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Monday, February 27, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Octavia Butler, brilliant master of sci-fi, dies at 58

Seattle Times staff reporter

For more than 30 years, Seattle science-fiction novelist Octavia Butler dreamed up fantastic worlds and religions, made-up creatures and futuristic plots. Then, in her stylistic prose, she used them to tackle the social issues she was most passionate about.

"Parable of the Talents," a futuristic story about a utopian community ravaged by civil war, explored modern-day issues of intolerance, the growing gap between rich and poor, and environmentalism. In her first novel, "Kindred," she plunged into racial issues when a modern-day character was transported into the body of a pre-Civil War slave.

"What [Ms. Butler] was writing for the first time was a kind of woman's-eye view, a very smart woman's-eye view, of say, 'Brave New World' or '1984,' " said writer Harlan Ellison, Ms. Butler's friend and mentor.

Ms. Butler died Friday at Northwest Hospital after a fall at her home in Lake Forest Park. She was 58.

"I consider Octavia to be the most important science-fiction writer since Mary Shelley," said Steven Barnes, an African-American science-fiction writer and friend of Ms. Butler's. She wrote about race successfully because she did it with such subtlety, he said.

Though she was a giant in the science-fiction world, Ms. Butler was such a private person that even her closest friends said they knew little about her.

Ellison said Ms. Butler had a number of obstacles to overcome in the writing business, among them being female and being black.

But Ms. Butler persevered to become one of the few well-known African-American science-fiction writers.

In 1995, she won a $295,000 MacArthur Fellowship, known as the "genius grant." In 2000, she received the Nebula Award for her novel "Parable of the Talents." The Nebula award is science fiction's highest prize.

Those who knew Ms. Butler agreed that, in many ways, she was a contradiction. She kept to herself but was easy to talk to. She was tall and imposing, and, Ellison said, "very warm and charming, but there was gravitas in her."

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She was funny, with a dark, dry, self-deprecating wit.

Ms. Butler, who never married, described herself this way in 1999: "I'm also uncomfortably asocial — a hermit in the middle of Seattle — a pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist, a black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty and drive."

Robin Bailey, the president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, remembered her "deep, rumbly voice."

The heroes in her stories were often people of color, and Ellison said Ms. Butler's sense of isolation came through in her work.

In a 1999 interview, Ms. Butler told a Seattle Times reporter that she had been a tall, socially awkward child in Pasadena, Calif., spending much of her time in the public library and sending manuscripts to publishers when she was only 12 or 13.

"I needed to write," she said then. "Writing was literally all I had consistently. ... I used to give up writing like some people would give up smoking."

Ms. Butler kept that hard-working intensity as an adult, her friends said. But even in her success, she remained grounded. She bought a house with her MacArthur Fellowship money and traveled mostly to lecture about writing. Ellison remembered that she would cover her mouth when she laughed because she was embarrassed by her crooked teeth.

An only child, Ms. Butler grew up in Southern California and moved to Seattle in 1999, after her mother's death. She studied at Pasadena City College and California State University, Los Angeles, before participating in the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop in 1970.

Seattle Times reporter Mark Rahner contributed to this report. Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or eheffter@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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