obutler.jpgOctavia Estelle Butler, a science fiction writer who won both the Hugo and Nebula awards, died on Feb. 24 after falling and hitting her head on the cobbled walkway outside her Lake Forest Park, Wash., home. She was 58.
Born and raised in Pasadena, Calif., Butler was the only child of a shoeshine man and a cleaning woman. A painfully shy girl who was always tall for her age, she threw herself into books despite suffering from dyslexia, and began writing her own stories at the age of 10.
Butler studied at Pasadena City College, California State University, Los Angeles and UCLA. In her early 20s, she took a screenwriting course with renowned science fiction writer Harlan Ellison. He became Butler’s friend and mentor, and encouraged her to write a novel and attend the Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshop in Michigan. She did so in 1970, and published her first story, “Crossover,” in Clarion’s annual anthology.
Over the next three decades, Butler became one of the most prominent female African-American science fiction writers of our time. She published 12 novels and two collections of short fiction and nonfiction, but was best known for the Patternist series, which told the story of a society ruled by telepaths, and the Xenogenesis trilogy, which featured characters that were not identified by gender.
Butler ended seven years of a medically and emotionally induced writer’s block with the publication of the the vampire novel, “Fledgling,” in 2005. She gave back to the writing community by teaching five Clarion West Writers Workshops and serving on the advisory board of the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame.
“One of the things that made Octavia special was how deeply she cared. She wanted to make the world a better place and make humanity survivable. Her work looked unflinchingly at poverty, race, gender, religion, the environment, politics, and what it means to be human,” Leslie Howle, executive director of Clarion West, said.
In 1984, Butler won the Hugo, the Science Fiction Achievement Award named in honor of Hugo Gernsback, for her short story “Speech Sounds.” She received another Hugo in 1985 in the best novelette category, for “Bloodchild.” The story won a Nebula Award, science fiction’s highest prize, that same year. Butler snagged a second Nebula in 1999, this time in the best novel category, for “Parable of the Talents.” A recipient of the PEN Center West Lifetime Achievement Award and the Langston Hughes Award from the City College of New York, Butler was also the first science fiction writer to receive a “genius grant” from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
A memorial scholarship fund has been created in Butler’s honor. The inaugural scholarship, to be awarded in 2007, will enable a writer of color to attend one of the Clarion writing workshops.
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