Before he could traverse thousands of miles in a single morning, the man walked through a machine with an eye that could see right through him.
Later that day he appeared just east of Hollywood, a city where stories of future wars and robots, disasters and destruction strike it big. In his pocket, he carried the history of the world on a device smaller than a deck of cards. The device buzzed, notifying him of a message from across that world that was sent to space then beamed instantly back to earth and into his hand.
If this account was written 25 years ago, Gerry Canavan, assistant professor of English, might be presumed to be a spaceman.
If written 50 years ago, perhaps it would be the making of a Twilight Zone episode. Looking 100 years in the past, this story would be inconceivable.
At the time, it would’ve seemed like science fiction. But this is our reality. Smart phones, speedy travel and detection machines in airports are mainstays today — not the distant future.
And now, Canavan is time-traveling himself. How? Not with the mythical time machine.
Instead, Canavan is transporting himself to a different time and place the old-fashioned way — by reading.
“I’m a fifty-three-year-old writer who can remember being a ten-year-old writer and who expects someday to be an eighty-year-old writer.”
― Octavia E. Butler
In December of 2013, Canavan received a grant to analyze the archives of Octavia E. Butler, an award-winning science fiction writer famous for using the genre to discuss themes of race, sexuality and religion. For a month he pored over the archives in Huntington Library, located in San Marino, Calif.
Butler used her writing as social criticism and was the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship, a prestigious creative writing award. However, in 2006 Butler died suddenly at age 58, leaving her stories with hanging questions and her fans wanting more.
All of her papers, letters, notes and diaries made their way to the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. Around the same time, Canavan made a pitch to the University of Illinois Press to write a book on Octavia Butler for their series Modern Masters of Science Fiction.
After receiving the publisher’s approval, Canavan submitted a second proposal to Marquette’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs for a grant that would allow him to travel to the archives. Coincidently, the archives become open to the public just a few weeks before Canavan arrived.
He was one of the first people to see these private documents.
Many Butler fans believed that all of her work had been published. But when Canavan searched the archives, box after box of files told a different story.
“Every day was a new text and a new moment in her career,” he said.
Uncovering these texts provided new insight into Butler’s mind. Reading someone else’s words is a form of mental telepathy, as Stephen King noted in his memoir On Writing. Her books provided a “portable magic.”
In reading her work, Canavan learned that Butler was a “brutal self-critic.” She created multiple drafts of her work and trashing many ideas and stories because she thought they weren’t good enough or ready to be published. The archives contain several unfinished novels, many alternative versions of her published novels and a multitude of unreleased short stories.
“She deliberately left these things to be uncovered,” Canavan said.
Two of those short stories have been published in the recent e-book Unexpected Stories. Canavan expects more of these works to be published.
The future publications will draw from Butler’s massive bank of writing. The archives contain stories written when she was 12 years old all the way to her death. Alongside the unfinished books are alternate endings and deleted scenes. To give a sense of the archive’s enormity, Canavan likes to point out that the finding aid that describes all the contents of the collection is 500 pages long by itself.
During his month researching, Canavan focused primarily on Butler’s unfinished works and the alternate twists of her famous stories.
He was originally drawn to Butler’s story structure. It was typical for her conclusions to leave readers hanging in troubling ambiguity. As is the case in many classrooms around the country, Canavan teaches using Butler’s work.
The Huntington experience has provided Canavan with a unique perspective of Butler; one that not many scholars have had and one that Canavan hopes to embed into his writing and teaching.
“Listen, no part of me is more definitive of who I am than my brain.”
― Octavia Butler, Imago
Canavan was intrigued by how Butler struggled through issues of self-confidence, often writing journal entries in a self-interview style and experimenting with daily affirmations and self-hypnosis. He noted the importance of this intimate perspective.
“Seeing her as a human being rather than a titan of science fiction is a real privilege,” Canavan said.
He stated that his teaching style will evolve to show the new perspective of Butler. Students will be able to see extra material, new connections between stories and where stories would’ve gone had Butler finished them.
“It’s helpful for the students because they get to see literature as something created, rather than inscrutable divinely inspired genius,” Canavan said.
Canavan plans to return to Butler’s archives in December (2014, for those reading this in the distant future). He will continue to scour the boxes, this time working on the book for University of Illinois Press. He will look at new documents to create a bio-critical approach for the book.
