

Last November, Seven Stories published Butler’s 12th novel, “Fledgling.” The novel ended a long stretch of writer’s block caused in part by illness and the effect of medication. Butler suffered from congestive heart disease, Simon said.

“Octavia set such a high standard, to the point where [she finished] each and every novel, thought it was fine, then decided she had to start all over again from scratch,” Simon said.

“In black speculative fiction, we are a tiny family and Octavia Butler was our matriarch,” writer Tananarive Due said. “So we just lost our mother, our grandmother.”


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