Interview with Octavia E. Butler Fellow Lois Rosson

Posted on Tue., Jan. 30, 2024 by Kevin Durkin
A person looks outward with a planetary rover behind them.

Lois Rosson, The Huntington’s 2023–24 Octavia E. Butler Fellow, at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Mars Yard, which NASA describes as an “outdoor proving ground for planetary rovers created in collaboration with geologists and engineers to mimic a variety of planetary terrains.” | Photo by Joby Harris. 

Lois Rosson, a historian of science, is The Huntington’s 202324 Octavia E. Butler Fellow. She is currently working on a book manuscript about the depiction of outer space over the course of the Cold War, a project titled “Scientific Realism and American Astrofutures: Octavia Butler and the Space Environment.”

Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006), whose archive is at The Huntington, was the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur “genius grant” and the first African American woman to gain widespread recognition for writing in that genre.

The Huntington’s research grant provides support for a scholar to spend a full academic year working with Butler’s literary archive, which, over the past eight years, has become the most frequently requested collection at The Huntington. Rosson is also working more broadly among The Huntington’s extensive holdings in the history of space and aerospace.

Kevin Durkin, editor of Verso, recently spoke with Rosson about her experience at NASA, her study of astronomical illustrations as extensions of the frontier West, and Butler’s alternative vision of space.

A person looks through a stack of magazines on a table.

Rosson, seated in the Ahmanson Reading Room, examines artwork in The Huntington’s copies of The Planetary Report, the flagship magazine of The Planetary Society, a nonprofit organization based in Pasadena, California, that promotes projects related to astronomy, space exploration, and planetary science. | Photo by Linnea Stephan.

Durkin: Before you earned your doctorate in the history of science from the University of California, Berkeley, in 2022, you worked at NASA’s Ames Research Center for two years. Could you describe your work at NASA and how that inspired your scholarship on visual representations of the space environment?

Rosson: My background is actually in fine art, which sometimes surprises people when I tell them I worked at NASA for two years. After I finished my undergraduate degree, I was hired by the New Media Innovation Team at NASA’s Ames Research Center to work on various design projects. During my years there, I spent a lot of time in the center’s history archives, where material related to the center’s research is recorded and preserved. I discovered a trove of illustrations that the center commissioned in the late 1970s to help the public picture unmanned satellite and probe missions to other planets.

Most of these illustrations were intended to circulate in print, either in technical reports or in press kits as small reproductions. The archives, though, have many of the original paintings, which have a completely different effect when you encounter them in person. They’re large, and though many of them are airbrushed, they resemble stately oil paintings that you might find in a traditional art gallery. The illustrations I was looking at, though, were often categorized by NASA as fundamentally utilitarian. Categorizing an image as a scientific or technical illustration changes how it’s viewed. These are the fundamental questions that drive my research: What makes a realistic-looking image? And by what rubric do we judge a picture as sufficiently accurate? The history of science as a field is primarily an examination of how we produce truth, and I was interested in examining these illustrations as truth claims about the universe. Often, when we describe handmade images as realistic, we compare them to photographs.

I was fascinated by these illustrators because I wanted to describe aspects of their work as photorealistic. The problem was that photographs of these places didn’t exist yet, and I knew enough from my training as a painter that achieving a photographic level of detail was much easier if you were working from an actual reference photo. So, where were these images coming from? I eventually discovered that these artists filled this gap with observations of the American Southwest and other places where the geology of Earth is starkly visible. There, they made plein air paintings and drawings that served as the basis for illustrations of the space environment. So, in this way, the American West came to literally stand in for the landscapes of space.

My work began as a survey of the visual conventions that make an image look realistic, using astronomical illustration as a case study. Over the years, though, the project morphed into a history of how these artists visually reinforced older cultural tropes about space as an extension of Western frontiers. I think they exerted tremendous influence over the look of outer space in the public imagination. One of the conventions of scientific and technical illustration is to anonymize the artist, because the image itself is not an art object in the traditional sense. It’s more of a functional visualization. We can learn a lot, however, by treating these types of images as cultural artifacts.

The records of The Planetary Society at The Huntington have many great examples of this type of artwork. The society’s in-house magazine, The Planetary Report, usually includes a full-color illustration on the back cover, just above the recipient’s mailing address.

A person looks through a stack of magazines on a table.

Rosson examines an issue of The Planetary Report, the periodical published by The Planetary Society, which has served as a major patron of artwork depicting planets near and far. | Photo by Linnea Stephan.

Durkin: You have noted that Octavia E. Butler grew up in Pasadena, not far from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. How do you think that informed her work? And how does that inform your scholarship?

