In their current exhibition, “Shaper of God,” on view at REDCAT in Los Angeles through October 2, American Artist probes the life of science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006). Both Butler and Artist grew up in the nearby town of Pasadena, and the show highlights how the novelist’s imagined worlds were shaped by the environment they shared. The show includes two sculptures based on bus stops as they would have looked when Butler traveled from Pasadena to LA—the author never drove, she took the bus her whole life—alongside tracings Artist made of documents from her archive, housed at the Huntington Library in San Marino. One is a ca. 1993 note card on which Butler makes a prediction about Los Angeles in the 2020s, anticipating it will have more walled communities. Artist, who is based in New York and teaches at Yale, spoke with science fiction scholar Lou Cornum, a post-doctoral fellow at Wesleyan University, about how the imagining of other worlds is so often born of dissatisfaction with present and past ones.
AMERICAN ARTIST Octavia Butler and I went to the same high school. This got me thinking about what the Pasadena area means—socially, historically. My experience of the place came 50 years later, but seeing the same institutions—like Caltech and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory—informed my thinking about what it means to aspire toward something like a scientifically engaged practice.
The centerpiece of my show is a wall that divides the space. It’s based on a wall that [protagonist] Lauren Olamina describes in Butler’s book Parable of the Sower ; the wall protects the cul-de-sac she lives in. In the book, [which is set in the United States in 2024, after climate change and wealth inequality render it barely habitable] every neighborhood has its own defensive wall. I wanted to bring that to life in the gallery. Around that wall, there are some sculptures and reproductions of things I found in Butler’s archive that speak not only to how she imagined the future, but also to her lived experience.
LOU CORNUM I often describe Butler as a theorist of power, because she is so interested in hierarchy. But your work also prompted me to consider her as a geographic theorist as well—she is always reflecting on changing landscapes. The wall is reminiscent not only of the wall in Parable of the Sower, but also of the border wall and of prison walls. I’ve been reading Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s Golden Gulag , a book about the explosion of mass incarceration and prison building in Southern California. The state’s prison population increased more than sevenfold between the 1980s and the mid-aughts. Butler was writing right in the middle of that, and you can sense this in her gated communities, as well as in the other forms of enclosure that she describes.
ARTIST I love that you describe her as a theorist of power. Often, she would push against the reductive label of “science fiction,” because she was really doing something much bigger—she was capturing and observing how various racial, social, and wealth dynamics play out. She described herself as a “news junkie.” Really, she was extrapolating from what she saw going on around her.
I was definitely thinking about geography—the show includes a video, The Arroyo Seco , about a stream that runs between Altadena, Pasadena, and La Cañada Flintridge. The stream has become degraded by parties like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Both Pasadena and Altadena want to claim the Arroyo Seco, but the video points out that it belonged to the Tongva people first. I’m showing the film on a window-like wall, referencing the home of a wealthy family in Parable of the Sower. Neighbors would watch the news through a window, from outside the rich peoples’ house.
Often, natural resources become politicized, and can then be used to leverage power against different communities—usually Black, brown, or native—who are moved into areas that are subject to pollution or that have less proximity to certain resources. All these things come up in Butler’s writing about walling off communities, which was informed by segregation in the city that she grew up in.
CORNUM This is particular to California, but also reminds me of the landscapes I grew up with in central Arizona; I’m familiar with water scarcity, and with extractive industries, like copper mining. California is interesting because it is so central to the American utopic imaginary—LA is the dream machine! There’s CalTech and rocket science! You see those tensions in Parable of the Sower: Lauren is wandering through this dystopic landscape, yet she has a real utopic hope of humanity taking to the stars. She toggles between utopia and dystopia; both emerge from the same place.
ARTIST I struggle with that—so much of Butler’s work is about coming together in a time of dystopia. I feel this in the communities that I find myself a part of, where Black, brown, queer, and Indigenous people are trying to create spaces that feel viable in the face of all we are dealing with. But the utopia her Parables imagine involves going to the stars, which I find hard to reconcile.
In Parable of the Talents , as Lauren watches the first rocket ship leave Earth for the starship, which is named Christopher Columbus, she objects to the name and says the ship is not about a shortcut to riches and empire. It is not about snapping up slaves and gold and presenting them to some European monarch. You talk about this in your essay “Resurfaced Fragments from the Interplanetary Conference of Colonial Prehistorians on the Millennial of Christopher Columbus’s Voyage to the Old New World.”
