When Neil Young & Devo Jammed Together: Watch Them Play “Hey Hey, My My” in a Clip from the 1982 Film Human Highway

It’s well known that in the 80s, Neil Young briefly went New Wave, first with 1981’s Re-ac-tor, then the following year’s Kraftwerk-inspired album Trans, which features such dance floor-friendly tracks as “Computer Age” (see it live further down), “Transformer Man,” and “Computer Cowboy (aka Syscrusher).” This is a weird period in Young’s career—one critics tend to ignore or dismiss, as William Ruhlmann writes at Allmusic, as “baffling.”

“Despite the crisp dance beats and synthesizers,” Ruhlmann complains, Trans “sounded less like new Kraftwerk than like old Devo” (as though this were a bad thing). But the "old Devo" dig probably wouldn't bother Young. He jammed with the band themselves in his bizarre 1982 film Human HighwayDevo not only star in the movie—as garbage men at a nuclear power plant—they also play  a version of “Hey Hey, My My,” with Young on guitar and Mark Mothersbaugh on vocals.




Young wasn’t cashing in on Devo’s popularity, riding their New Wave coattails to bolster his hipster cred with a punk generation. He began as a big fan before they even released their first album. “Young first saw Devo when they played the Starwood Club in West Hollywood in 1977,” writes Andy Greene at Rolling Stone. “He was blown away by their wild, frenetic stage show and decided to cast them in his movie,” which began shooting the following year.

The admiration wasn’t mutual at first. Devo were “shocked by the atmosphere on the set,” especially the stoned, drunken antics of Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell, and they weren't totally digging the song, either. The jam was “completely unrehearsed.” Says Devo’s Jerry Casale, “He told us the chord progression and that was that…. It was hippie style.” Mothersbaugh remembers, “I didn’t want to sing about Johnny Rotten. So we sang about Johnny Spud.”

Young, at work on songs for the classic 1979 live album Rust Never Sleeps, was pushing his approaches to performance and recording in new directions. But when Human Highway started shooting in 1978, few fans would have predicted that when it wrapped four years later, he would be making synth-rock records. The film became a cult classic, notable for bringing together a legendary cast of weirdos and serving as Mark Mothersbaugh’s first venture in film-scoring.

But we can also see this bizarre musical comedy as a conceptual bridge between the jam-band “hippie style” rock of Crazy Horse and the slick, vocoder pop of Trans, an album that might make a little more sense if we think of it in part as Young’s tribute to Devo.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Beatles Songs Re-Imagined as Vintage Book Covers and Magazine Pages: “Drive My Car,” “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” & More

What makes the Beatles the best-known rock band in history? None can deny that they composed songs of unsurpassed catchiness, a quality demonstrated as soon as those songs hit the airwaves. But the past 55 or so years have shown us that they also possess an enduring power to inspire: how many beginning musicians, fired up by their enjoyment of the Beatles, play their first notes each day? The tributes to the music of the Beatles keep coming in non-musical forms as well: take, for example, these Beatles songs turned into vintage book covers and magazine pages by screenwriter and self-described "graphic-arts prankster" Todd Alcott.

"'Drive My Car' re-imagines the classic 1965 Beatles song as a classic 1965 advertisement for an actual car," Alcott writes of the work at the top of the post, "mashing up the image from an ad for a 1966 Chevrolet Corvair with the lyrics from the song."




Below that, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" makes of that number a mass-market book cover "in the style of Erich von Daniken's classic 1970s alien-visitation book Chariots of the Gods?" Below, Alcott's interpretation of "Tomorrow Never Knows" perfectly re-creates the look (and, with that visible cover wear, the feel) of a heady 1960s science-fiction novel.

Tomorrow Never Knows does sound like a plausible piece of speculative fiction from that era, but Alcott has made use of much more than these songs' titles. Even casual Beatles fans will notice how much of their lyrical content he manages to work into his designs, for which the 1967 National Enquirer cover pastiche he put together for the 1967 single "A Day in the Life" ("complete with photos of Tory Browne, the Guinness heir about whom the song was written") offered an especially rich opportunity. Just when the Beatles broke up in real life, the era of the new-age self-help book began, and after seeing what Alcott did with "Hello Goodbye" using the distinctive visual branding of that publishing trend, you'll wonder why no one cashed in on such a combination at the time.

