Diving Into Octavia Butler’s World in Southern California

Credit…Joshua Trujillo/, via Associated Press

Octavia Butler wrote 12 novels and won each of science fiction’s highest honors. She was the first science fiction writer to be awarded a MacArthur “genius” grant.

In 2020, 14 years after her death, one of her novels, “Parable of the Sower,” appeared on The New York Times’s best-seller list for the first time, a testament to how much readers still connect with her writing today.

And much of that work was greatly shaped by her life in California. Butler was born and went to school in Pasadena. Her mother cleaned houses in the city’s wealthy neighborhoods, and Butler became a fixture at the Peter Pan Room, the children’s section of the elegant Pasadena Central Library. As an adult, she regularly traveled across the Southland, scrutinizing the world around her and drawing on those observations for her books.

“Southern California was really her inspiration,” said Lynell George, a journalist based in Los Angeles who wrote the book “A Handful of Earth, A Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler.”

George recently wrote a piece for The Times that allows readers to explore Butler’s universe, both through the author’s own words but also through mesmerizing images of the places that made her. There are the stacks at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles and the bus seats where Butler spent hours making sketches of potential characters. Butler never learned to drive, so she relied on the city’s public transportation options.

“Los Angeles is so spread out that almost any bus ride will be a long one,” Butler once observed. “The time proved perfect for writing.”

To understand Butler’s life, George dug through hundreds of boxes of archives at the Huntington Library in San Marino that contain the author’s voluminous notebooks and meticulous research. In her notes, Butler had recorded the changing seasonal colors of the hills and mountains surrounding Pasadena, or how long it took for random magnolia and pomegranate trees to grow heavy with blooms or fruit. She even measured the trees’ growth year to year to gauge how well they were doing.

These close observations, along with an obsession with the news, gave Butler insight into the dangers of climate change, which played a central role in many of her novels. George’s reporting has further revealed to her just how much Butler was observing the natural world, and learning from what she saw.

“Sometimes I will see an address scribbled in a notebook, and she’s commented on whether or not a particular tree was going to survive,” George said, adding that at least once she had checked on one of her predictions. “She was right: It was not there.”

For the past few years, Butler’s work has been experiencing something of a renaissance, as there are several ongoing TV and film adaptations based on her fiction, including “Kindred,” her 1979 novel about a Black woman who is yanked back in time to the antebellum, and her 2005 vampire novel, “Fledgling.” Her Times best-seller list appearance in 2020 was a longtime dream of hers. In 2021, NASA named the Mars landing site for the Perseverance rover the Octavia E. Butler Landing.

More on California

  • Covid State of Emergency: The state’s coronavirus emergency declaration, which gave Gov. Gavin Newsom broad powers to slow the spread of the virus, is set to expire on Feb. 28.
  • In the Wake of Tragedy: California is reeling after back-to-back mass shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay.
  • Fast-Food Industry: A law creating a council with the authority to set wages and improve the conditions of fast-food workers was halted after business groups submitted enough signatures to place the issue before voters next year.
  • Medical Misinformation: A federal judge has temporarily blocked enforcement of a new law allowing regulators to punish doctors for spreading false or misleading information about Covid-19.

“It’s been quite a ride watching what has happened, given all the things she was hoping for that she didn’t see in her lifetime,” George told me. “That’s been magnificent and poignant.”

For more:

  • Read George’s story.

  • Butler died in 2006. Read her obituary.

  • A guide to her works.

Credit…Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

The rest of the news

  • Tuition bill: A proposed bill would create a five-year pilot program to allow low-income students who live in Mexico, within 45 miles of the California border, to pay in-state tuition to attend one of seven campuses in the San Diego and Imperial Valley County Community College Association, The Los Angeles Times reports.

  • Kamala Harris: Even Harris’s allies are tired of waiting for her to define her vice presidency.


  • P-22: Wildlife officials and representatives from the Los Angeles region’s tribal communities are debating what to do with the remains of P-22, the famed Los Angeles mountain lion who died late last year, The Associated Press reports.

  • Huntington Park: Officers in Huntington Park are facing national backlash after footage revealed that they fatally shot a man who had recently had both of his legs amputated and was using a wheelchair, and appeared to be fleeing, The Guardian reports.

  • Orange County killing: Vanroy Evan Smith, a 39-year-old Long Beach man, was charged on Friday with murder in the stabbing of a doctor who was riding his bicycle on the Pacific Coast Highway, The Orange County Register reports.


  • Mojave sheep: Proposals to build a high-speed electric rail and revive a long-dead solar project in the Mojave National Preserve have led to a clash with conservationists over how best to protect the region’s bighorn sheep populations, The Los Angeles Times reports.


  • Power-tool crime wave: The Oakland police said they saw an uptick in armed robberies of power tools over the past four months, and officers investigated four of the robberies in January alone, making two arrests, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

  • Reservoir: San Francisco captured more than a year’s worth of water in just one month, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Credit…Sam Chen/Aloha PhotoVideo, for Pacific Sotheby’s International Realty

What you get

For $3.5 million: A Spanish-style house in Los Angeles, a 1925 Mediterranean-style home in San Francisco or a renovated 1978 retreat in Encinitas.

Credit…Christopher Testani for The New York Times.

What we’re eating

Tall and creamy cheesecake.

Photographers at Carrizo Plain National Monument.Credit…George Rose/Getty Images

Where we’re traveling

Today’s tip comes from Andrew Carter, who lives in Hanford. Andrew recommends Carrizo Plain National Monument in rural San Luis Obispo County:

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to [email protected]. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

Tell us

We’re looking for recommendations for where to see the best art in California. What galleries have you visited over and over? Which exhibits do you insist on taking all out-of-town visitors?

Email us at [email protected] with your suggestions, and a few lines on why it’s your pick.

Credit…Christine Sadoy Photography

And before you go, some good news

In 1992, Niffer Marie Desmond and her friend Caitlyn Meeks hosted a late night radio show called “The Bucket Sisters” at U.C. Santa Cruz, where they were undergraduates. On the show, they played CDs that were stacked on a shelf in the campus studio.

One night, they stumbled upon 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 have 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. On her profile, she had listed Weird Paul as one of her favorite musicians. Petroskey, who has released 33 albums, had used a Myspace search tool to see those who had listed him as their favorite musician. When Desmond’s profile popped up, he decided to send her 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 their full story in The Times.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.

Briana Scalia and Maia Coleman contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].


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