Obituary: Octavia Butler

Black science fiction writer breaking barriers in America

With her vivid intelligence and powerful work ethic, the American novelist Octavia Butler, who has died aged 58 following a fall, was a pioneering figure in the white, male-dominated field of American science fiction. A famously reclusive lesbian, she enjoyed the welcome from critics and fans for her most recent vampire novel, Fledgling (2005), as a return to activity after a four-year struggle with writer’s block.

Growing up in Pasadena, southern California, Butler, who at age 15 was 6ft tall, was always going to stand out. Her father, a shoe shiner, died when she was very young; her mother worked as a maid. Introverted, dyslexic - and an only child - she was writing stories by the age of 10 and declared her interest in science fiction at 13. She studied at California State University, Los Angeles, and took extension classes at UCLA. In 1969 and 1970, she attended the open door programme of the Screen Writers’ Guild of America, where she met novelist Harlan Ellison, who encouraged her to attend the Clarion science fiction writers’ workshop in East Lansing, Michigan.

From her modest flat in Los Angeles, Butler explored the nature of intimacy between human, alien and virus. Her novels evoked mutant societies that emerged from viral infection, alien symbiosis and extraterrestrial eugenic programmes; her fiction sought to call normative values into question by testing the rules of attraction and repulsion. Her first story, Crossover, appeared in the 1971 Clarion anthology; her debut novel, Patternmaster (1976), became the first of the five-volume Patternist series.

Her breakthrough finally came in 1979 with her fourth novel, Kindred, which remains her bestseller. In it, a young African American writer from the Los Angeles of 1976 is pulled back in time to the deep south of 1817. She is compelled to safeguard her repugnant slave-owning ancestor so as to ensure he grows up to rape her slave ancestor, thus becoming her great-great-great grandfather; if he dies, she cannot exist.

This over-familiar paradox of time travel is spliced into a neo-slavery narrative with a grim clarity that was new to American fiction, though the manuscript was repeatedly rejected by publishers unable to comprehend how science fiction could be set on a Maryland plantation. Its success vindicated Butler’s desire to write “a novel that would make others feel the history: the pain and fear that black people have had to live through in order to endure”.

In 1984, her short story, Speech Sound, won the Hugo award of the World Science Fiction Society. The next year, Bloodchild won the Locus award, a second Hugo, the Nebula award of the Science Fiction Writers of America and the prize for best novelette from Science Fiction Chronicle. She concluded the 1980s with her most critically acclaimed fiction: the Xenogenesis Trilogy, consisting of Dawn: Xenogenesis (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988) and Imago (1989).

Butler’s prose, always pared back to the bone, delineates the painful paradoxes of metamorphosis with compelling precision. In 1993, she published Parable of the Sower, a chronicle of low-rise dystopia set in the southern California suburbs of 2024; the sequel, The Parable of the Talents (1998), earned her a second Nebula award in 1999. In 1995, she became the first science fiction novelist ever to be awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship.

This allowed her to buy a home with her mother, who died in 1996. Three years later, she moved to Seattle with 300 boxes of books; however, high blood pressure, congestive heart disease and medication slowed down her work-rate. In October 2000, she received an award for lifetime achievement in writing from the PEN American Centre.

· Octavia Estelle Butler, writer, born June 22 1947; died February 25 2006

Kodwo Eshun

The GuardianTramp

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