You can see all of Alcott's Beatles book cover and magazine page designs, and buy prints of them in various sizes, over at Etsy. Other selections include "Rocky Raccoon" as an 1880s dime novel (publishers of which included a firm named Beadles) and "Revolution" as a Soviet history book. Open Culture readers will know Alcott from his previous forays into retro music-to-book graphic design, which took the songs of David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Radiohead and others and re-imagined them as sci-fi novels, pulp-fiction magazines, and other artifacts of print culture from times past. In the case of the Beatles, Alcott's formidable skill at evoking a highly specific era of recent history with an image underscores, by contrast, the timelessness of the songs that inspired them.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

The Romanovs’ Last Spectacular Ball Brought to Life in Color Photographs (1903)

In 1903, the Romanovs, Russia’s last and longest-reigning royal family, held a lavish costume ball. It was to be their final blowout, and perhaps also the “last great royal ball” in Europe, writes the Vintage News. The party took place at the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, 14 years before Czar Nicholas II’s abdication, on the 290th anniversary of Romanov rule. The Czar invited 390 guests and the ball ranged over two days of festivities, with elaborate 17th-century boyar costumes, including “38 original royal items of the 17th century from the armory in Moscow.”

“The first day featured feasting and dancing,” notes Russia Beyond, “and a masked ball was held on the second. Everything was captured in a photo album that continues to inspire artists to this day.” The entire Romanov family gathered for a photograph on the staircase of the Hermitage theater, the last time they would all be photographed together.




It is like seeing two different dead worlds superimposed on each other—the Romanovs' playacting their beginning while standing on the threshold of their last days.

With the irony of hindsight, we will always look upon these poised aristocrats as doomed to violent death and exile. In a morbid turn of mind, I can’t help thinking of the baroque gothic of “The Masque of the Red Death,” Edgar Allan Poe’s story about a doomed aristocracy who seal themselves inside a costume ball while a contagion ravages the world outside: “The external world could take care of itself,” Poe’s narrators says. “In the meantime it was folly to grieve or to think. The prince had provided all the appliances of pleasure…. It was a voluptuous scene, that masquerade.”

Maybe in our imagination, the Romanovs and their friends seem haunted by the weight of suffering outside their palace walls, in both their country and around Europe as the old order fell apart. Or perhaps they just look haunted the way everyone does in photographs from over 100 years ago. Does the colorizing of these photos by Russian artist Klimbim—who has done similar work with images of WW2 soldiers and portraits of Russian poets and writers—make them less ghostly?

It puts flesh on the pale monochromatic faces, gives the lavish costuming and furniture texture and dimension. Some of the images almost look like art nouveau illustrations (and resemble those of some of the finest illustrators of Poe’s work) and the work of contemporary painters like Gustav Klimt. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems that unease lingers in the eyes of some subjects—Empress Alexandra Fedorovna among them—a certain vague and troubled apprehension.

In their book A Lifelong Passion, authors Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko quote the Grand Duke Alexander Mikhailovitch who remembered the event as “the last spectacular ball in the history of the empire.” The Grand Duke also recalled that “a new and hostile Russia glared though the large windows of the palace… while we danced, the workers were striking and the clouds in the Far East were hanging dangerously low.” As Russia Beyond notes, soon after this celebration, "The global economic crisis marked the beginning of the end for the Russian Empire, and the court ceased to hold balls."

In 1904, the Russo-Japanese War began, a war Russia was to lose the following year. Then the aristocracy’s power was further weakened by the Revolution of 1905, which Lenin would later call the “Great Dress Rehearsal” for the Revolutionary takeover of 1917. While the aristocracy costumed itself in the trappings of past glory, armies amassed to force their reckoning with the 20th century.

Who knows what thoughts went through the mind of the tzar, tzarina, and their heirs during those two days, and the minds of the almost 400 noblemen and women dressed in costumes specially designed by artist Sergey Solomko, who drew from the work of several historians to make accurate 17th-century recreations, while Peter Carl Fabergé chose the jewelry, including, writes the Vintage News, the tzarina’s “pearls topped by a diamond and emerald-studded crown” and an “enormous emerald” on her brocaded dress?

If the Romanovs had any inkling their almost 300-year dynasty was coming to its end and would take all of the Russian aristocracy with it, they were, at least, determined to go out with the highest style; the family with “almost certainly… the most absolutist powers” would spare no expense to live in their past, no matter what the future held for them. See the original, black and white photos, including that last family portrait, at History Daily and Russia Beyond, and see several more colorized images at the Vintage News.

via The Vintage News

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Alan Turing Will Be Featured on England’s New £50 Banknote

This week, the Bank of England announced that it will feature Alan Turing on its £50 banknote, thus completing the political rehabilitation of the English mathematician, computer scientist and code breaker. The new note will go into circulation in 2021. Find more at The Guardian.

