When I met Octavia Butler many years ago, I was almost speechless. Then again, I'd been pretty speechless all weekend. I was in Ft. Lauderdale at the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts, where I was not only meeting many of the science-fiction writers who'd influenced me deeply, but I was for the first time in my career sitting on panels with them.
When you're on a panel, you're supposed to engage in meaningful conversation about given topics. I'd just won a writing award that landed me in an anthology alongside the likes of genre giants Joe Haldeman, Damon Knight, and Kate Wilhelm ... writers whose works had been expanding my mind for over a decade. On my panel about Florida-based sci-fi, sitting next to so many of my heroes, I was like a stunned statue until the kind and observant moderator asked me a direct question to free up my starstruck tongue.
Butler was at the conference that year, a quiet and towering presence. When I approached her with a book to sign -- Dawn, the first book in her mind-blowing trilogy about aliens who save the human race from extinction, but not from themselves -- my mouth just went kerblooey. I stammered something about how great it was to see biology and chemistry being used in the same way so-called "hard" SF uses physics ... and how much I appreciated the African-American characters and themes of her stories.
I wanted to say so much more. How her novel Kindred is one of the most emotionally-affecting time-travel stories in the history of the genre. How short stories like "Bloodchild" and "Speech Sounds" floored me by showing humanity struggling in a world grown harsh and brutal. And I wanted to tell her that although few regard it as her best book, Clay's Ark is a horrific masterpiece I re-read every few years. The story of returning space travelers who carry a shape-shifting plague, it's an unrelentingly violent and tragic look at a dystopian future, a hallucinogenic nightmare etched in black glass. And yet it somehow manages to be humane, even hopeful.
Whatever I ended up saying to her, all I know is that the words sounded horribly incoherent to my ears. But she understood enough, and maybe even emphathized with someone obviously so freaked out about being so inarticulate. She nodded and smiled, though she hid that smile behind two pensive fingers. I'd heard that about her from Harlan Ellison when I attended the Clarion Workshop, which she'd done almost a decade before me. He said she was terribly self-conscious and shy, and tended to hide her face behind a hand when she spoke or smiled.
She signed my book and thanked me in her quiet, deep voice. Then she turned to study a placard of the day's panels and found one that piqued her interest: the use of gender in horror films. She nodded a silent "goodbye" and went on her way.
Later I got to have drinks with many of the attending writers, but sadly not her. I never saw her in the hotel bar, or at any of the evening events. She was probably in her room writing, a solitary act that reportedly brought her much comfort.
Like Neil Gaiman says at his blog, we all thought Butler was a permanent fixture in the world, that we'd be reading her novels for decades to come. And we certainly will, although there won't be any new ones from her. But I'm learning that reading a book a second (or fifth, or tenth) time is always different because we the reader are never the same person when we approach it. The best works of art are those that change as we do, that continually reveal new things when we open ourselves to them.
Octavia Butler's incredible body of work is an endless reflection of who we are as a species. Using the trappings of the genre in a literary and humanistic manner, she reveals a belief and trust that goodness can be cultivated in even the worst of all possible worlds. Works like Clay's Ark are unremittingly bleak and at times so hopeless the pages seem to weigh a ton ... but even this darkest of nightmares is illuminated by a glimmer of hope. That's her wonderful gift in each of her works, the thing that grabs readers and makes them want to walk the tortured and dark paths of her characters: the hope that somewhere inside us we'll find that same spark, and shield it from the harsh winds that blow across our lives.
"The major tragedies in life, there's just no compensation," she told the LA Times in 1998, three years after she became the first science-fiction writer to be awarded the prestigious MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Grant. "But the minor ones you can always write about. It's my way of dealing, and it's a heck of a lot cheaper than psychiatrists. The story, you see, will get you through."
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Washington Post memorial by Marcia Davis