Octavia E. Butler

Rewriter of sci-fi conventions


Octavia Estelle Butler, writer: born Pasadena, California 22 June 1947; died Lake Forest Park, Washington 24 February 2006.

Along with Samuel R. Delany - and in recent years far more actively - Octavia E. Butler was the central figure in the relatively close-knit community of black writers of the fantastic in America. As a female author, most of whose books gravely and movingly address gender issues, she was an important contributor to the discourses of 20th-century feminism. And she was an intermittently superb writer of science fiction, also contributing to that world as teacher and lecturer.

Octavia Estelle Butler ("Junie" as a child, Estelle to friends in adult life) was born of poor parents in Pasadena, California, in 1947. Her father died when she was young, and her mother worked as a cleaning lady; the unblinking authenticity of her depictions of urban life in California under apocalyptic stress, as rich and poor alike become refugees in a land that was supposed to be theirs, derive directly from her own experiences.

Butler's background, and her moderate dyslexia, was not conducive to easy facility or quick success. But from an early age she intended to write. In 1969 Harlan Ellison noted her unformed talent as an author of prose in a filmwriting class, and passed her on to the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop, where she found her feet. From 1971, when she began to publish professionally, she did not put a foot wrong, perhaps because she wrote only about issues that aroused her passion and care: gender, race, power in America, disease, the end of the world, incest, love at the last.

She thought of herself primarily as a novelist, and her 12 novels - from Patternmaster (1976) to Fledgling (2005) - contain some of her best work, though some of her longer fiction, especially in her later years, lacks wind. But the Patternmaster sequence engagingly rewrites a science-fiction convention in which a series of tales follows the lives of a hidden family, who may have superpowers or be aliens or otherwise exiled from some original Eden, over generations and centuries. The intertwinings of gender and class and sex and power and race, as the Patternmaster family negotiates its survival in a world of "mutes", demonstrated to Butler's growing worlds of influence how powerful a tool science fiction could be, if taken with the utmost seriousness.

Her most famous single novel, Kindred (1979), subjects the time-travel tale to a similar intensification. The black writer protagonist of this tale travels back to the Civil War, where she must repeatedly save the life of the repulsive white slaveholder who will become her great-great-grandfather; it is a sign of Butler's stature and complexity of vision that, in the end, in this novel as in others, there is no black and white. Gazed upon unblinkingly, the world is a tissue of complicities.

At the same time, it may be that her best work was in short fiction. Some of her longer work tends to overbalance into allegory; but short stories like "Speech Sounds" (1983), which won a Hugo Award, or "Bloodchild" (1984), which won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards, say far more than any paraphrase can suggest. The greatest literary accomplishment for any didactic writer may be the creation of a tale whose meaning lies too deep for tears (or explication). In short stories like these, Butler achieved that state.

Her later years were mixed. The 1995 award of a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant brought financial security and much wider fame. In 1999 Butler had described herself as "a hermit in the middle of a large city, . . . a feminist, a black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty and drive". But she continued to sidestep her profound shyness, and need for privacy, through workshops and lectureships.

It became more difficult to produce new work, partly through an acknowledged writer's block, and also because the heavy medication required to control her blood pressure caused sleepiness and depression. Nothing of this seemed to affect her in person. Even in her later years, Butler was at first impression almost rock-like: over six feet tall, large, impassive, resolute. But everyone who knew her seemed to agree: that, despite her shyness, she gave constantly to others; that, despite the sometimes grim lines of her public face, she was in fact radiant.

John Clute

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