Intersections of Art and Science

The Prescience of Octavia Butler

Octavia E. Butler Tribute NYC, June 5, 2006 (by Houari B. CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED via Flickr).
Octavia E. Butler Tribute NYC, June 5, 2006 (by Houari B. CC BY-SA 2.0 DEED via Flickr).

A 1993 dystopian novel imagined the world in 2024. It’s eerily accurate – the Washington Post

Excerpt:
Octavia Butler’s ‘Parable of the Sower’ predicted devastating climate change, inequality, space travel and ‘Make America great again’

The effects of climate change are reshaping America. Those with sufficient resources retreat inside protected communities. Those with even greater resources finance an exploratory Mars mission, presumably in an attempt to one day escape Earth’s destabilization.

In the political realm, a populist presidential candidate denounces claims made by scientists, promising the electorate that he’s going to “return us to the glory, wealth, and order of the twentieth century.”

This is life in 2024.

Or at least it’s life in 2024 as imagined by the writer Octavia Butler 31 years ago.

Parable of the Sower,” a 1993 novel by the late science fiction writer and MacArthur Fellow, depicts a future America ravaged by ecological collapse and civil unrest. The book’s narrator, African American teenager Lauren Olamina, begins writing a journal in July 2024 documenting the upheaval.

In the time it’s taken us to reach 2024 for real, Butler’s story has been adapted as an opera and a graphic novel; a movie adaptation is also in the works. In 2017, director Melina Matsoukas cited Butler among the Black thinkers who inspired her “Formation” video from Beyoncé’s award-winning album “Lemonade.”

In September 2020 — perhaps fueled by an interest in apocalyptic fiction prompted by covid-19 lockdowns — “Parable” appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for the first time, 27 years after publication.

Butler didn’t live to see the renewed interest in her ninth novel — she died in 2006 — but she indicated that the issues faced by the characters in “Parable” and by the United States today were inevitable…

ADDITIONAL READING . . .

How Octavia Butler Told the Future - the Atlantic

Panel at the American Writers Museum in Chicago (by valoisem CC BY-NC 2.0 DEED via Flickr).

Excerpt:
“We need her conception of “histofuturism” now more than ever.

Somehow she knew this time would come. The smoke-choked air from fire gone wild, the cresting rivers and rising seas, the sweltering heat and receding lakes, the melting away of civil society and political stability, the light-year leaps in artificial intelligence—Octavia Butler foresaw them all.

Butler was not a climate scientist, a political pundit, or a Silicon Valley technologist. The author of imaginative and often disturbing speculative fiction such as Parable of the Sower (1993)she was a Black woman descended from enslaved people in Louisiana, raised by a strictly religious mother in Los Angeles, educated at community and regional colleges, and besieged by feelings of professional marginalization for most of her too-short life. Out of these challenging circumstances (which included watching her grandparents’ chicken farm burn to the ground), and through the noise of late-20th-century America, Butler heard a clear signal: The future would not be like the present; it would, instead, be a techno-juiced doppelgänger of the past.

Butler’s vision fits our disorienting moment of flashbacks and fast-forwards. Russia’s corrupt designs on a reconstituted Soviet empire, devastating war in the Middle East, the resurgent appeal of white ethnonationalism—it’s as though 20th-century scenes are replaying before us, reconfigured for maximal 21st-century damage.

I am an academic historian, and for years I taught Butler’s historical fiction in my classes (particularly 1979’s Kindred, which follows a Black woman wrenched back in time to live with her enslaved ancestors). But I avoided her futuristic novels, which I found too harrowing to read.

When Parable came out, I was a graduate student working part-time in a collectively owned feminist bookshop in Minneapolis called Amazon Bookstore. (Even this detail smacks of the strangeness of past-future collisions—a few years later, that cozy shop would reluctantly relinquish its name to Amazon Books, which was not yet the behemoth we know as Amazon.com.) Our book club selected Parable, but I could not bear the violence and desolation of Butler’s fallen world. So I put the novel down and did not pick it up again for more than two decades. When I finally did, it was because of its resonance with a historical artifact I was studying—a cotton sack packed by an enslaved mother for her daughter right before they were separated by sale. The daughter used this sack as a lifeline. In Parable, the teenage protagonist packs a similar survival sack, which she uses to flee a deadly attack on her neighborhood. I was hooked. And I saw that it was this overlap between Butler’s two modes—past and future—that makes her canon so special…

The Visions of Octavia Butler | Interactive - the New York Times

Quilt of Octavia Butler by Bisa Butler (no relation) at the National Portrait Gallery, November 28, 2023 (by romanlily CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 DEED via Flickr)

Excerpt:
Octavia Butler’s ‘Parable of the Sower’ predicted devastating climate change, inequality, space travel and ‘Make America great again’

The effects of climate change are reshaping America. Those with sufficient resources retreat inside protected communities. Those with even greater resources finance an exploratory Mars mission, presumably in an attempt to one day escape Earth’s destabilization.

In the political realm, a populist presidential candidate denounces claims made by scientists, promising the electorate that he’s going to “return us to the glory, wealth, and order of the twentieth century.”

This is life in 2024.

Or at least it’s life in 2024 as imagined by the writer Octavia Butler 31 years ago.

Parable of the Sower,” a 1993 novel by the late science fiction writer and MacArthur Fellow, depicts a future America ravaged by ecological collapse and civil unrest. The book’s narrator, African American teenager Lauren Olamina, begins writing a journal in July 2024 documenting the upheaval.

In the time it’s taken us to reach 2024 for real, Butler’s story has been adapted as an opera and a graphic novel; a movie adaptation is also in the works. In 2017, director Melina Matsoukas cited Butler among the Black thinkers who inspired her “Formation” video from Beyoncé’s award-winning album “Lemonade.”

In September 2020 — perhaps fueled by an interest in apocalyptic fiction prompted by covid-19 lockdowns — “Parable” appeared on the New York Times bestseller list for the first time, 27 years after publication.

Butler didn’t live to see the renewed interest in her ninth novel — she died in 2006 — but she indicated that the issues faced by the characters in “Parable” and by the United States today were inevitable…

ALSO OF INTEREST . . .

TED-Ed (02-25-2019):
Why should you read sci-fi superstar Octavia E. Butler?

Much science fiction features white male heroes who blast aliens or become saviors of brown people. Octavia E. Butler knew she could tell a better story. She built stunning worlds rife with diverse characters, and brought nuance and depth to the representation of their experiences…

Storied – PBS (06-29-2021):
Octavia Butler, The Grand Dame of Science Fiction | It’s Lit

If you are a fan of science fiction a name you should be familiar with is Octavia E. Butler. One of the most prolific and important Black authors in the genre, Butler’s storytelling pushed the boundaries of what Black people were allowed to be in science fiction…Hosted by Lindsay Ellis and Princess Weekes..

EXHIBITION:

Hyde Park Art Center (Exhibit runs from 11-11-2023 through 03-03-2024):
Candace Hunter: The Alien‐Nations and Sovereign States of Octavia E Butler

In The Alien‐Nations and Sovereign States of Octavia E Butler, Candace Hunter presents new works created with synthetic plants, remnants of a sustainable food experiment, a reading nook, and painted doors as imagined portals to other worlds to create what she describes as an “alien lush space.” The exhibition addresses the concepts of nationhood. Candace Hunter poses questions about who is other, and in what situations do we see people as other to ourselves? How do we become universal?

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