Editor’s Note: Octavia Butler, award-winning writer of novels, short stories and essays, died this weekend at the age of 58.
Butler, a Pasadena native, graduated from Pasadena City College. She was a winner of the PEN lifetime achievement award. Her science fiction novel, “Kindred,” was selected by the Pasadena Public Library for its annual community-wide reading program, One City, One Story. Butler was scheduled to discuss her novel as part of the events taking place in March.
The following story appeared in the Pasadena Weekly on Dec. 15.
Believe it or not, science-fiction writer Octavia Butler, winner of the Locus Award, two Hugo Awards, the Nebula Award, the Science Fiction Chronicle Award and recipient of the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, gets writer’s block.
The author of 14 books, including the newly released “Fledgling,” Butler may be the only black female science-fiction writer in the world making a living as a novelist, but she is only human.
During a recent reading at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, Butler said, “There is always a point in every novel you’re writing when you either want to flush it or burn it. This is inevitable. The trick is not to do any of those things.”
Butler, who was born in Pasadena and now lives in Seattle, quipped to the crowd, “Writer’s block is terrible. I can sit here and moan and groan about how terrible it is and you would all leave.”
What keeps the 58-year-old literary wunderkind clicking away at the keyboard?
A self-proclaimed news junkie, Butler follows current events compulsively, translating socio-economic and environmental reports into stories that can only be fully justified in the genre of science fiction.
The same news we all read day in and day out is heeded by Butler like a calling to which she must reply. Through writing she is able to explore complex themes in contemporary society. Trends like global warming and the widening gap between the rich and the poor are often fast-forgotten topics for news readers, but Butler seizes the often apocalyptic, hopeless world and harnesses these shared experiences into her novels.
“Whatever happens, good or bad, that winds up getting used in my writing, I call a ‘positive obsession.’ It hangs around bothering me but at least it does me some good,” Butler explained. “For instance, my two most recent novels before ‘Fledgling’ came about because of my obsession with the news. Things were just getting worse and worse. And it didn’t seem possible we could carry on making so many mistakes.”
Perhaps this is why her newest novel makes a marked departure from the banality of humanity. “Fledgling” is a story about vampires, another species who look like humans and live among people, but who happen to drink blood and live for hundreds of years. Less like the gothic romance of Ann Rice, Butler lends a sci-fi helping hand to much-fabled vampires, leaving her trademark feminist Midas touch on an age-old, traditionally misogynist narrative.
The protagonist of the story, Shori, is a minority, a woman and suffers from amnesia. She struggles to find a sense of identity in the microcosm of vampire society while facing racism and avenging the massacre of her family.
But Butler cannot escape the social commentary she so deftly perfects no matter how far she deviates from the human race. Though the story is about blood-sucking vampires, it is also about bigotry, matriarchal society, the nature of power between the dominant and the subservient, genetic engineering and, most importantly, the complexity of race relations in a diverse society.
Butler, who subordinates reality to science-fiction, creates in “Fledgling” a fantasy that does not deviate far from the distinct paradoxes of the world in which we currently live. She draws the reader, like a taut arrow poised in a bow, into a world that seems, at first, completely imaginary and fantastical, but quickly constructs a model of critical social theory that forces us to reevaluate ourselves. Once again, Butler shoots straight. Into the intellect, that is.