The literary world lost one of its leading lights last week. Octavia Butler wasn’t the first African-American, or the first African-American woman, to write science fiction, or to write it well. She was, however, the first science fiction writer to win a Macarthur Fellowship (familiarly known as the “genius grant”). By my lights, she was a genius. She’s the only author whose works I care about owning in hardcover; one of the very few books I won’t lend is her first novel, Patternmaster.
Mostly, to me, she’s a writer, not a friend or an acquaintance, though she was a close friend of some close friends. Maybe I’ve spent an hour or two in her company (including one grueling hour where the convention committee forced her to be on a panel, with me and several others, discussing her own work).
My clearest memory of her is from a BayCon in the 1980s in San Jose. I had recently read C. S. Friedman’s In Conquest Born, and thought it a mildly enjoyable first novel. Butler came by the table where I was selling books and said, in her distinctively beautiful gravelly voice, “That’s the most racist book I ever read.”
“Really?” I said. “Why?” (After all, everyone in it was white.)
“Because,” she said, “the whole culture is built on valuing people by how they look.”
*zap* *pow* *right to the heart of things*
We don’t get enough hearts and minds like that in a lifetime. I miss her already.
I am a huge fan of her work. I think that Kindred is simply one of the best books about racism in America and very high on any list of 20th-century novels.
My personal experience with her was designing and making a silver owl (her talisman) for her many years ago. She was shy and very clear about what she wanted, at the same time.