Octavia Butler Set a Rare Standard in Sci-Fi

Author Greg Bear talks about the life of Octavia Butler, the science fiction writer who is believed to be the first black woman to gain prominence in that genre.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

We learned today of the death of Octavia Butler, the science fiction writer who's believed to be the first black woman to gain prominence in that genre. Her work explored the uses of power, gender, family, and race.

One of her early novels, Kindred, tells the story of a 20th century African- American woman who repeatedly travels back in time to save the life of her slave-owning ancestor. For her writing, she won science fiction's top awards, the Nebula, the Hugo, the Locust. Here's Octavia Butler describing her work in a 2000 interview with NPR's Juan Williams.

OCTAVIA BUTLER (Author, Kindred): I don't write about good and evil with this enormous dichotomy. I write about people. I write about people doing the kinds of things that people do.

And, I mean, I think even the worst of us doesn't just set out to be evil. People set out to get something. They set out to defend themselves from something. They are frightened, perhaps. They set out because they believe their way is the best way to perhaps enforce their way on other people.

But no, I don't write about good and evil.

CONAN: The late Octavia Butler speaking in 2000 here on TALK OF THE NATION. Joining us now is her friend, Greg Bear, a prolific science fiction writer himself, of Darwin's Radio fame, the soon-to-be-published Quantico. He's with us from his home in Seattle. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

And condolences for your loss.

GREG BEAR (Author, Quantico): Yes. Thank you, Neal. It's been quite a shock here.

CONAN: What made Octavia Butler's work so special, do you think?

Mr. BEAR: She did. It was her unique personality. She was a sweetheart. You know, it's great to talk about her but I think it would be even more fun to talk to her. Hearing her voice, it's really, you know, it's hard to think that she's gone.

She was somewhat reclusive, liked to stay at home and was only kind of coming out in the last few years. But even so, her impact on the field has been enormous, both personally and through her writing.

CONAN: What do you think her impact has been?

Mr. BEAR: I think it's getting people to open up and just kind of bring in new people who perhaps wouldn't have come into science fiction without her presence, without her works.

One of her students here, and this is kind of a nice story, one of her Clarion students, Andrea Hairston, just had her first novel published. And so she's passing it on.

You know, people came into Clarion, the Seattle Writer's Workshop that we hold here each year, that wouldn't have come without Octavia's example.

CONAN: Can you characterize her work?

Mr. BEAR: It's really tough to characterize because she had a diversity. She loved science. She loved space flight. She loved writing in the mainstream of science fiction. Her books cover everything from politics and racism to biology and genetics, to ESP, to no ESP. You know, she could be disciplined. She could have wild flights of fantasy.

She was really quite diverse.

CONAN: As a fan, one of the things you come to most appreciate was that she wrote about people.

Mr. BEAR: Well, that's true. And, you know, it's kind of a misnomer about science fiction that science fiction is about anything other than people. It's about people doing stuff, sometimes doing extraordinary stuff.

She was one of the best at making that clear that her people were, in fact, people with flaws, with greatness, with imagination, with handicaps, all that sort of stuff. You know, she was one of our best.

CONAN: She wrote about people who were heroic at times and not so proud of themselves at others.

Mr. BEAR: Yes, I think, you know, that's kind of the way people are. And the good novel has to give us the full range of our emotions. And she did that.

CONAN: Greg Bear, thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. BEAR: My pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: Greg Bear talking about his friend and fellow science fiction writer Octavia Butler. Octavia Butler died on Friday following a fall at her home in Seattle, Washington.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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