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May/June 2021
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Letter from the Editor: All That You Touch
by Sheree Renée Thomas

When Octavia E. Butler told us in her 1993 novel, Parable of the Sower, that "all that You touch, You change," I wonder if she knew just how much her words would change her readers and perhaps the very world we are now living in.

After all, Octavia was writing about deep, significant personal and societal change. This change was hard, challenging work on multiple levels, not just for Parable's protagonist and nascent visionary young leader, the courageous but flawed empath, Lauren Oya Olamina, but also for the larger community that had to face insurmountable opposition in a swiftly changing world.

Today people speak of Ms. Butler, a teacher and a friend to many, including myself, as a kind of science fictional prophetic oracle. There are T-shirts and saintly candles, wondrous paintings and amazing art, and perhaps one day very soon, even a big screen Hollywood film, but she would probably tell you quite plainly that she was neither a prophet nor a saint. She was a supremely skilled writer, a brilliant thinker, with a beautiful voice and a wonderful laugh. She was a watcher who watched the watchers and she researched her fictional worlds meticulously, keeping copious notes which, if you are lucky, you can read for yourself in her considerable archives in California. Octavia had keenly observed the world around her in the 1980s and '90s, writing a tale that was an extrapolation of the very real-world current events of her time.

In Parable of the Sower, Butler wrote a novel set in a time when an extremist US presidential hopeful threatened the remaining comfort left to a privileged few, as widespread environmental devastation and astonishing economic collapse destabilized Western imperialist nations. Amidst this political upheaval, families of all backgrounds huddled in walled neighborhoods designed to keep trouble out, while keeping organized shifts to watch and protect themselves overnight. No one dared venture out except to garner the essentials. Instead, they worked outside their homes only one day a week to avoid risk, to avoid danger.

Though the novel and its sequel, Parable of the Talents (1998), were published nearly three decades ago, they seem like they could have been written yesterday. It is the uncanny vision of the late speculative fiction writer as told in her incomplete trilogy (Parable of the Trickster was a work-in-progress when she died in 2006) that inspires so many today. Butler's story begins here, but it is by no means where it ends.

In Parable of the Sower, when neighborhood walls finally fall, people form an eclectic, rag tag community and, together, try to figure out how to survive. There is a shared and ever-shifting understanding of the nature of change, social, environmental, intergenerational, and the experience of marginalization and difference. The leaders of a new, emergent "nation" are not biological family but chosen family. They are disabled and multiethnic of various heritages, all Americans, forming an intergenerational collective. Naturally, they come with very different ideas about how to move forward, a philosophical struggle that both aids and challenges their continued, shared survival. These characters are motivated by the strong words of Butler's main heroine who emerges in the novels, Olamina. While the books are filled with numerous gems, the Earthseed yielded the most powerful and fruitful wise words that continue to inspire to this very day:


"All that you touch
you Change. All that you Change
Changes you."


For our summer issue, I knew I wanted to honor Octavia E. Butler, because she was born on June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, California, born to another Octavia, her mother. The 'E" in Ms. Butler's name is for Estelle, and it is the main way she distinguished herself from her namesake. I think it is fitting to celebrate Octavia E. Butler at this time. She is the first science fiction writer to be named a MacArthur Award Winner, and the first African American to win both the Nebula and the Hugo. Octavia, who is considered by many readers, writers, scholars, and educators as the "Mother of Black Science Fiction," is a wonderful writer to remember at a time when we are celebrating Mother's Day and Father's Day and all the other people who have guided and/or protected us in our lives.

For me, she is a bright light in an infinite sky full of wondrous stars. I'm so thrilled that NASA also agrees, for they have announced that the Red Planet locale where their Perseverance rover touched down in February is now called Octavia E. Butler Landing, in honor of the writer "who emphasized diversity in tales of alternate realities and far-out futures."

NASA deputy project scientist for Perseverance, Kathryn Stack Morgan, said, "Butler's protagonists embody determination and inventiveness, making her a perfect fit for the Perseverance rover mission and its theme of overcoming challenges. Butler inspired and influenced the planetary science community and many beyond, including those typically under-represented in STEM fields."

I think Octavia would be truly thrilled with this amazing honor, to see that her work has made such a significant impact on our world, to see that the words she wrote have now taken her name and her story straight to the stars beyond to where her writing journey began, Mars. When asked how and why she began writing science fiction, a field that was once thought not to be of interest to Black readers or writers, Ms. Butler responded by saying that she had watched a terrible 1954 film, Devil Girl from Mars, and upon finishing it she announced that she could write better than that. She could and she did! And I am so grateful. In Parable of the Sower, Octavia wrote, "All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change." With a remarkable work ethic, perseverance, talent, and vision, Octavia E. Butler helped change a whole field of writing, a world of readers. Her words continue to touch us all, and for this gift, she will always be remembered.

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