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Issue 150

One Thing — Octavia E. Butler on Mars
by Coco Zhou

On February 18, 2021, a rover named Perseverance landed on Mars. Weeks later, NASA announced they had named the landing site after the late Octavia E. Butler, deeming her name a “perfect fit” for the mission since her protagonists “embody overcoming challenges.”1 Known for her contribution to Afrofuturism, Butler persistently addressed themes of racism, climate crisis, and capitalist exploitation of the working class in her books, starting in the ’70s, when science fiction largely shied away from social analysis of power. In the era of performative wokeness, NASA has appropriated Butler’s name to symbolically designate US territory on Mars, under the pretence of objective scientific interests. What can we make of this irony?

  • Aerial photograph of Perseverance landing site on Mars, later named after Octavia E. Butler

Made possible directly through the Cold War, the US space program has always been endowed with a frontier spirit echoing the civilizing missions of early modern colonists. Illustrating this desire for conquest is the iconic footage of Neil Armstrong planting the star-spangled banner into lunar ground against a vast, opaque void. The rovers Perseverance, Curiosity, and Opportunity embody this pioneering attitude in their names and in their mission to fulfil NASA’s objective of “maintaining a continuous scientific presence at Mars”2 —harking back to science’s primary role in the historical colonial enterprise as a tool for controlling and commercializing nature.3

Invested in cultivating a broad community for sharing its research, NASA has enlisted Butler’s name presumably to appeal to a public increasingly well informed and sensitive on topics of representation. NASA’s framing of Butler’s Black women protagonists reduces them to some kind of model minority success story, divorcing the Butlerian themes of adaptation and tenacity from their crucial contexts. For Lauren Oya Olamina, heroine of Butler’s Parable series released in the early ’90s, survival is a daily fight in her world, too familiar to many: a fire-ravaged California split into refugee enclaves as fascism and corporate towns take over the US. Refusing to be “God’s victim”4 —to remain passive in the face of oppression—Olamina creates a faith called Earthseed and gathers other refugees to achieve what she sees as humanity’s destiny: to “take root among the stars.”5

Given Butler’s environmentalist politics, she was likely envisioning a non-destructive kind of migration— if a literal one at all. In a 1999 interview, the author noted that outer-space settlement, “if we ever manage [it],” would require us first to develop “a sustainable way of life.”6 Wary of those who might capitalize on the technology of space travel, she emphasized that the “few rich people who can afford to cut themselves off” will do so, choosing to “disregard” the “lives of [their] fellow humans.”7 Still, as the ultimate test of adaptation, space settlement is a key conceptual device for Olamina as the leader of a religion whose “God is Change.”8 With her narratives of alien contact and species transformation, Butler invites us to be enthralled by space science and its implications for humanity—in a way markedly different from NASA’s PR campaigns. Honouring her legacy would mean indulging in this exercise of science fiction, while holding the weight of colonial history and the possibility of a radically different world.

Exemplified by Olamina, Butler’s heroines do not “embody overcoming challenges” before they are brutalized by systemic violence and become wholly altered by it. With Kindred (1979) and the Patternist series (1976–1984), Butler situated contemporary US race and gender relations in the wake of the transatlantic slave trade. More, by filtering this history through sci-fi elements like genetic modification and interspecies mergings, these books also offer a way to look at race as a structural component of how the human species is defined by modern biology. Insofar as science, and particularly space science, strives to produce a universal theory of life, Butler’s engagement with evolutionary tropes suggests that race always factors into such attempts, whether or not explicitly acknowledged.

As a nationalistic display of technoscientific prowess, NASA’s Mars Exploration Program has a research agenda that, on the surface, seems less politically charged: to evaluate the red planet’s “biological potential”—the likelihood that it has “hosted life.”9 Past tense is important, because the hypothesis is based on writings in the sand, so to speak: geological formations and the stories they tell. Scouring the rust-red terrain for traces of evaporated streams and subterranean ice, the rovers and the scientists operating them look for past water as a sign of bygone life. Trained in reading landscape features, physical geographers are essentially historians of the Earth’s surface; their eyes have become indispensable to the Mars missions because, as NASA emphasizes, Mars is a terrestrial planet that changes over time, “like Earth.”10 This analogy is what allows Earth scientists to put forth claims about Mars and its habitability.

If geological knowledge about Mars is rooted in the basic assumption that it looks and behaves “like Earth,” astrobiology—the hunt for alien life—similarly relies on what we think we know about earthlings. Science remains inconclusive on how life originated on a largely barren ancient Earth. Some believe the clue lies with extremophiles: semi-ancient microbes that thrive in environments inhospitable to most other life, such as deep-sea hydrothermal vents and sulphuric lakes. These unlikely habitats resemble the harsh conditions of Mars, making extremophiles attractive models or “analogues,” as astrobiologists would say.11 In the last two decades, research on extremophiles has already shifted how NASA scientists orient their search for Martian life, from “Follow the Water” to “Seek the Signs of Life,” as their approaches are identified on their website.12 While liquid water is still considered a key indicator, scientists now also look for life’s other “telltale signatures” on Mars,13 such as fossils or traces of gaseous bioproducts like ozone or methane.14 Framed through associations with particular life forms on Earth, astrobiology is limited by science’s assumptions about what constitutes life as a transcendent category, its boundaries redrawn with each so-called discovery. Biology’s definition of life, then, is similar to its past definitions of race: both culturally and historically contingent.

Though she had no say in being inscribed onto NASA’s map, Butler’s appearance on Mars has had the unintended side effect of reminding us about the colonizing impulse of space science and its biases, about the spectral presence of race in science’s universal claims about life and humankind. Butler thought of race as a force to be shaped: to be negotiated continuously rather than deemed irrelevant, as in utopian calls for a “post-racial” future. Imagining how Martian settlement would take place, Butler predicted it would take “microorganisms that […] meld the terrestrial species and the [Martian] species” in a symbiotic, mutually transformative manner, evoking the part-animal and cyborg humans in her fictive worlds15—suggesting a deep belief in the possibilities of ethical intersubjective exchange. “The only lasting truth is Change,”16 Olamina instructs in the scripture for Earthseed. It is only by committing to taking care of Earth and its peoples that we have a chance at becoming what Butler had hoped for Olamina’s starfaring descendants: humans “who’ve learned to live together, and […] to leave things at least as well-ordered as they found them.”17

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