Octavia Butler is considered the first black woman to gain national prominence as a science fiction writer.
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Octavia Butler: 1947-2006
1st black woman to break barriers in sci-fi
Marcia Davis / Washington Post
March 2, 2006
What must it have been like to be Octavia Butler?
There she was, this woman of great intellect, of immense talent, of tremendous passion, and, it seems, so very much alone. Her death on Friday after falling and hitting her head outside her home in Seattle has rattled those who loved her work. She was 58.
There she was, a tall, awkward and shy black girl thinking that she wanted to write science fiction, of all things.
A young woman who believed the genre could deal with more than ray guns and transporters, and that she had a right to create fiction that tackled race and class and what it meant to be human in worlds where humanness had all but been obliterated. How could science fiction be set on a plantation?
Octavia Butler showed them how.
She was an African-American woman claiming her space in a literary universe dominated by white men. After years of rejection, she eventually won science fiction's most prestigious awards, the Nebula and the Hugo. She picked up other honors along the way, too, including a PEN West Lifetime Achievement Award and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" grant.
Black science fiction trailblazer Samuel Delaney, 63, remembers teaching Butler as a 23-year-old student at the Clarion Science Fiction Workshop. She was, he says, incredibly shy, a student who spoke only when she had something to say, but someone who obviously had great talent.
It was years later, however, after she had published "Kindred," that he saw what she had become. "It was wonderful to see how she had bloomed and gained so much self-confidence and become a really extraordinary public speaker," Delaney says. She also was a pathblazer in a genre where once you could count the black writers on one hand.
She grew up poor in Southern California, where her father shined shoes before he died when she was a young girl, and her mother cleaned houses.
Butler was a young black woman coming of age at a time when black women were mainly invisible. And when she was noticed, it was with unkind eyes. She was six feet tall by the time she was in her teens, a girl with deep brown skin and short hair. She was sometimes mistaken for a man, she would say.
Early as a child, she cocooned herself in a world of books and nurtured audacious ambitions.
"Women in general were rare in the science fiction field, and black women, ha," says Steven Barnes, a black sci-fi writer.
She had to cloak her ideas thickly in metaphor, he says. "She was forced to speak through layers of obsfucation."
Butler's last manuscript, "Fledgling" was recently published to acclaim.