Sci-Fi Author Octavia Butler Dies

Author Octavia Butler died on Friday. Butler was a leading science fiction writer who won every major award in her field. In 1995, she was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Another obituary now. Author Octavia Butler died on Friday. Butler was a rare science fiction author, black and a woman. She also won every major award in her field, and in 1995 a Macarthur Fellowship, commonly known as a Genius Grant.

NPR's Neda Ulaby reports.

NEDA ULABY reporting:

Octavia Butler was only 58 years old when she slipped and hit her head on the cobbled walkway outside her Seattle home. She was the author of celebrated novels, short stories and essays that explored race, power and human nature.

Ms. OCTAVIA BUTLER (Science Fiction Writer): I don't write about good and evil with this enormous dichotomy. I write about people.

ULABY: That's Octavia Butler speaking on NPR in the year 2000. Butler told Ira Flatow on SCIENCE FRIDAY she was inspired to start writing science fiction after watching a dreadful B-movie called Devil Girl from Mars.

Ms. BUTLER: It's proof that even bad movies, bad science fiction movies, can inspire things. I had been writing for a couple of years then, I was 12. And I said to myself, Geez, I can write a better story than that.

ULABY: Butler resolved to make her way in a genre with few enough female writers, let alone African Americans. Butler's first novel, Kindred, was published in 1979. It's about a black woman brought back in time by a white slave owner who wants her to save his life, repeatedly. And she does, in spite the terrible knowledge that choice will result in her own grandmother's enslavement.

Writer Tananarive Due says at first not everyone approved of Butler's unconventional, uncompromising involvement in science fiction.

Ms. TANANARIVE DUE (Writer): Sister, we got cities burning, you know, they were telling her. And how dare she, you know, sort of retreat into this world. But actually, she was showing us an even bigger world, you know, something that we couldn't even wrap our minds around. And that's important.

ULABY: Butler's books usually featured powerful, conflicted women charged with surviving or protecting small groups in the face of apocalypse or genocide. The heroine of her series, The Parable of the Talents, and The Parable of the Sower literally feels other people's pains.

Ms. BUTLER: I began writing the book with the thought that maybe what we needed was the biological conscience. It does seem to me that there are too many people in this world who would just as soon wipe out half their country if they could rule the other half.

ULABY: Butler wrote about a dozen books. Her most recent, Fledgling, came out last year, and arose from a question Butler asked herself about a vaunted literary monster.

Ms. BUTLER: If vampires were a separate species, and they were into genetic engineering, what would they engineer for? And to be able to walk during the day.

ULABY: In Fledgling, as with all of Butler's works, other themes emerge.

Ms. BUTLER: We are a sadly hierarchical species. And the hierarchical tendencies that we have do seem to be old, and more likely to dominate our intelligence, so that we use our intelligence for silly purposes sometimes.

ULABY: Or, Butler said, dangerous purposes.

In her official biography, Octavia Butler described herself as, quote "comfortably asocial, 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 said she remembered being a ten-year-old writer and expected some day to be an 80-year-old writer. That's what her followers and fans expected too.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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