Rosson: For me, this is one of the most interesting parts of my project. The triangle formed by JPL, the Hollywood special effects industry, and commercial aerospace in Southern California has had an outsized impact on the look of outer space. A lot of the illustrators I write about found work in these three industries, and they often moved from one to another.

As you’ve noted, Butler grew up in the northwest part of Pasadena, in close physical proximity to JPL. That said, the scientific and technical expertise concentrated in the region was parsed out socially, not geographically. Pasadena’s public schools were segregated until as late as 1970 and officially desegregated only because of a federal court order. In fact, Pasadena was the first city outside of the South that needed such a mandate. Butler graduated in 1965 from John Muir Technical High School, which was then a vocational school serving the area’s growing African American population.

So, there’s a moment in my story when the illustrators I write about and many of their scientific collaborators are concentrated around JPL, Caltech, and Hollywood, and they are using a frontier model to articulate the landscapes of the outer solar system. Butler is living in the same environment at the same time and forming very different ideas about how society should be organized in space. Unsurprisingly, the arid landscapes of the West take on a different meaning in her work. In her Parable series of novels, outer space represents an escape from the degradation of Earth’s landscapes. In Butler’s work, space settlement looks more like diaspora, which upends the frontier logic we’re used to. Casting space as something other than a frontier helps us understand the persistence of the metaphor more clearly and rethink how we relate to space as an environment.

A person looks through a stack of newspaper clippings on a table.

Rosson examines several newspaper clippings that author Octavia E. Butler saved while conducting research on scientific topics for her works of fiction. | Photo by Linnea Stephan.

Durkin: Which of Butler’s novels intrigue you most? What do they say about her vision of the future?

Rosson: I especially love Parable of the Talents because it contains some of Butler’s most explicit musings on the plausibility of long-term space habitability. The protagonist of the book, Lauren Olamina, recognizes that the task of permanently inhabiting distant worlds is one that transcends human lifetimes and requires a type of faith-based devotion. I see Earthseed, the belief system invented by Olamina, less as a religion and more as a technology for organizing human communities. In other words, the technological advancement necessary to establish human life on other planets is not a hardware advancement, but rather a sociological one. This is a view backed up by history. Among historians of spaceflight, there’s a popular argument that the greatest technology to come out of Project Apollo was the large-scale management apparatus that developed to orchestrate a government space program moving in tandem with research universities, commercial aerospace, and the defense industry.

In the Parable series, and in many of Butler’s other works, empathy is the key to organizing and sustaining communities that are capable of surviving hardship and oppression. In the Parable novels, Olamina is a highly sensitive empath who feels any pain or pleasure she witnesses. In Butler’s Patternist series of novels, an ancient being breeds communities of offspring, selecting for mind-reading capabilities. In her Xenogenesis trilogy, hyperempathetic alien beings are capable of learning everything about humans, down to the molecular level. I think of Butler’s work as science fiction in the sense that the “science” is systematizing fictional tools for discovering new knowledge about people’s interior lives.

Butler’s space narratives focus on the ways the characters work to engineer multiracial and politically diverse communities to new ends. This to me is the most useful thing contemporary aerospace can learn from her work. When I first started my current project, I kept searching in Butler’s work for descriptions of empty landscapes that I could compare to the frontier versions articulated in the visual culture of the Space Age. Eventually, I realized that Butler’s focus was on people and communities. Instead of focusing on the possibilities represented by open environments, she was much more interested in exploring the interpersonal mechanics necessary for communities to survive in these unforgiving places.

A person looks through a stack of newspaper clippings set a table.

Rosson takes note of Butler’s annotations on newspaper clippings, which the author collected while conducting research for her novels. | Photo by Linnea Stephan.

Durkin: What materials in the Butler collection have you been examining, and why?

Rosson: People who have recently read Butler often say they are surprised by how well she seemed to predict the future. The reality is that many of the problems we have today were apparent 40 years ago. Butler did extensive research on the topics she included in her novels. Among the most interesting parts of the Butler archive, in my opinion, are the newspaper and magazine clippings that she collected as research for her books. It’s very satisfying to sift through the folders and catch glimpses of the inspirations for characters, events, and settings that Butler incorporated in her fiction.

A person in the distance sits in a chair, facing a rocky mountain.

Rosson in Death Valley, California, recording the colors of dolomite, a type of limestone, in Mosaic Canyon. Rosson has written about how astronomical illustrators made plein air paintings and drawings in the American Southwest that served as the basis for their illustrations of the space environment. | Photo by Aldo Spadoni.

Lois Rosson is The Huntington’s 202324 Octavia E. Butler Fellow.

Kevin Durkin is the editor of Verso and the managing editor in the Office of Communications and Marketing at The Huntington.