Perseverance named its Martian landing spot after this incredible author6 min readReading Time: 4 minutes
On Feb 18, 2021, the world rejoiced as the Perseverence rover landed on Mars in Jezero Crater. The site of the touchdown was named Octavia E. Butler Landing. But who is she? Octavia Butler. Butler was a prolific writer who rose to fame in the 1970’s for her works depicting African American women as protagonists in science fiction stories, often set on Mars! She wrote at a time when there were very few Black women among science fiction authors and is often credited with pioneering Afrofuturism, a genre that explores the meeting of African diaspora culture and technology.
Octavia E. Butler
Octavia E. Butler was the only child born in 1947 to a widowed mother who worked as a domestic help in Pasadena, California. Back then, America was a racially-segregated country, and when Octavia accompanied her mother to the homes she worked in, she witnessed first-hand, the judgments and harsh treatment given to African Americans. She saw employers using racial slurs against her mother, and that she and her mother were required to enter their employers’ homes through the back door. This impacted her greatly, and racial inequality would later become an underlying thread in a lot of her works.
Octavia was also a shy kid, had dyslexia— a condition that causes some difficulty in reading text— and so, was bullied at school. She felt awkward and like she didn’t fit-in. Around this time, she took to reading and quickly found comfort in books and stories, often indulging in works of science fiction by authors like John Brunner, Zenna Henderson and Ted Sturgeon.
Butler started writing at the age of ten on a typewriter her mother bought for her, and she hoped to become a writer when she grew up. She would face many obstacles in attaining her goal but as a child, she aspired to be like the authors whose works she loved.
She continued to write in her college years, working during the day and attending classes at night. In one of the writing workshops she attended, the famous science fiction writer, Harlan Ellison, took to her work and encouraged her to attend the prestigious Clarion Workshop for Science Fiction Writers in Pennsylvania.
She spent the next five years working on a trilogy of novels that allowed to stop working odd jobs and earn a steady income. These were the Patternist novels that put her work in the limelight. In 1984 and 1985, almost thirty years after she began writing, Butler won the Hugo and Locus awards for her work on Bloodchild. These are two of the most prestigious awards given to science fiction authors and were an annual occurrence. With these awards, Butler gained widespread recognition and respect for her work.
Butler continued to use science fiction, and the exploration of new worlds like Mars, to show how poverty and differences in skin colour impacted people and how climate change could cause great harm to life as we know it. She passed away on February 24, 2006 but her works have continued to generate interest as they got adapted into movies and TV shows.
But why did NASA name the landing spot after her?
When NASA planned to launch another mission to Mars, they had a campaign asking students in schools across America to send them names for the new Mars rover. From 28,000 entries, NASA selected the name Perseverence, sent in by 7th grade student, Alexander Mather, because of his note:
Curiosity. InSight. Spirit. Opportunity. If you think about it, all of these names of past Mars rovers are qualities we possess as humans. We are always curious, and seek opportunity. We have the spirit and insight to explore the Moon, Mars, and beyond. But, if rovers are to be the qualities of us as a race, we missed the most important thing. Perseverance. We as humans evolved as creatures who could learn to adapt to any situation, no matter how harsh. We are a species of explorers, and we will meet many setbacks on the way to Mars. However, we can persevere. We, not as a nation but as humans, will not give up. The human race will always persevere into the future.Alexander Mather
It was this quality of persevering despite the odds, that made NASA look to artists, creators and writers that inspired the men and women that built the rover itself. And for many of them, Octavia Butler’s work stood out as the champion of the overlooked, the marginalized and the underdogs. When announcing the naming of the landing site, a scientist at NASA 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 underrepresented in STEM fields.”
Where do I begin with science fiction?
If you are interested in reading science fiction, and particularly the works of Octavia E. Butler, you can start by reading Butler’s Hugo Award winning short story Bloodchild for free here.
(The SciBorg is a science-fiction column)
Author’s Note: Aishwarya has lived in books since she was an eight-year-old pretending to be Nancy Drew. She suffered a great disappointment when told that Hogwarts didn’t send her any letters at age 11, the backs of wardrobes lead to nowhere (no matter how long she sat inside one) and that it is impossible to speak to animals (although she thinks her dogs come closer to human speech with every passing day).