June 20, 2024


Science It Works

Perseverance Martian landing point named after Octavia E Butler | Science fiction books

“Mars is a rock – cold, empty, almost airless, dead. Yet it’s heaven in a way,” Octavia E Butler wrote in her acclaimed novel Parable of the Sower. Decades later, Nasa has informally named the touchdown site of the Mars rover Perseverance after the late science fiction novelist.

Nasa said there was “no better person” to mark the landing site than Butler. “Her guiding principle, ‘When using science, do so accurately,’ is what the science team at Nasa is all about. Her work continues to inspire today’s scientists and engineers across the globe – all in the name of a bolder, more equitable future for all,” said Nasa’s Thomas Zurbuchen.

Butler, the first African American woman to win both the Hugo and Nebula awards, and the first sci-fi writer honoured with a MacArthur “genius” grant, is the author of novels including Kindred Bloodchild, as well as the remarkably prescient 1993 dystopia Parable of the Sower. The latter was set in the 2020s, where climate change and inequality have turned America into a place of chaos; its 1998 sequel, Parable of the Talents, sees a violent, far-right president ascend, promising to “make America great again”. Butler died in 2006.

“Space exploration and colonisation are among the few things left over from the last century that can help us more than they hurt us,” Butler’s heroine Lauren Olamina writes in Parable of the Sower. “It’s hard to get anyone to see that, though, when there’s so much suffering going on just outside our walls.” America might be “barely a nation at all anymore, but I’m glad we’re still in space. We have to be going some place other than down the toilet.” For her, Mars remains a dream: “We can see it in the night sky, a whole other world, but too nearby, too close within the reach of the people who’ve made such a hell of life here on Earth.”

Nasa’s naming of the Perseverance’s touchdown site is an unofficial one, with official scientific names for places and objects in the solar system designated by the International Astronomical Union.

Butler is only the latest science-fiction author to be honoured on Mars. The Curiosity rover’s touchdown point was named Bradbury Landing by Nasa in 2012, in recognition of the late Ray Bradbury, while in 1997, the Mars Pathfinder lander was renamed the Carl Sagan Memorial Station in honour of the scientist and writer. There is also a Wells crater, named for HG Wells, who imagined a Martian invasion in The War of the Worlds; and a Heinlein crater for Robert A Heinlein, whose Stranger in a Strange Land tells of a human raised by Martians who comes to Earth.