Shortly after 10 am on Saturday, July 29, Lake Forest Park unveiled its honorary street for Octavia Butler, a writer who spent the last seven years of her life in the city between Kenmore and Seattle's Lake City. Butler moved here from Southern California in 1999. She bought a simple but cozy-looking house at the top of a hill and near three things she could not live without: a nearby bus stop, a nearby bookstore, and a nearby supermarket. The first is an easy 10-minute walk from Butler's final home. The second and third are about 25 minutes away. Going to all three is a cinch; returning, however, is not. It's an uphill journey. As Professor Shelia Liming points out in her superb 2016 essay "My Neighbor Octavia," Butler, like I, never learned to drive.
Liming, a scholar of the early 20th-century American novelist Edith Wharton, and author of Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time, and, though she currently lives and teaches in Vermont, a deep reader whose formative years were spent in a house surrounded by flowers and across the street from Octavia's, writes:
I would often pass Butler on her walks to and from the grocery store and would stop to offer her rides, which she didn’t always accept; she was an inveterate walker, and walking had even factored into her house purchase. She told me as much on one of the days that she consented to being driven the rest of the way up the hill.
Lake Forest Park actually did something. And it's impressive. And Seattle should wonder why it hasn't done something similar for, say, August Wilson, the greatest Black American playwright to ever walk this one and only world of ours. He spent his final 15 years in this city. He also wrote some of his final work in the Canterbury, one of Vanishing Seattle's most famous ghosts. I saw Wilson writing there with my own eyes. But enough of that. Let's get back to Butler.
Though primarily known as a science fiction writer, indeed there are aliens and spaceships in some of her novels and a number of her stories take place in a dystopian future or explore the possible direction a new technology might take, I see Butler primarily as a philosopher. One only has to compare her work to that of Donna Haraway for this point to be made evident. The latter's most famous essay, "A Cyborg Manifesto," blurs the line between what we perceive as us and not us, human and not human. The exact same can be said of Clay's Ark, the penultimate work in the Patternist series that launched Butler's career in 1976. (The novel was published around the same time—the mid-80s—as Haraway's groundbreaking manifesto.) In Clay's Ark, humans are infected by an alien microorganism that has, like all life on Earth, what Spinoza described as conatus.
Haraway, however, is plainly a philosopher, in the Foucauldian form of a social theorist; Butler, whose fiction also takes this philosophical form, is not. All that's seen in her novels is science fiction, which is why many can't stop pointing out that she was the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur grant. But philosophers don't just write in philosophy: they use dialogues, aphorisms, novels, manifestos, and even science fiction. The question then is: What comes first? The mode or the goal? An answer is provided when we ask a question at the heart of Deleuze and Guattari's last collaboration: What Is Philosophy? For Deleuze and Guattari it proved to be "the art of forming, inventing, and fabricating concepts." True, the "sciences, arts, and philosophies are all equally creative," but "only philosophy creates concepts in the strict sense." A deeper appreciation of Butler's genius and contributions is missed if we do not primarily (if not strictly) see her as a philosopher, as a brilliant creator of concepts.
In fact, Butler's most famous novel, Kindred, cannot even be described as science fiction. It has no aliens, no spaceships, and doesn't project the technologies or culture of its time into the future. Instead, it goes into the past, and there is no explanation for how this time-traveling works. It just happens. The novel's central character, Dana Franklin, a Black woman married to a white man, Kevin Franklin, inexplicably departs from her current time (the mid-70s) and place (Los Angeles) into a distant time (early 19th-century) and place (Maryland). The transportation involves her losing consciousness and regaining it on a plantation owned by one of her ancestors, Tom Weylin. The only explanation provided for the time travel is it's triggered by the slave owner's son, Rufus, a white boy who will grow up to be, by way of a rape, a part of Dana's blood. Dana always arrives in the past right when Rufus is in danger, when he is about to drown or be killed by fire. She rescues him, and, by this act, future herself.
Why is this philosophy? Because it presents a concept of time, or more close, the past that's entirely original. (Deleuze and Guattari: "The object of philosophy is to create concepts that are always new.") The suddenness of time travel may not make sense to a person confined to the realism first formalized by Newton and completed by Einstein. Butler's picture of reality, of time travel, makes sense only in a universe where an effect may not have a direct or logically consistent cause. And such is the case with the time travel in Kindred. Its apparent cause, Rufus' near-death experiences, may explain why it happens, but not how. In this way, the novel's time travel is much closer to the counterintuitive features we find in the quantum realm.
It is fair to argue that the concept of Kindred could only be conceived in a culture that has, to some measure, absorbed and extended the conclusions of what is now known, for good and for bad, as the Copenhagen interpretation of the behavior of fundamental stuff. Dana jumps from the present to the past in a manner that recalls quantum entanglement and tunneling. You will not find a match for this kind of time-jumping in classical mechanics. Kindred was, after all, completed around the time the last great discoveries were made in physics. And Butler read everything. Her mind was a university.
Now, let's go to the sun. The light of the sun. How does it come about? Proton-proton fusion. But there is a big problem with this proton sequence, which transforms hydrogen into helium: a lot of energy is needed to make the protons, which have the same charges, overcome what is called Coulomb repulsion. Let's avoid the details and get right to it: for two protons to couple, they have to be close enough for one of the known forces, the strong force, to kick in. But if this does not happen, if they do not have this energy—and our sun really doesn't—then the photon-releasing union will not happen. Meaning, there will be no light, the energy that makes life, us, and all that is like us (messmates and beyond), possible. So, how does the sun burn if, like other stars, it doesn't have the needed energy to overwhelm Coulomb repulsion? The answer is found in the magic of quantum tunneling, a process that is as sudden and inexplicable as Dana Franklin's time traveling.
That great ball in the sky is driven by quantum mechanics. What happens is: there's so much hydrogen sloshing around in its hyper-hot core, that the probability of a proton being here and then suddenly there, beyond Coulomb barrier, is possible and happens plenty enough. This is quantum tunneling. Most times the mechanics of particles collapses into classical mechanics; but sometimes (and this sometimes is not much at all) it does not. But from the very small comes the very large: flowers, birds, apes, whales, and more and more. We are entangled. The Heisenberg cut is indeterminable. And this indeterminacy can only lead us to John Wheeler's participatory universe.
"The universe does not exist 'out there,' independent of us. We are inescapably involved in bringing about that which appears to be happening.— Jacques Keel (@Fortean777) March 8, 2023
We are not only observers. We are participators. In some strange sense, this is a participatory universe."
- John Archibald Wheeler pic.twitter.com/z904bCcF8P
When we look at the stars, we do not just look into the past, but we participate in its creation. This is not mystical nonsense. Memory works in the same. Remembering is also a creative process. And this is the concept we find in Kindred.