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The visions of Octavia Butler
As a science fiction writer, Butler forged a new path and envisioned bold possibilities. On the eve of a major revival of her work, this is the story of how she came to see a future that is now our present.

by Lynell George

NEW YORK, NY.- Octavia Estelle Butler was the daughter of a shoeshine man, who died when she was a baby, and a maid. A self-described loner, Butler always stood apart: far from the loud tangle of children at recess; standing in the shade of the generous sycamore and oak trees of Pasadena, California; or secreted inside her bedroom in the after-school hours, lost within some exotic elsewhere of storybooks.

Some of the books were her own, saved up for, while others were castoffs rescued by her mother, who scrubbed, dusted and ironed in houses in the majority-white and wealthy Pasadena neighborhoods that were adjacent, yet worlds apart, from her own. Butler’s mother walked her to the library, where they signed up for a card. That small slip of paper became her passport to travel widely.

Boundlessly curious and a keen observer, Butler lived vividly in her imagination. The stories between the covers of those books served as a balm, providing locales within which she could disappear, occupy new settings, explore new possibilities and try on new characteristics. She began making up stories at 5 or 6 and regaling her mother with them.

She read with thirst and purpose. She became a fixture at the Peter Pan Room, the children’s section of the elegant Pasadena Central Library. When she had exhausted those shelves, she was dismayed to learn that the adult stacks were off-limits until her 14th birthday.

She developed workarounds. She saved up change, which sang in her pocket as she walked to the store to purchase her first books — about horses, dinosaurs and the stars she could barely see because of the scrim of Southern California smog.

“Here, I was trying to write about Mars,” she recalled as an adult, “and I knew nothing about it.”

At school, Butler struggled to find her footing, but the sciences captivated her. They hinted at something larger — a series of open questions.

“I liked science documentaries, whether they were television movies or the kinds of films that teachers showed at school,” she once said. She recalled that moment when the world fell away, after the teachers rolled in the AV equipment, the lights dimmed and the projector started to whir.

“I got my first notions of astronomy and geology from those little films,” she said.

These visions transported her far away from Pasadena and the hemmed-in feeling she often fought.

At the edge of the Angeles National Forest, she could see NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a cutting-edge institution that attracted scientists from all over the world. But her Pasadena — the segregated city of her childhood — seemed to occupy an entirely different universe.

Her imagination, she knew, was a means to escape the cul-de-sac of despair.

But she needed a plan.

For Butler, as a young girl in Pasadena, the bus was a necessary link from here to there. Sitting high above the cars, she could take in the shifting landscapes; it gave her a window into different worlds.

On the bus, she might find herself drawn into a conversation or eavesdropping on an exchange that would ignite a new idea.

She’d flip open a notebook, careful to catch a stray idea, if only a seed of a seed — afraid that it might slip away.

“Los Angeles is so spread out that almost any bus ride will be a long one,” Butler once observed. “The time proved perfect for writing.” Her bus rides also allowed her to make sketches of potential characters. “I especially collect people — those who stand out in some way,” she said.

In Pasadena, Butler was surrounded by hills and mountains, and she’d watch them change from green to brown. The magnolia and pomegranate trees grew heavy with blooms or fruit, and she carried pocket-size memo pads to record their growth, from year to year — gauging how well or poorly the trees were doing. She saw how important it was to nurture the natural world. This too was part of a larger story she was investigating, about the changing earth.

At her mother’s urging, she wrote down her stories — on stray sheets of scrap paper, on waste bin letterhead or in her dime store notebooks.

In an act that was viewed as wildly indulgent by her extended family, Octavia Margaret, Butler’s mother, presented her daughter, Estelle (as her family called her), with a typewriter for her 11th birthday: a heavy, manual behemoth that she had no clue how to operate. But it was a powerful talisman — a symbol of seriousness. She hunted and pecked a path forward.

Late one night, Butler happened to tune into a broadcast of a campy, science fiction B movie titled “Devil Girl From Mars.”

At 12 years old, sitting in the blue glow of the family’s new television, she thought the film was a revelation: It was spectacularly bad.

Someone got paid to write this, she thought. Imagine that.

At her writing table, focused on the future, the adult Butler often questioned and requestioned: Are we ever free of our past? Not just of our personal choices — the boons or blunders — but of the uncomfortable histories we inherit and the ways in which we are inexorably tied to them?

