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Octavia E. Butler, Science Fiction Writer, Dies at 58

by Margalit Fox

New York Times, 1 March 2006

Octavia E. Butler, an internationally acclaimed science fiction writer whose evocative, often troubling, novels explore far-reaching issues of race, sex, power and, ultimately, what it means to be human, died on Friday after a fall near her home in Lake Forest Park, Wash. She was 58.

The precise cause of death has not been determined, Ms. Butler's literary agent, Merrilee Heifetz, said on Monday. She added that Ms. Butler had suffered from severe hypertension and other health problems in recent years.

In 1995 Ms. Butler was awarded a MacArthur fellowship, the first science fiction writer to be so honored. She received two Hugo Awards from the World Science Fiction Society and two Nebula Awards from the Science Fiction Writers of America.

Throughout Ms. Butler's career, the news media made much of the fact that she was an African-American woman writing science fiction, traditionally a white male bastion. But in interviews and in her work itself she left no doubt that her background equipped her spectacularly well to portray life in hostile dystopias where the odds of survival can be almost insurmountable.

"I'm black, I'm solitary, I've always been an outsider," The Los Angeles Times quoted Ms. Butler as saying in 1998. She leaves no immediate survivors.

Set in time periods ranging from the historical past to the distant future, Ms. Butler's books were known for their controlled economy of language and for their strong, believable protagonists, many of them black women. She wrote a dozen novels, including "Parable of the Sower" (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993); "Parable of the Talents" (Seven Stories Press, 1998); and, most recently, "Fledgling" (Seven Stories), which appeared last year.

Ms. Butler also published a story collection, "Bloodchild" (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1995).

Concerned with empathy and with the need to build community, Ms. Butler's work attracted an audience beyond its genre and was widely praised by critics. Translated into 10 languages, her books have sold more than a million copies altogether, Ms. Heifetz said.

One of Ms. Butler's best-known novels, "Kindred" (Doubleday, 1979), told the story of a modern-day black woman who must travel back to the antebellum South to save the life of a white, slaveholding ancestor and, in so doing, save her own. Frequently assigned in black-studies courses, the book was rooted in the experience of the author's mother, who worked as a maid.

"I didn't like seeing her go through back doors," Ms. Butler once told Publishers Weekly. "If my mother hadn't put up with all those humiliations, I wouldn't have eaten very well or lived very comfortably. So I wanted to write a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people have had to live through in order to endure."

Octavia Estelle Butler was born on June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, Calif. As a girl, she was known as Junie. (This may have derived from "Junior": her mother was also named Octavia.) Her father, a shoeshine man, died when she was very young, and her mother reared her alone.

Always conspicuously tall for her age, Junie grew up paralytically shy, losing herself in books despite having dyslexia. Octavia Senior could not afford books, but she brought home the tattered discards of the white families for whom she worked.

Octavia Junior began writing stories as a child and soon turned to science fiction, attracted by a genre whose limitless possibilities let her imagine absolutely anything.

"When I began writing science fiction, when I began reading, heck, I wasn't in any of this stuff I read," Ms. Butler told The New York Times in 2000. "The only black people you found were occasional characters or characters who were so feeble-witted that they couldn't manage anything, anyway. I wrote myself in, since I'm me and I'm here and I'm writing."

Ms. Butler earned an associate's degree from Pasadena City College in 1968, and later studied at California State University, Los Angeles.

As a student, Ms. Butler became a protégée of the renowned science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. Over the next half-dozen years, living alone in a modest Los Angeles apartment, she rose each day at 2 a.m. to write. She supported herself through a series of dystopian jobs: dishwasher, telemarketer, potato chips inspector.

Her first novel, "Patternmaster," was published by Doubleday in 1976. The book centers on a rigidly stratified society ruled by telepathic people called Patternists. It became the first installment in Ms. Butler's highly regarded Patternist series, whose later titles, most from Doubleday, include "Mind of My Mind" (1977); "Survivor" (1978); "Wild Seed" (1980); and "Clay's Ark" (St. Martin's, 1984).

Among Ms. Butler's other books are the Xenogenesis trilogy, published by Warner Books and comprising "Dawn" (1987), "Adulthood Rites" (1988) and "Imago" (1989). Her other awards include a lifetime achievement award from PEN Center West and the Langston Hughes Medal from the City College of New York.

In an interview with The New York Times in 2000, Ms. Butler explained the deep appropriateness of her chosen genre as a vehicle for social commentary.

"We are a naturally hierarchical species," she said. "When I say these things in my novels, sure I make up the aliens and all of that, but I don't make up the essential human character."