Octavia E. Butler, considered the first black woman to gain national prominence as a science fiction writer, has died, a close friend said Sunday. She was 58.
Butler fell and struck her head on the cobbled walkway outside her home, said Leslie Howle, a longtime friend and employee at the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle.
The writer, who suffered from high blood pressure and heart trouble and could only take a few steps without stopping for breath, was found outside her home in the north Seattle suburb of Lake Forest Park and died Friday, Howle said.
Butler’s work wasn’t preoccupied with robots and ray guns, Howle said, but used the genre’s artistic freedom to explore race, poverty, politics, religion and human nature.
“She stands alone for what she did,” Howle said. “She was such a beacon and a light in that way.”
Jane Jewell, executive director of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, said Butler was one of the first black women to explore the genre and the most prominent. But Butler would have been a major writer of science fiction regardless of race or gender, she said.
“She is a world-class science fiction writer in her own right,” Jewell said. “She was one of the first and one of the best to discuss gender and race in science fiction.”
‘Genius’ award recipientButler began writing at age 10, and told Howle she embraced science fiction after seeing a schlocky B-movie called “Devil Girl from Mars” and thought, “I can write a better story than that.” In 1970, she took a bus from her hometown of Pasadena, Calif., to attend a fantasy writers workshop in East Lansing, Mich.
Her first novel, “Kindred,” in 1979, featured a black woman who travels back in time to the South to save a white man. She went on to write about a dozen books, plus numerous essays and short stories. Her most recent work, “Fledgling,” an examination of the “Dracula” legend, was published last fall.
She received many awards, and in 1995 Butler was the first science fiction writer granted a “genius” award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which paid $295,000 over five years.
Butler described herself as a happy hermit, and never married.
“Mostly she just loved sitting down and writing,” Seattle-based science fiction writer Greg Bear said. “For being a black female growing up in Los Angeles in the ’60s, she was attracted to science fiction for the same reasons I was: It liberated her. She had a far-ranging imagination, and she was a treasure in our community.”