She had long since left behind the fantasy stories and horse romances she wrote as a girl to turn her attention to science fiction — to the forms and shapes of the stories she had read in magazines such as Amazing Stories, Fantastic and Galaxy Science Fiction. Here, she would find her voice, her way, her purpose.

The blank page now had depth for her. Writing felt like leaping into vast, deep water. Without limits, where might she travel?

Having published several novels and built a small following, Butler used the meager, hard-won funds she had earned from the sale of her most recent book, 1978’s “Survivor,” to embark on her first research trip. She traveled by Trailways and Greyhound buses to Maryland for library research and to take in the physical world of a plantation.

During her trip, she was struck by the erasure she witnessed on a visit to George and Martha Washington’s Mount Vernon home, where tour guides never referred to “slaves,” instead calling them “servants.”

Butler later wrote that her research made the book that came out of this trip one of the most difficult for her to live with, as she absorbed the losses, the grief and the slave-narrative voices of the dead.

The finished novel, published in 1979, became one of her best-known books: “Kindred.”

In “Kindred,” the main character, Edana “Dana” Franklin, is a struggling Black writer who is setting up her new house with her white husband, Kevin, when she unexpectedly travels through a mysterious seam in time from her life in contemporary Southern California to a working plantation in the antebellum South. Throughout the novel, she is whipsawed between the two eras, dropped repeatedly into a violent landscape that she comes to understand is not simply occupied by her forebears but is, in fact, her inheritance.

Butler always described “Kindred” not as science fiction but as a “grim fantasy.” It doesn’t contain the genre’s typical trappings or devices; there is no time machine, no hard science. In a clear, creative sense, Butler saw history itself as an otherworldly landscape to be explored — foreign yet familiar.

“‘Kindred’ was a story of ordinary people trapped in fantastic circumstances,” Butler wrote in a 1988 notebook. The antebellum South was “like another planet to Dana and Kevin — people of ‘now.’”

“There is no book like it,” said playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, who is adapting “Kindred” for FX.

“When I revisited ‘Kindred’ in 2010, the book cracked open for me in a different way than it did when I first read it,” he recalled. “People forget this book is 45 years old.” But, he marveled, “it’s still immediate.”

While researching “Kindred,” Butler toured the cotton fields of Maryland to shape her vision of how the past reaches out to the present and how the histories of Black and white America interact.

“In this country,” Butler jotted in some stray notes while writing the novel, “whether we like it or not, Blacks and whites are kindred.”

“Kindred” remains the doorway through which many readers — science fiction enthusiasts and beyond — first encounter Butler. However, the book also advanced a larger discussion about the untended wound of slavery and how it shapes our present-day environment — our ability to create connections, to find community — in a way that hadn’t been attempted in fiction before.

The novel endures in part because the bracing candor and brutal immediacy of the story meet contemporary readers where they are, said Ayana A.H. Jamieson, founder of the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network, a global community dedicated to Butler’s work. “Kindred” encourages readers to grapple with hard questions about kinship and alliances and about what it means to survive.

“Part of the underlying message of this book,” said Jamieson, “is while this is one person dealing with their own family history, it is also all of us.”

“I began writing about power because I had so little,” Butler repeatedly asserted in her journals, in interviews and in conversations about her life as a writer. She was curious about how power worked, how it changed from hands to hands, always asking: What might her characters do with power? What might power grant them?

She gave characters in her stories — often wily, adaptable women — the power and ability to fight using whatever means, modest contrivances or hidden superpowers they had.

She also threw plenty of trouble at them to see how they might survive.

This exercise in creativity closely mirrors Butler’s own experience in life. What Butler’s heroes have in common is the resourcefulness and grit to make something of nothing — the ability to problem-solve, time and time again.

This same spirit animates the way in which many read Butler now: not just as a gifted storyteller but as someone who saw, in the distance, the crises we’re now struggling to overcome.

One novel that seems especially prescient is 1993’s “Parable of the Sower.”

Like Dana in “Kindred,” whose time-slipping irrevocably alters her present, Lauren Oya Olamina, the main character in “Parable of the Sower,” watches, aghast, as all that she has known vanishes: her family members, her community, her comforts and her way of life.

