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Remembering unsung science-fiction hero/Genius Grant winner Octavia Butler

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Science fiction writer Octavia Butler in 1984.
Patti Perret
Science fiction writer Octavia Butler in 1984.

Octavia Butler, who died 10 years ago this month, was a black woman who wrote science-fiction stories in a world where white men created the work and starred in the narrative.

Octavia E. Butler: Telling my Stories is now on view at the Huntington Library.  

Can you guess the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur “Genius Grant"? It wasn't Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick — it was Octavia Butler, an African-American woman who was was born and raised in Pasadena.

This year, non-profit arts organization Clockshop is observing the 10th anniversary of Butler's death with a yearlong look at the science fiction great whose work never broke through to the mainstream.

Write or die

Octavia Butler was 12 years old when she saw "Devil Girl from Mars" for the first time. She watched it on TV one lazy Saturday afternoon.

“When I turned off the television, I said to myself, I can write a better story than that," Butler said in a documentary. "I sat down and began writing my first science-fiction story.”

Butler wrote in a genre known for exotic dystopias and Martian landscapes — where white men created the work and starred in the narrative. Butler saw great power in the parameters of science fiction. Instead of white men exploring galaxies, she could create futures or pasts where women of color were at the center of the story.

Charlie Rose asked her on TV once why she wrote science fiction.

“Because there are no closed doors, no walls," she told him. "The only rule is, if you use science, you should use it accurately. You can look at, examine, play with anything. Absolutely anything."

Octavia Estelle Butler was born June 22, 1947. Her dad died when she was a young girl. She was raised by her mother, a housemaid.

She was a shy kid, and social situations made her anxious. In the hulking, mission-style main branch of the Pasadena Library, 6-year-old Butler found refuge, starting a lifelong obsession with storytelling.

"I had two choices," she told Rose. "I could become a writer or I could die really young, because there wasn’t anything else that I wanted."

She went to Pasadena City College to study writing. In the spring of her freshman year she wrote a short story called “To The Victor." She entered it into a campuswide writing contest and won, taking in $15 in prize money.

Over the course of her life, she would write 15 novels and two collections of short stories. She won dozens of awards, but even her most successful books sold fractions compared to genre giants like Frank Herbert and Kurt Vonnegut.

So for an author who was not widely read during her lifetime, who or what will perpetuate her legacy?

A legacy re-examined

Julia Meltzer directs Clockshop, a non-profit arts organization that helps artists collaborate with large institutions in California. The project Meltzer is working on now is called Radio Imagination. Meltzer has organized a group of 12 artists and writers to celebrate and interpret Butler's work. They've each been given access to Butler’s archives, which are housed at the Huntington Library.

"We are doing this project because I was interested in bringing artists and writers to the Huntington Library who most likely wouldn’t have a reader’s pass there," said Meltzer. "[Who] wouldn’t maybe have the time to spend with her papers and to see what they produce as a result of their time and research."

The new work created by these artists and writers will show up online and at the Armory in Pasadena this year. Meltzer said she finds in Butler's books a world totally unique in science fiction.

"I think it’s interesting to look at her work and think about her perspective, because she just carved out this space for herself in a field that was dominated by white men," she said. "And I think it’s fascinating looking at her perspective on Los Angeles and race, class, gender and imagination and how she saw the world."

Connie Samaras is one of the artists working on the project — she works mainly in photography and video. Samaras said she thinks Butler deserves a place among the best American writers of the 20th century.

"Butler’s stories were very different," she said. "First of all, the protagonist is a young, sometimes adolescent black girl or black woman. She’s not the typical hero, she doesn’t solve everything and resolve everything."

Tisa Bryant is also involved in the project — she's a writer living in L.A. As a longtime fan of Butler, Bryant sees the deep dive into the archive as way to re-animate Butler, to almost have a conversation with her.

"She’s an amazing plotter and she’s incredibly economical. And that’s like a hallmark of the genre — you don’t waste a lot of time. Some writers might be a little more florid or prettier or more detail-oriented than others, but for the most part, genre fiction, you keep it moving," said Bryant. "It’s about the plot. And she’s a champ with that."

Butler won her Genius Grant in 1995, when she was in her late 40s. She died in 2006 following complications from a stroke and a fall. Although she never enjoyed the transcendent popularity of other genre writers like George R.R. Martin or Kurt Vonnegut, Bryant hopes her work with Clockshop will change that.

You can find the grave of Octavia Butler at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena. Under a small tree, there's her tombstone, with a simple quote written on it:

“All that you touch you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. Change is God.”

They're the first lines of “Parable of the Sower,” a novel set in a dystopian future California where water is scarce. As also the final sentence in Butler's story, the quote takes on new life.

Butler died young, but she took control of her destiny, not only forging the world she wanted to see but creating the life she wanted to live.

On Wednesday, June 7 at 4:30, there will be a curator tour for the exhibit. Click here for details. 

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