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Behold Fantastical Illustrations from the 13th Century Arabic Manuscript Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing

Religion, history, medicine, poetry, ethnography, zoology, cosmology, political philosophy—in many a medieval text, these categories all seem to melt together. Or rather, they don’t exist separately in the way we think of them, as labels on a library shelf and courses in a catalogue. The same logical rules do not apply—the appeal to authority, for example is not a fallacy so much as a primary methodology. If knowledge came from the right prophet, scholar, or sage, it could be trusted, a mode of thinking that gave rise to monsters, phantoms, and outlandish beings of all kinds.

It’s easy to call these methods primitive, but so-called medieval ways of thinking are still very much with us, and thinkers hundreds and thousands of years ago have had surprisingly scientific approaches, despite limited resources and technologies.




We find both the fantastical and the scientific woven together in medieval manuscripts, illuminating and commenting on each other. And we find exactly that in the works of Abu Yahya Zakariya' ibn Muhammad al-Qazwini, Persian writer, physician, astronomer, geographer, and author of a 13th century treatise called ‘Ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt wa-gharā’ib al-mawjūdāt, or Marvels of Things Created and Miraculous Aspects of Things Existing.

This work is “the most well-known example,” writes the National Library of Medicine, “of a genre of classical Islamic literature that was concerned with ‘mirabilia’ or wonders of creation.” Drawing on 50 different authors, including several ancient Islamic geographers and historians, Qazwini weaves myth, legend, and science, tying them together with stories and poetry. The Qur’an and hadith are significant sources—for a section on “angelology,” for example. When the cosmography comes down to earth, moving down through the ranks of humans, beasts, plants, and minerals, all sorts of weird, folkloric terrestrial creatures show up.

The phoenix (or Simurgh), for example, and the Homa, or paradise bird—which lands on someone’s head and instantly makes them king—sit comfortably next to eagles, vultures, and ostriches, all of which are construed as marvelous or miraculous in some way.

The treatise covered all the wonders of the world, and the variety of the subject matter (humans and their anatomy, plants, animals, strange creatures at the edges of the inhabited world, constellations of stars, zodiacal signs, angels, and demons) provided great scope for the artist.

First written in Arabic in the late 1200s and dedicated to the governor of Baghdad, the manuscript was “immensely popular” in the Islamic world. It was translated into Persian and Turkish and copied out in richly illustrated editions for centuries. The images here come from a Persian translation, “thought to hail from 17th-century Mughal India,” writes The Public Domain Review, and the art vividly displays the “eclectic mix of topics” in al-Qazwini’s book. These were subjects that “challenged understanding”—often because they concerned things that do not exist, and often because they described natural phenomenon that could not yet be explained.

“From humans and their anatomy to strange mythical creatures; from plants and animals to constellations of stars and zodiacal signs,” The Public Domain Review explains, the treatise purported to survey all the “known” world. Al-Qazwini embellished his explorations for entertainment purposes, but he also created extensive taxonomies and described practical science like the use of “a type of pitch or tar that we today know as asphalt,” San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum notes in their catalogue description of another illustrated manuscript, in Arabic, from 1650. For al-Qazwini and his readers, as for other 13th-century scholars, writers, and readers around the world, the boundaries between faith, fact, and fiction were permeable, and imagination sometimes seems to have been the ultimate authority.

via The Public Domain Review 

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Piano Played with 16 Increasing Levels of Complexity: From Easy to Very Complex

Remember the feeling of accomplishment as a child, picking out a simple tune after your first piano lesson?

Then the day you begin to play with both hands? So grown up.

Eventually you start using more than two fingers.

And then comes the party where a proud parent, possibly with a drink or two in him, commands you to play for the guests, who indulge your efforts with applause and the suggestion that perhaps their child, a contemporary of yours, take a turn at the keyboard.

Mozart.

Beethoven.

Maximum humiliation.

How soon can you bail on those damn piano lessons?




I flashed on that universal experience whilst listening to pianist and composer Nahre Sol demonstrate the “endless possibilities” of piano composition and interpretation by subjecting "Happy Birthday" to sixteen levels of increasing complexity.

‘Round about level five is where our respective talents began to part ways.

After a lot of practice and false starts, I can sometimes manage a simple arpeggio.

