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Octavia Butler, 58; penned own path in science-fiction

LOS ANGELES -- Octavia E. Butler's first creation in the world of science fiction was herself.

Before anybody told her that black girls do not grow up to write about futuristic worlds, Ms. Butler, the daughter of a shoeshine man and a maid, was already fashioning a place for herself in a white-dominated universe.

By remaining dedicated to her craft, sweeping floors, and working as a telemarketer to pay the bills; by suffering the indignities that come with being first, and by eventually winning the coveted MacArthur ''genius" award, Ms. Butler carved a place for herself -- and helped write a new world into existence.

Ms. Butler, whose 12 stunning novels of science fiction inspired new readers and writers to explore the genre, died Saturday. Friends said Ms. Butler apparently suffered a stroke outside her home in Seattle. She was 58.

Over the years Ms. Butler, author of the seminal work ''Kindred," had earned the distinction of being the ''first lady" of a small, tight-knit circle of black writers of speculative fiction -- science fiction, horror, and fantasy.

''She was an utter inspiration," said writer Steven Barnes, a longtime friend and sci-fi writer who was the first African-American to write one of the ''Star Wars" novelizations. ''I don't know what would have happened to me had I not had her as an example."

Mystery writer Walter Mosley said Ms. Butler expanded the genre ''by writing a kind of fiction that African-American women around the country could read and understand both technically and emotionally. . . . She wasn't writing romance or feel-good novels, she was writing very difficult, brilliant work."

''For an African-American woman to somehow define herself as a science-fiction writer and to realize that dream is an extraordinary thing," he said Monday.

''Kindred" is the story of a 20th-century black woman who time-travels back to the antebellum South to save her great-great grandfather, a white plantation owner. Though published under the general banner of fiction, it exemplifies Ms. Butler's use of speculative ideas to explore issues such as the relationship between the empowered and the powerless.

In the worlds that Ms. Butler created, people of color were present and significant, in ways they had not been before. That inclusion not only attracted readers, it allowed Ms. Butler to use the genre as a powerful means of speaking to a range of issues including race, gender, and the environment while also mastering the tenets of science-fiction writing.

Dan Simon, founder of the publishing house Seven Stories, said Ms. Butler's readers -- a body as diverse as the worlds she created -- felt a relationship with her work that was deeply personal.

''There was an intensity to the way people read her that is very unusual," Simon said. ''You always feel when reading her that you're looking in a mirror that gives you an even truer reflection than any mirror ever could."

She was born in Pasadena, Calif., and known to family and friends as ''Junie." She spent part of her childhood on her grandmother's chicken farm near Victorville, where there was no electricity or running water, but to Ms. Butler it was idyllic.

As a 10-year-old she was already putting stories down on paper. By the time an aunt told her ''Honey, Negroes can't be writers," it was too late. At 13, Ms. Butler was already tapping out new worlds on a Remington portable typewriter.

Early on she developed a rigorous writing schedule, working from 2 to 5 a.m. daily. She sold two stories, but that success did not last. After a lull she pieced together from previous writings a novel called ''Patternmaster," the tale of a future in which humanity is divided into a telepathic ruling class of ''Patternists" and ''Clayarks," four-legged creatures contaminated by a disease brought back from outer space.

By 1995 Ms. Butler had written 10 novels, including ''Parable of the Sower," and won the nation's two top prizes for writers of science fiction.

Last November, Seven Stories published Ms. Butler's 12th novel, ''Fledgling." The novel ended a long stretch of writers block caused at least in part by illness and the effect of medication. She suffered from congestive heart disease, Simon said.

''In black speculative fiction, we are a tiny family and Octavia Butler was our matriarch," said writer Tananarive Due. ''So we just lost our mother, our grandmother."

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