Sunday, June 22, 2008

Celebration: The Life and Work of Octavia Butler, 1947 – 2006

From the files of Agent Z:

February 24, 2006 was a very sad day. Only a few weeks before I had been in a massive book store searching for a novel by Octavia Butler. I couldn’t find it anywhere in the SF section, so I complained to one of the staff. She pointed me in the direction of the African-American Literature section. It was fitting to see Butler’s books up there alongside Toni Morrison, Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston, but I regretted that she was no longer being shelved in SF. Two weeks later I heard the news that Octavia Butler had died.

Octavia never had it easy. Her father was a shoe shiner, her mother a maid. Her mother often took her daughter with her on her rounds, cleaning houses. Octavia, a painfully shy child, found her solace, despite her dyslexia, in reading and writing. After watching THE DEVIL GIRL FROM MARS and deciding she could have done a much better job, Octavia wrote her first science fiction story. She was twelve years old.

She earned her publication in the time-honored fashion: with a series of dead end jobs to subsist on and a growing pile of rejection slips. Writing did not come easily. She wrote slowly, painfully, painstakingly. She wrote for years before finally being published. Eventually she won two Nebulas, two Hugos and became the first SF writer to be awarded a McArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. On receiving the grant she joked they never would have given it to her if they had actually tested her IQ.

Octavia Butler died in 2006 of complications related to a fall. Her legacy was twelve novels and one collection of short stories. She told extraordinary tales of men and women, of humans and aliens, of war and peace, of strange pasts and even stranger futures. She wasn’t technically an SFR writer, yet human and human-alien relationships, in all their complexity, are at the forefront of her work.

In trying to sum up the life and work of Octavia Butler, I find myself stumped. Her stories were disturbing, wonderful, thought-provoking, never predictable and very hard to categorize. Maybe I should just allow her to speak for herself.

"I am a fifty-three-year-old writer who can remember being a ten-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an eighty-year-old writer. I'm also comfortably asocial--a hermit in the middle of Seattle--a pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist, a black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty, and drive."

She would have been sixty-one this year. Happy Birthday, Octavia Butler. Thank you for the stories.

Octavia Butler’s WikiPage:
Excellent Octavia Butler Fan Site:
The Octavia Butler Memorial Scholarship Fund:

Be seeing you.

Agent Z