That’s greasy kid stuff to Nahre, whose YouTube channel abounds with expert advice on how to sound like various classical composers and robust investigations of genres—flamenco, ragtime, Bossa nova, the Blues…

Now I know what made the visitors’ kid so much more advanced than me—broken octaves, glissandos, great muscular spans, a confident command of harmonies and rhythm...

Sol blows that performance out of the water, with seemingly very little effort, breezily explaining what she’s doing each time she takes things up a notch, culminating in level 16, which encompasses all previous steps.

As homelessricegum observes in the comment section of the video, “Level 17: you will now need your third hand.”

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on September 9 for another monthly installment of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

 

The Principles for Success by Entrepreneur & Investor Ray Dalio: A 30-Minute Animated Primer

Investor and hedge fund manager Ray Dalio has a net worth of $18.4 billion. That alone would persuade a great many of us to listen to any and all advice he has to offer, but unlike many multi-billionaires, he's also put no small amount of thought into just what advice to give and how to give it. One reason is that the pieces of advice he doles out publicly began as pieces of advice for himself, discovered through trial and error and refined into a set of principles. These he lays out in his book Principles: Life and Work, the content of which he has also distilled into the animated video above, "Principles for Success by Ray Dalio."

Dalio breaks down his own journey to success as the continued repetition of a five-step process:

  1. Know your goals and run after them
  2. Encounter the problems that stand in the way of getting to your goals
  3. Diagnose these problems to get at their root causes
  4. Design a plan to eliminate the problems
  5. Execute those designs

This framework already sets Dalio apart from other successful advice-givers, some of whom offer nothing more than broad platitudes about believing in yourself and never giving up hope, and others of whom fall back on cynical cracks about doing unto others before they do unto you. Dalio, for his part, endorses a mindset he calls "hyperrealism," the adoption of which demands putting the truth before all else. And the hyperrealist first examines the truth about himself, assessing as objectively as possible his weaknesses as well as his strengths and regularly drawing upon the perspectives of those who disagree with him.




Underlying Dalio's ideas about hyperrealism and success is a mechanistic conception of humanity, the economy, the world, indeed all reality: "Everything is a machine," as he starkly puts it. By this, he doesn't mean we should think of ourselves as pre-programmed robots, but that we can approach all of our choices as puzzles to be figured out. "Most everything happens over and over again in slightly different ways," he says, but most of us, with our viewpoints biased toward recent history and our "ego and blind spot barriers" that keep us from seeing the full picture, mistakenly regard the situations in which we find ourselves as unique, thus making them into more difficult problems than they are.

Of course, even if we embrace hyperrealism and develop ever more reliable strategies to surmount the obstacles that crop up along our chosen paths, we'll fail as often as we succeed. Dalio tells of his own grand humbling in the early 1980s when he bet everything on a depression that never came, and explains how the fallout taught him that "truth is the essential foundation for producing good outcomes." Even if we have no interest in doing what it takes to make $18.4 billion, we might still bear in mind the two principle-driven equations that Dalio provides — "Dreams + reality + determination = a successful life" and "Pain + reflection = progress" — along with his conviction that success requires not just knowing the truth of world, but the truth of ourselves as well.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

What Happened to the 1200 Paintings Painted by Bob Ross? The Mystery Has Finally Been Solved

Very few artists enjoy the degree of recognition that’s been conferred upon the late television educator Bob Ross, though sales of his work hover around zero.

It’s not due to scarcity. Ross pumped out three nearly-identical paintings per episode of his series, The Joy of Painting (watch them online here). That's 403 episodes over the course of 31 seasons on public television—or 1209 canvases of clouds, mountains, and “happy little trees.”

Shouldn’t economics dictate that these would have only increased in value following their creator’s untimely death from lymphoma in 1994?




A handful have been donated to the Smithsonian National Museum Of American History’s permanent collection. Leaving those aside, why are there no Bob Rosses fetching high prices on the auction block?

Is the painter’s legendary hypnotic appeal a factor? Did he subconsciously manipulate even the most cutthroat collectors into a state of sentimental attachment wherein profit matters not a jot?

As The New York Times-produced video above points out, Ross’ great mission in life was to get others painting—quickly and joyfully.

Which is not to say he blithely tossed the fruits of his labor into the incinerator after that purpose had been served.

The reason Ross’ paintings aren’t on the market is they’re neatly stacked in cardboard cartons at Bob Ross Inc. in Herndon, Virginia. It hardly constitutes archival storage, but the boxes are neatly numbered, and everything is accounted for.

