Octavia Butler, 1947-2006

Octavia Butler died February 25, at the age of 58, a day after falling and striking her head on a walkway outside her home in Lake Forest Park, WA. She had been found there by a neighbor’s kid, according to Steve Barnes. Taken to a hospital, she was operated on by doctors but did not recover.

Butler was one of the best-known African-American science fiction writers within the sf community, an exceptional circle including Delany, Hopkinson, Due and Barnes, and the one receiving the most recognition from the world at large. Her 1984 short story “Speech Sounds” won the Hugo, her 2000 novel Parable of the Talents won the Nebula, while her 1985 novelette “Bloodchild” earned both of these top awards. However, she is also the only science fiction writer to receive one of the MacArthur Foundation’s “genius grants,” a $295,000 prize given in 1995.

Butler moved to Lake Forest Park in 1999 after a lifetime in her birthplace and hometown of Pasadena, California, which remembers her still. The Pasadena Public Library’s annual “One City – One Book” program selected Kindred for 2006. It’s a time-travel novel about a modern black woman who is transported back to the violent days of slavery before the Civil War. The 1979 book is often used in schools, and has more than a quarter million copies in print.

For a shy person who confessed that growing up she had a terror of any school assignment that had to be delivered in front of the class, a Google search proves Butler was a very obliging interview subject. She was sought after for her views on the sf genre, on race and on gender issues.

She also participated in some LASFS events, such as the 1990 Science Fiction Showcase. The club has interacted with many excellent writers over the times, and only Butler could have been this humble about a MacArthur Foundation award: “People may call these ‘genius grants,’ ” Butler said in a 2004 interview with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “but nobody made me take an IQ test before I got mine. I knew I’m no genius.”

Octavia Butler was a Clarion discovery, selling two short stories while attending the workshop. However she didn’t sell anything else for another five years.

The advice to young writers in her iconoclastic essay “Furor Scribendi” for Writers of the Future IX (1993) mirrored the honesty and relentlessness that kept her craft alive when times were difficult. Her warning still rings true:

“First forget inspiration. Habit is more dependable. Habit will sustain you whether you’re inspired or not…Forget talent. If you have it, fine. Use it. If you don’t have it, it doesn’t matter. As habit is more dependable than inspiration, continued learning is more dependable than talent.. Finally, don’t worry about imagination. You have all the imagination you need…Persist.”