|Memorial to Octavia Butler|
I wrote the following for the Philadelphia Inquirer. They ran it on their op-ed page under the headline “Farewell to a Beloved Science-Fiction Writer.”
Octavia Butler died suddenly last Friday at the all-too-young age of 58. The news comes as a blow to the heart.
Octavia was the first black woman to become internationally famous as a science-fiction writer. In 1995, she was the first science-fiction writer ever to receive a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant.” She won two Hugo and two Nebula awards, the highest honors science fiction has to offer. But none of this is enough to explain why she was so beloved.
Part of the reason was her life story. Octavia’s father was a shoeshine man who died when she was a child. Her mother, also named Octavia, was a maid. Determined to get her daughter the education she herself was denied, she asked all her employers for any reading material they no longer wanted. Octavia once told me she grew up with what she called “the world’s largest collection of coverless and scribbled-in books.” She went on to get a degree and become a distinguished writer. When she won the MacArthur, she used the money to buy a house for herself, her mother, and two aunts, so that they need never fear being homeless.
Mostly Octavia was loved for her writing. Her fiction tackled tough subjects like racism, poverty, gender, and religious extremism head-on. In her novel Kindred, a contemporary African American woman travels back in time to save the life of a white, slave-owning ancestor. In Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina, a girl who has grown up in a gated community, loses her family and is thrown into a near-future America that has fallen into anarchy and violence. Her response is to create a new religious philosophy based on the ideas that “God is Change” and that humanity’s future lies in the stars. In Parable of the Talents, Lauren’s utopian community is destroyed by religious zealots and her own beliefs alienate the daughter she loves.
Octavia never settled for easy answers. Before her health failed, she took long walks every day in whatever city she was in. In her notebook, she jotted down all the problems she saw – the things that didn’t work, the places where people rubbed up against each other wrong. She was looking for solutions that would work in the real world.
Because we lived on opposite coasts, Octavia and I were only occasional friends. Last year I saw her twice. Once in Seattle, where she was excited about a story one of her students had written because it posed difficult moral questions. And, most recently, at an appearance at Robin’s Bookstore here in Philadelphia. Octavia once said that she had three readerships which, taken all together, were just large enough to keep her afloat – feminists, people of color, and science fiction fans. All three groups turned out to hear her at Robin’s. They filled every available chair. They choked the aisles. They let her know how much she was loved.
When Octavia won the MacArthur she told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “People may call these ‘genius grants,’ but nobody made me take an IQ test before I got mine. I know I’m no genius.” That’s true. She was something better. She was a woman who looked for the most difficult and important task she could possibly do, and then did it. One result of having such high aspirations was frequent writer’s block. Her last book, Fledgling, a vampire novel, was written as a kind of end run around her difficulty figuring out how to write the concluding volume of her “Earthseed” trilogy, The Parable of the Trickster. But nobody who knew her doubted that eventually she would finish the series. Octavia was determined. Octavia was unstoppable.
Yet now she’s gone. I’ll miss that deep, beautiful woodwind-like voice of hers. I’ll miss her tall, imposing presence. I’ll miss her sense of humor, her kindness, her courage, her strength.
Most of all, I’ll miss the books she never got the time to write.
© 2006 by Michael Swanwick