And that is where they’re likely to remain, according to executive assistant Sarah Strohl and president Joan Kowalski, the daughter of Ross’ longtime business partner. (Her mother, Annette is Ross’ former student and the foremost authenticator of his work.)

For now, if anyone endeavors to sell you a Bob Ross original, it’s safe to assume it’s a fake.

Better yet, paint your own. Bob Ross Inc. tends to both the master’s reputation and his lucrative off-screen business, selling instructional books and painting supplies.

Be forewarned, though, it’s won't be as easy as the ever-placid master made it seem. Have a look at these comedians scrambling to keep up with his moves for the Bob Ross Challenge, a fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

Ross, of course, never broke a sweat on camera, which lends a bit of cognitive dissonance to the Times’ video’s frenetic editing. (I never thought I’d have to issue a seizure warning for something Bob Ross-related, but those canvases flash by awfully quickly at the 1:09 mark and again at 10:36. )

Explore a complete database of 31 seasons’ worth of Bob Ross’ Joy of Painting artworks here. Or watch all of the televised shows here. Just don’t expect to purchase one any time soon.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inkyzine.  Join her in NYC on September 9 for the kick off of another season of her book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

 

The 1855 Map That Revolutionized Disease Prevention & Data Visualization: Discover John Snow’s Broad Street Pump Map

No, he didn’t help defeat an implacable zombie army intent on wiping out all life. But English obstetrician John Snow seems as important as the similarly-named Game of Thrones hero for his role in persuading modern medicine of the germ theory of disease. During the 1854 outbreak of cholera in London, Snow convinced authorities and critics that the disease spread from a contaminated water pump on Broad Street, leading to the now-legendary infographic map above showing the incidences of cholera clustered around the pump.

Snow’s persistence resulted in the removal of the handle from the Broad Street pump and has been credited with ending an epidemic that claimed 500 lives. The Broad Street pump map has become “an enduring feature of the folklore of public health and epidemiology," write the authors of an article published in The Lancet. They also point out that, contrary to popular retellings, the “map did not give rise to the insight” that the pump and its germ-covered handle caused the outbreak. “Rather it tended to confirm theories already held by the various investigators.”




Snow himself published a pamphlet in 1849 called “On the Mode of Communication of Cholera” in which he argued that “cholera is communicated by the evacuations from the alimentary canal.” As he reminded readers of The Edinburgh Medical Journal in an 1856 letter, in that same year, “Dr William Budd published a pamphlet ‘On Malignant Cholera’ in which he expressed views similar to my own.” Germ theory had a long, distinguished history already, and Snow and his contemporaries made sound, evidence-based arguments for it.

But their position “largely went ignored by the medical establishment,” notes Randy Alfred at Wired, “and was opposed by a local water company near one London outbreak.” The accepted, mainstream scientific opinion held that all disease was spread through “miasma,” or bad air. Pollution, it was thought, must be the cause. After the pump handle’s removal, Snow published an 1855 monograph on waterborne diseases. This was the first public appearance of the legendary map—after the removal of the handle.

Helping to inform Snow’s map, another investigator, parish priest Henry Whitehead had “concluded that it was the washing of soiled diapers into drains which flowed to the communal cesspool that contaminated the pump and started the outbreak,” writes Atlas Obscura. Whitehead, a former critic of germ theory, later pointed out that the removal of the pump handle didn’t actually stop the epidemic, which, he said, “had already run its course” by that point.

Nonetheless, Snow and other proponents of the theory were vindicated, Whitehead had to admit, and Snow's intervention “had probably everything to do with preventing a new outbreak.” The simple, yet sophisticated data visualization would lead to radical new ways of conceptualizing disease outbreaks, helping to stop or prevent who knows how many epidemics before they killed hundreds or thousands. Snow’s map also deserves credit for giving “data journalists a model of how to work today.”

It was hardly the first or only data visualization of cholera outbreaks of the time. "As early as the 1830s," Visual Capitalist points out, "geographers began using spacial analysis to study cholera epidemiology." But Snow's was by far the most influential, and effective, of them all. In his TED talk above, journalist Steven Johnson (author of The Ghost Map:The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World) tells the story of how the outbreak, and Snow's theory and map, "helped create the world that we live in today, and particularly the kind of city that we live in today."

