Before dystopian fiction like “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” reflected an increasingly diverse society, there was Octavia E. Butler, one of few African-American authors to become a prominent name in the white-dominated universe of science fiction.
Butler featured people of color in battles for control against aliens and hybrid species, opening a world of possibilities to readers who had been excluded from the genre. Her work helped define the literary cornerstone of Afrofuturism, then an emerging movement that draws from science fiction and fantasy with a socially conscious bend.
By the time she died of a stroke at age 58 in 2006, Butler had amassed international acclaim among fans of speculative fiction, a combination of science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Her fan base continues to grow as a new generation discovers her 12 novels and short stories, most of which take place in Southern California, where Butler lived for most of her life. Political and social justice activists in particular are taking an interest in her work for the way it intertwines themes of racism, misogyny and class struggles with alien abduction, time travel and parallel universes.
Despite her accomplishments, fans say, she has yet to receive due credit from her hometown or mainstream literary circles. They hope to change that with a series of events this year in greater Los Angeles marking the 10th anniversary of Butler’s death.
A different view of of Los Angeles
Los Angeles arts organization Clockshop is the driving force behind Radio Imagination, an ongoing program of cultural events honoring Butler’s legacy in partnership with institutions throughout Los Angeles. Named for a phrase Butler used to describe how she hears, rather than sees, her imagination, the tribute kicked off in February and continues Thursday with a panel discussion of her work at the Los Angeles Public Library. Readings, film programs and city tours are planned, culminating in a mixed-media exhibition at Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts featuring work by six artists inspired by Butler’s archive at The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.
“She is, in my mind, someone who has not been properly recognized in the city of Los Angeles,” Clockshop founder and director Julia Meltzer said at the Huntington, just a few miles from Butler’s hometown of Pasadena.
Butler was part of a wave of feminist writers whose work focused on gender ethics, sexuality and racial politics and what they could mean for the survival of the human race, said science fiction writer Steven Barnes, who knew Butler. She was the first to feature women of color as heroes of those stories within the universe of science fiction, he said.
Barnes and his wife, writer and educator Tananarive Due, are participating in the tributes to Butler with a webinar on Friday in which they will share a recording of a conversation they had with Butler in 2000 about her writing.
“For me, Octavia Butler’s significance as an author is her commitment to creating worlds that mirrored our own with an eye toward steering humankind in a better direction,” said Due, an American Book Award winner who teaches Afrofuturism at the University of California, Los Angeles. “She was very bothered by humanity’s self-destructive tendencies, and so much of her fiction is about trying to help us see the dangers of our present course and trying to present alternatives. She wanted us to think and to act, and her passion and prescience really makes her impact timeless.”
Born in 1947 to a domestic worker and a man who shined shoes, Butler sought refuge in writing from her isolated existence as a tall, awkward black girl growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. She received little encouragement from her mother or grandmother, who helped raise her after her father died. Their attitude was understandable for the era, when few people of color — and even fewer women — pursued careers as writers.
Butler prevailed, graduating from Pasadena Community College in 1968. She went on to study at the Screenwriter’s Guild Open Door Program and the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop, where she found a mentor in science-fiction great Harlan Ellison. She took a series of temporary jobs on factory assembly lines and elsewhere while honing her craft.
After the success of her novel “Kindred” in 1979, she was able to support herself writing full-time and went on to capture top literary accolades. In 1995, she became the first science-fiction writer to win a prestigious MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” fellowship.
“Her characters are mostly black women or brown people living in a world that is deeply problematic, and it’s a different underbelly than you would get in the typical L.A. crime novel,” Meltzer said. “Just because of who she was and what she experienced, she writes about L.A. in a different way than you would get in a Raymond Chandler novel.
“Why isn’t this the story that we hear about L.A.?”
‘Power is always central to her work’
When the Huntington opened Butler’s archive to scholars in late 2013, Meltzer saw an opportunity. She approached the Huntington with the idea to let artists access the archive and create works inspired by its contents.
The massive collection of 8,000 cataloged items and more than 80 boxes of additional material spans Butler’s lifetime: childhood drawings of horses; her first short stories written at age 12; journals filled with grocery lists and draft complaint letters to utility companies; book contracts, manuscripts, outlines and programs from speaking engagements.