CORNUM I’ve thought a lot about the ending of Parable of the Talents! It shows that things that bring people together can also be really harmful. Butler says as much regarding a separate story, “The Monophobic Response” : she asks whether humans would unite if we were invaded by aliens. Would responding to an outside threat cause people to put aside all their deeply ingrained differences for a common cause?
She wrote Parable of the Sower 500 years after 1492. With that quincentenary in mind, Sylvia Wynter wrote “1492: A New World View,” prompting people to consider New World contact not just as something that occurred between the white explorer and the Indigenous subject, but that prepared the way for enslaved Africans to be brought to the Americas. I wrote about Octavia Butler in my dissertation because I was interested in under-considered entanglements between Black and Indigenous people in the US. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the ship involved in what she calls “space colonization” is named Columbus. Racism and colonialism are always entangled, especially in the US, and Butler doesn’t separate them. Yes, she was prophetic, but it’s not like she had some magical power that is inaccessible to everyone else. She was just a student of history. When you study history deeply, you’re better able to understand the present and extrapolate what might happen next.
In 2008, the European Space Agency launched Columbus, which is now the largest science lab on the International Space Station. That kind of shameless glorification of colonization looks exactly like what Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are doing now. They imagine life on Mars as being good for all of humanity, but really, it stands to benefit a very small group of people—namely, them.
ARTIST Butler definitely helped start a conversation about how Black and Native people are similarly impacted by colonialism. She was always writing about people of many different backgrounds, exploring how their different ethnicities and power dynamics play out in complicated ways. In Kindred , she describes different classes of Black people who are enslaved on one plantation. Part of why she is able to write in a nuanced way about all these different identities is, I think, because the neighborhood we both grew up in is very diverse. It was a Spanish colony, and the way that racism exists there is not just a Black and white issue. It is Asian, it’s Latinx, it’s Indigenous. That’s not something that all Black writers address.
As I think about what it means to try to imagine a future as an artist, I find myself starting with these really fraught points in history, then trying to invert them. It’s hard to imagine something completely new. Do you think imagination always starts as a response to frustrating moments in history, or is it possible to dream up things that are entirely new?
CORNUM That’s exactly what draws me to science fiction. Butler said that, with the genre, she felt there was no human relation that she couldn’t explore. Science fiction presents the challenge to think of something new, but really, it often creates a future that is a strange version of the present, offering a critique of the way things are. This gets coupled with experiments in world-building. Sci-fi provides the chance to play things out and explore the domino effects. There are drafts of Parable of the Trickster—maybe you came across them in the archive. It would have been the third book in the series, but it was never finished. Butler tried out various scenarios, imagining the different ways things might play out when we actually get to the Moon or Mars. Many of them end terribly. She’d say she was a pessimist, and if she wasn’t careful, she’d keep finding endings that revolve around the destructive tendencies of humans. She finds herself asking, what if we did become an interplanetary species, but were still stuck with our hierarchies? I wonder if she felt that Parable of the Trickster reached the limits of “what if.”
The story “Bloodchild”  has plenty of relationships involving domination, but a new kind of interaction between humans and aliens also emerges: they mate, as they do in Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy [1987–89]. I find this account of the creation of new things to be some of her most hopeful writing. Humans need an encounter with radical difference in order to generate new forms of relating to each other. It’s not a happy process, but revolutionary change involves sacrifice. She takes it to the extreme—the change isn’t just social, but biological. That makes me wonder, how far do we have to go to realize something truly new?
ARTIST I sometimes crave science fiction that might help us imagine a society where people aren’t, say, punitive and carceral. I don’t mean stories that are ignorant of these problems, but ones that ask, what if we didn’t have this history? Whereas I think Butler’s work sees these power dynamics as intrinsic to humanity.
What did you think about NASA recently naming their Mars rover touchdown site the Octavia E. Butler Landing?
CORNUM It’s cool to see so many people engaging her work these days, but I worry if that was the tipping point. What does it mean for NASA, which is so intertwined with the military-industrial complex, to co-opt her utopic visions? I want her to be a celebrated figure, but at what cost?
ARTIST I’m also excited that she is being celebrated, but it’s scary to watch the things she warned against unfold, then get named after her. It’s odd that they were able to make her seem aligned with something we know she was fundamentally opposed to. I also worry that people just get excited about space and aliens, and about this Black woman sci-fi writer, without realizing that her stories are really hard and painful.
CORNUM Her growing popularity is all the more reason why we need guidance in reading her, so I’m glad your exhibition explores where she’s coming from and what she is speaking to. She wasn’t just this once-in-a-lifetime clairvoyant thinker, but someone responding to a specific context.
—Moderated by Emily Watlington