Read a Q&A with Johnson here; head over to The Guardian's Data Blog to see Snow's visualization recreated over a modern, satellite-view map of London and the Soho neighborhood of the famous Broad Street pump; and learn more about Snow and deadly cholera outbreaks in the crowded European cities of the early 19th century at the John Snow Archive and Research Companion online.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Should We Read Pioneering Sci-Fi Writer Octavia Butler? An Animated Video Makes the Case

Two of the most startlingly original science fiction writers of the past century, Samuel R. Delany and Octavia E. Butler, emerged in the 60s and 70s and created dystopian visions that resonate with us today with more depth and immediacy than the majority of their contemporaries. Both writers also happened to be African American. But why should this detail matter? Why indeed, asked Butler, in an equally relevant question, “is science fiction so white?” She went on to explore the question in a 1980 essay published in Transmission, not with a history of the genre, but with rebuttals to the reasons for excluding people like her.

“A more insidious problem than outright racism is simply habit, custom,” Butler writes. People get comfortable with things as they are—an attitude antithetical to the spirit of sci-fi. “Science fiction, more than any other genre deals with change—change in science and technology, and social change. But science fiction itself changes slowly, often under protest.”




Butler died too young, in 2006 at age 58; but she lived to see resistance to change in science fiction persist into the 21st century. Yet in her most compelling, and slightly terrifying, projection into the future—her mid-90s Parable series of novels—change is the only thing that anyone can rely on.

All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change Changes you.

N.K. Jemison quotes these lines from Parable of the Sower in her introduction to the book’s reissue this year. Published in 1993, Parable’s futurism didn’t have the same frisson as that of, say, William Gibson at the time. “Roving, uncontested gangs of pedophiles and drug-addicted pyromaniacs? Slavery 2.0? A powerful coalition of white-supremacist, homophobic, Christian zealots taking over the country?” writes Jemison. “Nah, I thought, and hoped Butler would get back to aliens soon.” Set in the context of a U.S. post-massive climate collapse (possibly), hyper-financialization, and corporate rule.… the novel now seems all too prescient to its current-day readers.

But even Butler’s alien stories are stories about humans in radical transition, and collective social actions with both devastating and transformative outcomes. In Dawn, the first novel in her Xenogenesis trilogy (now called “Lilith’s Brood”), human woman Lilith Iyapo “awakens after 250 years of stasis,” following an apocalyptic nuclear war on Earth, “to find herself surrounded by aliens called the Oankali,” as the animated TED-Ed lesson above by Ayana Jamieson and Moya Bailey tells it. These beings want to trade DNA with the remaining humans, thereby creating a hybrid species. The alternative is sterilization.

The chilling scenario in Dawn and its successors has its moments of Lovecraftian dread, but it goes in an even stranger direction, bringing an added dimension to the meaning of the word “dehumanization.” What would it mean to slowly transform into another species? Such profoundly universal questions about the meaning of human identity reached “readers who had been excluded from the genre,” notes Emanuella Grinberg at CNN. Butler peoples her books with humans of every color and ethnicity, and aliens only she might have imagined. But most of her protagonists are black and brown women. Many of the readers Butler influenced, like Jemison, are women of color who became genre-changing sci-fi writers themselves.

Butler’s work “helped define the literary cornerstone of Afrofuturism,” notes Grinberg. Her writing was strategic, a way to confront dehumanizing political and social political realities. Parable of the Sower, the TED lesson explains, was partly a response to Butler’s home state of California’s Proposition 187, which denied undocumented immigrants basic healthcare, education, and basic services. In the follow-up, Parable of the Talents (1998), an authoritarian presidential candidate campaigns on the slogan “Make American Great Again.” Her best-selling novel, Kindred, published in 1979, tells the story of a contemporary woman repeatedly pulled back in time to the Maryland plantation of her enslaved ancestor.

Why should we read Octavia Butler? You’ll have to read her to answer that question yourself. But I’d venture to say—along with the intro to her life and work above—because she had a better read on how the time she lived in would turn into the time we live in now than nearly anyone writing at the time; because she told strange, wonderful, outlandish, compelling stories that stretched the imagination without losing sight of the human core; because, like Ursula K. Le Guin, she challenged the world as it is with profound visions of what it might be; and because she not only excelled as a storyteller but specifically as a committed science fiction storyteller, one who deeply touched, and thus deeply changed, the form.

Related Content:

Octavia Butler’s 1998 Dystopian Novel Features a Fascistic Presidential Candidate Who Promises to “Make America Great Again”

The Daily Rituals of 143 Famous Female Creators: Octavia Butler, Edith Wharton, Coco Chanel & More

Celebrate the Life & Writing of Ursula K. Le Guin (R.I.P.) with Classic Radio Dramatizations of Her Stories

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness





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