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Sci-Fi Writer Octavia Butler Offered Warnings And Hope In Her Work

NOEL KING, HOST:

Octavia Butler seemed almost to belong to the future. She was the first Black woman to receive the Nebula and Hugo Awards. Those are the highest honors in science fiction and fantasy writing. She was the first science fiction writer to win a MacArthur genius grant. She was prolific and prophetic from the 1970s until her death in 2006. Here's Laine Kaplan-Levenson from NPR's history show Throughline.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

OCTAVIA BUTLER: I don't recall ever having wanted desperately to be a Black woman science fiction writer. I wanted to be a writer.

LAINE KAPLAN-LEVENSON, BYLINE: Octavia Butler resisted labels all of her life.

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BUTLER: And my attitude was I am a Black woman and if it doesn't come out in the stories, I can't imagine why. It's there, so it's not something I'm focusing on. It's just there. It's part of - it's me.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: But her work complicated traditional power structures and centered marginalized voices, so the labels persisted. She was Octavia, the feminist; Octavia, the Afro futurist; Octavia, the radical. And then one of her most famous books released in 1993 brought her a whole new reputation on a whole other level - Octavia the prophet.

AYANA JAMIESON: So "Parable Of The Sower" is actually a book that was written where the protagonist, Lauren Oya Olamina, is this girl who lives in this place called Robledo.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: This is Ayana Jamieson, founder and director of the Octavia Butler Legacy Network.

JAMIESON: She is about 15 years old, turning 16 in this book, so it's a coming-of-age novel.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: But this isn't your "Catcher In The Rye" or To-Kill-A-Mockingbird type of coming-of-age story. "Parable Of The Sower" is your the-apocalypse-is-right-now coming-of-age story. No aliens, no time travel, simply a teenage girl in the year 2024 watching society crumble before her very eyes and desperate to find a way to survive. And what was Octavia's inspiration for the story? The news.

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RONALD REAGAN: Welfare is another of our major problems. We are a humane and generous...

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Octavia lived in California for most of her life and had watched the state's political course lean more and more conservative. In the '70s, when she was starting her career, Ronald Reagan was governor...

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REAGAN: We accept without reservation our obligation to help the disabled, the aged.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: ...A man who, even before he was president, was pretty open about being against the idea of people funding the government, aka taxes, and government funding the people.

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REAGAN: But we are not going to perpetuate poverty by substituting a permanent dole for a paycheck.

(APPLAUSE)

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Reagan would go on to become president in 1981 and repeated his - yes, his - famous campaign slogan when he accepted the nomination as the Republican candidate.

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REAGAN: For those who've abandoned hope, we'll restore hope and we'll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Which, by the way, is also the slogan of the president in the "Parable" series. Behind her typewriter, Octavia was paying close attention to where the country was headed and what the government was and wasn't willing to pay for.

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BUTLER: We were getting to that point where we were more - were thinking more about the building of prisons than of schools and libraries.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: What happens when another group in society gets cut off and then another group and another? Who survives?

JAMIESON: What if there was no garbage collection? What if the fire department didn't come when your house started to burn down? What if the police only took bribes to look for your loved ones when they got snatched? What if you couldn't go to the hospital? What if there is no gasoline? What if water became scarce? And that's what "Parable Of The Sower" is.

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BUTLER: Things have just carried on and slowly run down. There's no particular hideous disaster to account for it. A little like the Soviet Union, but since we have farther to fall, it hurts more when we hit bottom. And in "Parable Of The Sower," we hit bottom.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: By the year 2024, Southern California and much of the nation has become a wasteland.

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BUTLER: Society is pretty much broken. People are living in walled communities and risking their lives whenever they go out. There are a lot of reasons for this - drugs, of course, and deterioration of public education. They're problems now. They become disasters because they're not attended to.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Everyone has guns. No one has jobs. And things like TV, computers, phones, those are luxuries of the past.

JAMIESON: And to top it all off, global warming is basically a character.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUTLER: I want to talk about what's going to happen if we keep doing what we've been doing, if we keep recklessly endangering the environment, if we keep paying no attention to economic realities, if we keep paying no attention to educational needs, if we keep doing a lot of the things that are hurting us now. And that's what I wound up writing about, and everything else just kind of fell into place.

JAMIESON: You know, the world that she's depicting in "Parable Of The Sower," it feels so much like that's what we're experiencing now.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Do you think she saw herself as prophetic?

JAMIESON: Oh, absolutely not. She did not predict the future. She observed what was happening around her, and then she extrapolated from what she knew.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BUTLER: I hope they're not prophecy because I don't want to live in that world.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: Prophet or not, "Parable Of The Sower" might feel a little too real, especially right now, but at the end of the day, Ayana still sees Octavia's work as a beacon of hope.

JAMIESON: There are always this open-ended possibility that even if things look bleak right where we're standing, that there is another way to be in this world. And that's what I find so healing and so transformational.

KAPLAN-LEVENSON: And so what does it mean for people like Ayana who come after Octavia?

JAMIESON: She was there. She was present, and she pretty much opened doors for the rest of us. It makes me feel like I'm part of history. I'm part of the future, and I am my ancestors' wildest dreams. She dreamed me up in a way. You know, she's allowed me to do work that even my grandparents couldn't have envisioned for one of their relatives.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMTIN ARABLOUEI'S "BUTLER")

KING: That was Ayana Jamieson talking to producer Laine Kaplan-Levenson. The full Throughline episode is really good. I listened to it over the weekend. Find it wherever you normally get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMTIN ARABLOUEI'S "BUTLER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.