Octavia E. Butler
June 22, 1947 - February 24, 2006
By Susanna Sturgis
Octavia E. Butler, award-winning science fiction writer and winner of a 1995 MacArthur fellowship, died on February 24, 2006, after a fall outside her home in Lake Forest Park, Washington. In recent years she had suffered from hypertension and other health problems, but her death came as a shock to her many fans, friends, and former students. She was 58.
What to say? I started reading her not long after she started publishing, in the late 1970s. The mere premise of Kindred took my breath away: a young black woman in mid-1970s L.A. is called back to the antebellum South, her purpose to save the life of a despicable white slaveowner—because if he doesn't live to impregnate one of his slaves, she will not be born. Oppressor and oppressed; descendant of oppressor, descendant of oppressed: we are bound together, we are the same person.
A few pages into Dawn it hit me: the survivors of this apocalypse are in the southern hemisphere, and the key player is a woman of color. Butler had this way of focusing your attention on the absences you never noticed before, and on the questions you barely dared ask, never mind attempt to answer.
Much was made throughout her career that she was an African American woman writing science fiction, and yes, this was important. For many years, when the topic turned to "black writers of science fiction," the only prominent members of the category were Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler. Thanks in significant part to her example, to her encouragement, and to her teaching—she taught at the Clarion West science fiction workshop five times, most recently in 2005—the prominence of black writers of science fiction and fantasy, both women and men, has grown.
Butler referred to herself as solitary. In their remembrances, many of her friends and students have commented on how much she liked being alone, but how she made the effort to be with other people, at workshops, literary conventions, and other public gatherings. What's striking in her novels, though, is the importance of community. Humans can't survive as humans without it. Rugged individualism is a chimera; there are no individual solutions.
I never met her. Last fall, though, I spent several weeks immersed in her newest, and last, novel, Fledgling; thinking hard about her earlier work; rereading Parable of the Sower, reading Parable of the Talents for the first time. One on one, mind to mind—it was challenging, and scary; but Octavia Butler was blazing the trail, how could I not follow?
In so much fiction, nothing much is at stake, not for the characters, not for the reader. The author is pulling rabbits out of hats; chartreuse rabbits out of chocolate hats, maybe, but still it's the same old same-old. Not Octavia Butler. Butler brought the big questions to the table and allowed no easy outs, either for her characters or her readers. My extended one-on-one with her work last fall reminded me how much fiction can matter, if it's brave enough.
Susanna Sturgis reviewed Fledgling, Octavia Butler’s final book, in the January/February 2006 issue of Women’s Review of Books.