Like Dana, Lauren is thrust into a life-or-death predicament that she must puzzle out to survive. But her tangle is not a contest with the past. Rather, it requires confronting a deeply uncertain future.

Lauren, who is 15 at the novel’s outset, lives in the fictional Southern California town of Robledo, a gated community 20 miles east of Los Angeles’ glowing sprawl. Her hometown is in ruin, a war zone. Earth, as its residents have all known it, is descending into disaster — never-ending drought, social upheaval and violent class wars.

Lauren begins keeping a journal in which she fashions verses that will become the foundation of a new faith: Earthseed, which embraces the inevitability of the change that continues to buffet, disrupt and radically reform her life.

“There are some of us who read the ‘Parable of the Sower’ (and its sequel the ‘Parable of the Talents’) as sacred text,” author and activist adrienne maree brown, who uses all lowercase letters in her name, wrote on her website. Along with musician Toshi Reagon, brown began hosting a podcast, “Octavia’s Parables,” during the earliest months of the pandemic. “Everything she wrote is provocative and interesting, but in the ‘Parables’ she cuts in right next to her own story, and many of ours, a Black girl creator, surviving,” brown wrote.

Butler saw these threads in her own work. “I seem to be saying something without trying,” she wrote. “That Black women are survivors, that they have to be strong because so much is demanded of them,” something that “both my mother and my grandmother discovered firsthand.”

In “Parable of the Sower,” as Lauren ventures out into the world to find a new home, she collects a daisy chain of fellow travelers. Together, they make their way toward freedom in a new settlement they christen Acorn.

Lauren understands that Earth is suffering and that “home” lies elsewhere, even within them: “Trees are better than stone — life commemorating life,” she says.

In 2004, at Black to the Future, a science fiction festival in Seattle, Butler stood before an enthusiastic gathering of Black cross-disciplinary artists and spoke about her early years attempting to connect with other Black science fiction enthusiasts. At her first convention in 1970, she said, there was only one other Black person.

As years passed, she would survey convention crowds and count a few more faces, but “I was either the only Black person or one of two or three,” she said.

She would interact with Black audiences at academic conferences: writers and library groups who read “SF” — her term of choice — for fun. Still, she recalled, “even people who said they would like to write it … they didn’t think we did that. Well, back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, we pretty much didn’t do that.”

More than “topics” or “themes,” Butler confronted pressing concerns and vexations humans found themselves in: the violence and suffering they inflicted on others and often on themselves. As a writer, Butler wasn’t interested in checking boxes. She was looking past what we could see, gathering the questions and casting about for the necessary tools that might help to create a better future — to encourage people to be critical thinkers and active agents in their own destinies.

She often had to defend her choices. She was persistently asked, “What good is science fiction to Black people?”

To which she would typically reply, “What good is any form of literature to Black people? What good is thinking about the future, warning, pointing the way? What good is examining the possible effects of science or social organization or political movements?”

Fiction was more than “stories,” she felt. It was a way to acquire a new set of eyes — to effect change.

She had seen it in her own life.

“Octavia destroyed the sources of her own comfort without hesitation,” Nisi Shawl, an author and student of Butler’s, wrote in the introduction to the 2021 Library of America edition of Butler’s collected works. What Butler passed down to the following generations of writers, Shawl said, is the permission to do the same. “Strong emotions, she counseled me, are the best basis for stories,” Shawl wrote. “What do you fear? What do you loathe? What would you give anything to rescue and protect and preserve for eternity? Write about that.”

Butler’s impact was indelible: Just being in the room, on a stage, behind a lectern, her very presence forced this consideration, pushing a more inclusive conversation. Her point of view was one not traditionally found in science fiction, and, simply by writing, she demanded a larger world.

Like the pomegranate trees whose life cycles she once studied in her native Pasadena, her vision has proved enduring and fruitful. She is remembered as serious and funny, relentless and disciplined, in her novels and her personal journals. For someone who lived to only 58, she gave so much, in her work and in her life — sowing seeds.

Asked once where she felt her place was in the world, Butler replied, “I think my place is wherever I happen to be standing.”

She wasn’t interested in writing “heroes.” She was interested in finding ways that imperfect humans might learn to secure a future beyond what they see.

“I don’t write about heroes,” Butler once said. “I write about people who survive and sometimes prevail.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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