The LGBT community suffered another great loss last week when Octavia E. Butler died at age 58. What? You've never heard of her? That's probably due to the way we segregate literature. You see, Butler had two strikes against her: she was a writer of speculative fiction (sci-fi) and her novels prominently featured African-American women. So you can find her shelved in sci-fi, and sometimes in African-American fiction, and occasionally in fiction by LGBT authors, but you'll never see her work shelved with the "real" literature.
And that's a crying shame, because Butler was a brilliant writer, whose body of writing explored the social and political implications of race, gender, sexuality, politics, religion, and human nature. Much of her work is dark but her pacing is so swift and sure, her writing so gripping, that it's darn near impossible to put one of her books down in the middle. Her first published novel, Kindred, transports a modern-day African-American woman back into the antebellum south, where she must learn to survive in a culture based on slavery. The Los Angeles Herald Examiner called it "a shattering work of art with much to say about love, hate, slavery and racial dilemmas, then and now." Parable of the Sower and its sequel Parable of the Talents is set in a dystopian United States filled with walled cities, riots, grinding poverty, and theocratic leaders. It tells the story of a young woman who is determined to build a better world in the midst of the chaos around her. Wildseed draws on African mythology, spanning three centuries and two continents as it follows the lives of two apparently-immortal beings who go to America to build communities of human beings with supernatural powers. It's about power and desire, and like much of her other work, it's about how people maintain their essential humanity (or fail to) in a world where external forces make it impossible for them to control their own fate.
In 1995, Butler became the first genre writer to win a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award. If you haven't had the chance to read her work, now is a good time to start. Butler is gone, but she's left us with a collection of prose that's startlingly powerful and provocative. Goodbye, Ms. Butler. You died too soon.