The Worlds of the ‘Remarkably Prescient’ Octavia Butler

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Veronica Chambers, the editor of Narrative Projects at The New York Times, was stunned when she first encountered the work of the pioneering science fiction writer Octavia Butler.

Ms. Chambers, then a high school student growing up in Brooklyn, marveled at how, while other authors in the genre were writing about aliens, Ms. Butler was crafting slavery narratives mixed with fantastical elements like time travel and supernatural possession. So in January 2022, when Ms. Chambers was planning story ideas for the coming year, doing a special project for the 75th anniversary of Ms. Butler’s birth was at the top of her list.

“She was remarkably prescient,” Ms. Chambers said of Ms. Butler, who became the first science fiction writer to be awarded a MacArthur fellowship, in 1995. “The issues she was writing about 30 years ago — like what happens if the world gets too hot, if the oceans overtake us, wildfires — are still the issues of today.”

The result is an interactive piece that was published online last week and appears in the Arts & Leisure print section this weekend. It examines key locations and moments from Ms. Butler’s life — she died in 2006 at age 58 — and how they shaped her writing, particularly in areas that continue to affect our world.

The project was built by a team of nearly a dozen artists, designers, editors and writers over nine months. It provides 3-D views of sites like the Los Angeles Central Library, where Ms. Butler spent much of her early years as an aspiring writer; the inside of a 1970s-era municipal bus similar to the one she would have daydreamed on during rides in her hometown, Pasadena, Calif.; and even views of the surface of Mars captured by the Perseverance Rover at the landing site that was named after her in 2021 in honor of her contributions to science fiction.

“We wanted to straddle the line between people who love Octavia Butler and know her work well, and the vast number of readers for whom this will be an introduction to her,” Ms. Chambers said.

Ms. Chambers began working on the project in February, when she traveled from London, where she is based, to California to visit the Huntington, a library and research institution that holds a collection of Ms. Butler’s papers. She was accompanied by the journalist and historian Lynell George, who published a book in 2020, “A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky: The World of Octavia E. Butler,” that explores the origins of Ms. Butler’s writing. Ms. George wrote the text for the Times article.

Ms. George’s biggest challenge was distilling her hundreds of pages of notes and research into one article.

“I wanted to weave together the biographical elements with specific works, so you could see how these specific moments in her life shaped her writing,” Ms. George said.

Ms. Chambers and Ms. George worked with Alice Fang and Antonio de Luca, two editors on the Graphics team, to select the sites and moments that would underscore major themes of Ms. Butler’s life and work, such as her resilience — Ms. Butler’s mother couldn’t afford to buy her books, but she brought home tattered castoffs from the white families whose houses she cleaned — and the visionary nature of her work.

Ainslee Alem Robson, a media artist, captured thousands of photos, at multiple angles, at sites using her smartphone or a DSLR camera, and then used reconstruction software to recreate them as 3-D models, a process known as photogrammetry.

The team had to come up with inventive ways to capture many of the environments: Marcelle Hopkins, a visual editor for Special Projects, tracked down a 1973 municipal bus for sale in New Jersey. Another scene in the interactive article depicts the dust-specked surface of Mars. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory shared 3-D models and images from the Mars rover at the landing site named after Ms. Butler.

“It’s incredible because this is the real library, the real bus, the actual landscape of Mars,” Mr. de Luca said. “They’re created from photos of the real material.”

Ms. Robson sent her models to Danny DeBelius, a graphics and multimedia editor, who devised a flipbook-style tool that allows readers to scroll through each location on unique virtual paths, stopping to explore as they wish.

The visual representation of Ms. Butler’s book “Kindred” was the most challenging, Ms. Robson said. She wanted to illustrate the interracial relationship at the heart of the novel, so she had the idea to photograph the interlinked arms of her own parents, her Ethiopian mother and white father, and then place that image in the middle of a cotton field. However, during the novel, the left arm of the female protagonist, Dana, is severed.

“Something inside me was like, ‘I can’t just cut my mom’s arm off,’” Ms. Robson said, “because then it feels like racism would be winning.”

Instead, she opted to employ a center camera path that allows readers to pass through her parents’ arms without severing them. The visual then tracks through the cotton plants of America’s racial history.

Ultimately, Ms. Chambers said, she hopes the project allows people to connect to Ms. Butler — not just as an award-winning writer, but as a human being.

“You don’t have to like sci-fi to identify with a woman working side jobs to try to make her dreams come true,” she said.