Often scholars will critique single works by an author or the works of a short time period. This book series is different, seeking to provide a long-term critique of an author’s work over a lifetime.
“To focus on one person intensely in this way is rare,” he said.
Due to Butler’s reserved nature, not much was known about her personal life. By examining the many documents of the archive, Canavan is excited to add a new perspective about the writer and her work. To see how Butler dealt with problems of social anxiety and depression gives readers a new way to view her stories and the heroes she created.
While given another month in the archives, Canavan wants to gather as much information as possible. He knows it will be difficult though, given its size.
“People will be searching this thing forever,” Canavan said. “There will always be more and more.”
“There are so many interesting times we could have visited.”
― Octavia Butler, Kindred
This opportunity — the entirety of the trip and all that Canavan hopes to do with it— stems from his literary passion: science fiction.
Our entire world is science fiction. Each one of us, without realizing it or agreeing to it, is living in a science fiction story.
In Canavan’s pocket is the history of the world, his smartphone — a device that can connect him to anywhere in the world from anywhere in the world. In the blink of an eye this technology will be out of date, archaic compared to the latest and greatest model.
(Best Buy parodied this reality in a commercial for its Buy Back program for outdated technology. Ironically, the program itself is now defunct.)
Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock is a story about the inability to conceive the world because there is too much change in too little time. Despite having been written in 1970, Canavan notes this is still the case today, and perhaps more.
“There are all sorts of things that are happening that would be inconceivable not 150 years ago, but would’ve been inconceivable 15 years ago.”
Our childhoods, when compared to those of children today stand it stark contrast to one another despite a small difference in years.
“We’ve witnessed the world transforming,” Canavan said. “You’re born into a certain context that’s completely gone within a couple years.”
Buzzfeed popularized a series of articles about the nostalgia for the 90s, a world that existed only 20 years ago but today seems foreign. In 1984, Terminator’s conception of robot soldiers seemed obscure, even outlandish, but just 30 years later autonomous drones are real.
Science fiction gives us the capacity to imagine this future — with the potential benefits and dangers — before it’s a reality.
“Science fiction has always been treated as a marginal literature, but in many ways it’s how we think about the future,” Canavan said.
This is the premise of Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, a book Canavan edited alongside Kim Stanley Robinson. Through a series of essays examining science fiction books and movies from the beginning of the 20th century to present, the book highlights the relationship between science fiction, environmentalism and ecology.
“It’s about what’s happened to our imagination about the future over the last 125 years alongside the emergence of science fiction,” Canavan said.
Scientific advancements in the early 1900s shaped the perspectives of science fiction writers to imagine a utopian world. Science held a nearing promise of free energy and easier lives.
However, the negative side of science appeared in the world wars. The technology believed to someday liberate mankind turned deadly.
The ecological impacts of scientific advancements began to emerge. The cheap sources of energy that fueled technological marvels was revealed to be destroying the environment; chemicals like DDT were powerful against mosquitoes, but killed more benign lifeforms as well; and scientific investigations of the atom opened the door for a devastating nuclear bomb.
Green Planets dives deeper into these literary trends, which in many ways foretell real-world ecological problems. Stories often use emerging environmental issues as storylines to predict an increasingly troubling future — water crises, nuclear warfare, ubiquitous surveillance, oil shortages, climate change and even human extinction.
“After a few years of watching the human species make things unnecessarily difficult for itself I have little hope that it will do anything more than survive and continue its cycle of errors.” -Octavia Butler, Unexpected Stories
The utopian ideal of science as progress has shifted to reflect this negative trend. Stories have grown pessimistic, reflecting how our technology threatens to eventually destroy the world and human potential.
Nowhere is this clearer than with respect to ecology and environmentalism.
“It seems like the human race is actively, if not gleefully, destroying the capacity for human civilization as we know it to survive beyond the next couple of decades,” Canavan said.
So what can science fiction do to help? It goes back to time travel.
Science fiction provides a lens to project ourselves into a future that appears either idealistic or nightmarish. This provides a context to examine our modern world — and where we’re headed.
As Canavan and Robinson note, we’re currently living in a science fiction reality.
And we’re writing the next chapter today.