Octavia Butler, the award winning novelist, died last week. Her obituary was in a lot places, including this touching tribute by Greg Howard in Geese Aplenty. One thing that kept bothering me was that nearly all the mainstream media write-ups used some variation of the phrase “the first black woman to gain national prominence as a science fiction writer” as if she were some sort of circus side-show oddity. Somehow I doubt “Mormon” will be used within the first ten words of Orson Scott Card’s obituary.
If, as Kurt Vonnegut asserts, too many critics mistake the drawer labeled “science fiction” for a urinal, these same critics kept insisting on tacking a tattered “Colored” sign over Octavia Butler’s door. Perhaps I am once again just being too sensitive. Talent and achievement deserve to be recognized wherever it springs from.
All writers bring their cultural baggage to the typewriter. Butler’s included racism, prejudice, and the ravages of the African Diaspora. Wild Seed took the Lazarus Long archetype and ran it through the filter of the slave trade, the southern plantation system, and Reconstruction before reaching the stars. Her most famous book, Parable of the Sower, is superficially the standard post-apocalyptic tale of the descent into chaos and the pilgrimage to the rebirth of civilization. Her take, though, is darker than the typical shiny techno-topian fantasy. It is at once more horrific, more harrowing, and more hopeful.
Lost at the early age of 58, Octavia Butler will no longer stand in front of the communal campfire and wave her hands and tell us her version of ancient myths and legends. And we will all be the poorer for the loss.
Last night I woke and was compelled to fish Parables of the Talents out of my bedside bookshelf. As I skimmed the first fifty pages that I had read over a year ago, I began to cry. I turned off the nightstand lamp. But I never fell back asleep.
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
-Earthseed, The First Book of the Living