Science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler died in 2006
Cultural events in Los Angeles throughout 2016 will celebrate her life
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.
’Steering humankind in a better direction’
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 continued 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 eight 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.”
A different view of of Los Angeles
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 City 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.