Octavia Butler wrote 12 novels, each winning science fiction’s highest honors. She was the first female science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur “genius” fellowship.
In 2020, 14 years after his death, one of his novels, “The Parable of the Sower,” appeared for the first time on The New York Times bestseller list, a testament to how much readers still connect. with his writings today.
And much of that work was largely shaped by his life in California. Butler was born and went to school in Pasadena. His mother cleaned houses in the city’s wealthy neighborhoods, and Butler became a fixture in the Peter Pan Room, the children’s section of the elegant Pasadena Central Library. As an adult, she regularly traveled the Southland, scrutinizing the world around her and drawing on those observations for her own books.
“Southern California was really her inspiration,” said Lynell George, a Los Angeles-based journalist who wrote the book “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler.”
George recently wrote an article for The Times that allows readers to explore Butler’s universe, both through the author’s own words and through fascinating images of the places that made her. There are the shelves at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles and the seats on the bus where Butler spent hours sketching possible characters. Butler never learned to drive, so she was dependent on the city’s public transportation options.
“Los Angeles is so spread out that almost any bus ride will be long,” Butler once observed. “The timing was perfect for writing.”
To understand Butler’s life, George searched hundreds of file boxes at the Huntington Library in San Marino containing the author’s voluminous notebooks and meticulous research. In his notes, Butler had recorded the changing seasonal colors of the hills and mountains surrounding Pasadena, or how long it took random magnolia and pomegranate trees to grow abundantly with flowers or fruit. He even measured the growth of the trees year after year to gauge how well they were doing.
These close observations, coupled with an obsession with the news, gave Butler insight into the dangers of climate change, which played a central role in many of his novels. George’s reports have further revealed to him how much Butler was observing the natural world and learning from what he saw.
“Sometimes I’ll see an address scribbled in a notebook and she’ll comment on whether or not a particular tree will survive,” George said, adding that at least once she verified one of her predictions. “He was right: she wasn’t there.”
In recent years, Butler’s work has been experiencing a renaissance, as there are several ongoing film and television adaptations based on his fiction, including “Kindred,” her 1979 novel about a black woman who goes back in time to pre-war times, and her 2005 vampire novel, “Fledgling.” Her appearance on the Times Best Seller List in 2020 was a longtime dream of hers. In 2021, NASA named the Mars landing site for the Perseverance rover Octavia E. Butler Landing.
“It’s been quite a ride to see what happened, given all the things he expected and didn’t see in his life,” George told me. “That’s been magnificent and moving.”
what you get
For $3.5 million: a Spanish-style house in Los Angeles, a 1925 Mediterranean-style house in San Francisco, or a renovated 1978 retreat in Encinitas.
where are we traveling
Today’s tip comes from Andrew Carter, who lives in Hanford. Andrew recommends Carrizo Plain National Monument in rural San Luis Obispo County:
“In the spring it is unbelievably beautiful – green grass and wildflowers galore. Given the wet winter, this spring should be amazing with a potential super bloom of wildflowers. The national monument’s webpage provides a link to a weekly updated wildflower hotline during March, April and May.
The monument is beautiful year-round, not just during wildflower season, although it can get very hot in the summer. Depending on the time of year, Soda Lake may or may not have water. If not, you will see broad alkaline flat surfaces.
I camped at KCL Campground on Soda Lake Road one year during wildflower season. I was the only person in the camp. I watched sunset fall over the red, brown, and tan plain. Colors changed to gray and then black. Other than the driveway, there was no sign of a man. Such incredible tranquility and peace.
I have also hiked fields in the foothills on the west side of the plain and hiked the Caliente Mountain Ridge Trail up Caliente Mountain, which offers views east of the plain and south of the Cuyama Valley and Los Padres National Forest plus there. Bring plenty of water, especially for the ridge hike.
There are other trails to enjoy: the Painted Rock Trail to the Painted Rock Native American Cultural Site, the Travis Ranch Trail through the old Travers Ranch Farm, and the Wallace Creek Trail along the San Andreas Fault. Due to movement along the fault, the stream turns to the right and then to the left to cross it.
Clearly, there is a lot to see and do.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected] We will share more in future editions of the newsletter.
We are looking for recommendations on where to see the best art in California. What galleries have you visited over and over again? What exhibits do you insist on bringing all your out-of-town visitors?
Email us at [email protected] with your suggestions and a few lines about why this is your choice.
And before you go, good news
In 1992, Niffer Marie Desmond and her friend Caitlyn Meeks hosted a late-night radio show called “The Bucket Sisters” at UC Santa Cruz, where they were students. On the show, they played CDs that were stacked on a shelf in the campus studio.
One night, they came across a CD called “Lo Fidelity, Hi Anxiety” by Paul Allen Petroskey, whose artist name is Weird Paul.
Typically they would play a couple of songs from each CD. But this time, they played the entire album. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to see if I can find more of these, and I want to meet this guy,’” Desmond said.
But it would be another eight years, in 2006, before she finally found him on Myspace, or rather, he found her. In her profile, she had listed Weird Paul as one of her favorite musicians. Petroskey, who has released 33 albums, used a Myspace search tool to see who had listed him as his favorite musician. When Desmond’s profile came up, she decided to send him a friend request.
That Myspace connection was the first chapter of their love story. Another took place last month, when Desmond and Petroskey got married.
Read his full story in The Times.
Thank you for reading. Come back tomorrow. —Soumya
PS Here it is Today’s Mini Crossword.
Briana Scalia and Maia Coleman contributed to California Today. You can contact the team at [email protected].
Sign up here to receive this newsletter in your inbox.