“She saved everything, but I don’t think she saved it out of a sense that it was going to be this great treasure trove for people,” said Natalie Russell, the Huntington’s assistant curator of literary manuscripts. Russell spent nearly three years processing the items (PDF), organizing and categorizing the body of materials, which fills a shelf in the Huntington’s basement.
“She was very reflective; she wrote to herself a lot: notes everywhere on manuscripts, in notebooks, journal-style pages where she pours out herself in a way that you don’t often get to see from any person. That’s a really valuable resource, especially for someone who is known for being a really private person.”
The items appeal to different people for different reasons. Writer Tisa Bryant fixated on Butler’s list of goals in her journals, which read like affirmations: become a bestselling author, buy a beautiful home, help “poor black youngsters” go to college, get “the best health care” for herself and her mother.
“My books will be read by millions of people! So be it! See to it!”
Bryant, a panelist in Thursday’s talk, is using the archive to learn about Butler’s research process for an essay about self-education and self-determination. The archive provides a road map to her work, which has a timeless quality. Whether it’s alien abduction, climate change or the transformation of humanity into three genetic groups, relationships between the empowered and the disenfranchised are central to Butler’s work, Bryant said.
“Power is always central to her work and not just state power but how we leverage our abilities, our intellect, our bodies against each other for our own gain.”
A visionary among futurists
Photographer Connie Samaras latched onto library call slips for books that Butler used to inform her stories. Butler researched life in the antebellum South for “Kindred,” the story of a black woman in California who goes back in time to rescue an ancestor, the white son of a plantation owner.
“What she has done is prefigured the young-adult literature market,” said Samaras, who is working on a project for the exhibition in October. “What’s profound about Butler’s work is, she talks about cultural differences and social differences and people, but it’s always in a way to look at human connectivity.”
For the “Xenogenesis” trilogy (now published as the “Lillith’s Brood” books), a postapocalyptic tale of human-alien genetic blending, Butler dived headlong into human anatomy and molecular biology. She even visited the Amazon and has a picture from Machu Picchu to prove it (it’s in the archive).
As one biologist noted, her vision was “remarkably consistent with modern molecular biology, even predicting developments that have occurred since the novels were written.”
Aside from mastering the science of her subject matter, Butler built worlds that included people often left out of history and popular culture.
“She had a deep commitment to science fiction, and she wrote many wonderful books, but her talent was in worldbuilding,” said mystery writer Walter Mosley, a friend and contemporary.
“And underneath that was a social and political fever which spoke so loudly and clearly to women in the black community.”
Those worlds and the characters’ struggles are just as relatable today, film curator Erin Christovale said, making Butler’s work ripe for new audiences.
For Radio Imagination, Christovale is putting together two screenings featuring experimental shorts by black filmmakers that draw upon science fiction and Afrofutrism, genres that Butler’s work presaged.
“Her work is extremely cinematic; I’m waiting for the day something gets adapted,” she said. “It shows the possibility of experimental black film by stepping away from stereotypes put on people of color in the film industry and focusing on personal narratives.
“It brings the larger idea that there’s not one way of existing, and we don’t have one singular identity.”
‘She opened a door of possibility’
Butler’s inclusiveness — and the struggles of those communities — is what makes her work resonate among the latest generation of activists.
“Octavia’s Brood” is an anthology of fantastical science-fiction stories written by American organizers and activists, published in 2015. It’s since become a community of writers, artists and activists who see aspects of Butler’s work as a blueprint for organizing.
“Our realities are not utopian or dystopian, they are realistic and hard, but hopeful,” “Octavia’s Brood” co-editor Walidah Imarisha wrote in an email. “And that is what (Butler) pulls out in her work. As much as the inclusion of marginalized characters at the center, the principles and values which embody positive change have so many lessons to teach us.”
The social and political themes underlying her stories continue to resonate with broader audiences, Butler biographer Ayana Jamieson said.
“People on the margins — black people, women, science-fiction readers, feminists, queer folks, variously abled and gendered folks — find parts of themselves in her work. Many of her works are coming-of-age tales where people are testing out and discovering who they are. That transformational process, along with the growing pains, joys and shock that go along with it, really grabs people,” said Jamieson, founder of the Octavia Butler Legacy Network.
Indeed, Butler’s chosen genre allowed her to make the fantastical relatable.
“What science fiction does is, it creates a future for the readers, and black people, especially black women, are less considered in the future than almost anybody in this country,” Mosley said. “The simple answer is that her legacy is her readers; what she has done is, she opened a door of possibility.”