On the Origins of Modern Biology and the Fantastic: Part 14 — Octavia Butler and the War on Cancer

“A partner must be biologically interesting, attractive to us, and you are fascinating. You are horror and beauty in rare combination.” —Nikanj in Dawn

In Octavia E. Butler’s Dawn (1987), humanity is saved from extinction by the Oankali, aliens who harvest useful genetic traits for their own evolution. They want cancer, which they see as a beautiful contradiction of a disease—mutable and immortal, yet pathological. Like all of Butler’s work, Dawn does not deal in good and evil, but with ambivalences…such as how one might make ethical compromises to survive an impossible situation under an indomitable power. Her characters generally aren’t lovable, or even likable most times, but contradictions and all, they’re always unambiguously relatable.

By the 1970s, the New Wave had faded behind still-dominant Golden Age sensibilities, but its mark had been made in the increased number of women writing in the genre, and in more sophisticated modes of storytelling. Unfortunately, however, the field did not reflect similar progress in terms of racial diversity, largely because of differences in privilege. While the Civil Rights movement had succeeded in ending government-sanctioned segregation, and ensured equal access to employment, voting, and housing, the day-to-day reality for many black Americans did not reflect these changes in policy, with unequal access to housing, education and healthcare persisting, even to this day. This chilling effect extended to SF, still a primarily white, male genre, writing for a white male readership, from a white, male point of view. “I think blacks don’t like to read about a universe that is either green or all white,” Butler once said. “I wasn’t in any of this stuff I read… I wrote myself in, since I’m me and I’m here and I’m writing.” Just as feminism empowered women to become SF writers and fans, Butler would similarly impact the diversity of the field.

Similarly, it would take time for the advances in cell and molecular biology to make inroads into understanding cancer’s inherent contradictions. The earliest descriptions of cancer can be found in an Egyptian scroll from 2000 BC about diseases and their treatments (the proposed treatment was “none”). In Greece in 200 AD, the humor theory of disease attributed cancer to an imbalance in black bile, a belief that would remain popular well into the 19th century. Thankfully, the mid-1800s saw the invention of general anesthesia, and Lister had his epiphany about aseptic post-operative dressings; surgical survival rates shot up accordingly. This paved the way for the first cancer treatments using surgery, though these were mostly ineffective and over time became increasingly elaborate and disfiguring. Another type of cancer treatment came with the discovery of the cell-killing properties of x-rays and radium at the turn of the century, and by the 1920s, radiation and surgery became the standard of care. Despite this, mortality rates were still nearly 100%, and so little was known about the true nature of cancer that it would take generations for anything to change.

Octavia Butler was born in Pasadena, California on June 22, 1947. Butler was raised by her mom and extended adult family, and Butler’s mother, having been pulled out of school to work at age 10, prioritized Butler’s academic and Baptist education. Her mom often took her with while she cleaned houses and an embarrassed Butler would sometimes overhear racist comments from the white homeowners, but as she got older, she understood her mother’s sacrifice to keep her fed and clothed. Butler was painfully shy, bullied for her size and appearance (she was six feet tall by the age of 15), and dove into SF, which offered optimistic escape from racial segregation and gender conformity. After watching a particularly terrible movie at age 12, she realized she could not only do better as a storyteller, but she could get paid for it.

While her mom supported her writing, no one else did. An aunt told her, “Negroes can’t be writers,” rejections piled up, college classmates said writing SF was a betrayal to the struggle for racial equality, and a professor asked why she couldn’t “write something normal.” But she studied history as well as African literature and decolonial history and got her degree in 1968, despite her dyslexia, all the while taking every free writing class she could, including the Screen Writers Guild’s “Open Door” workshop in 1969 for black and Latino writers, which was run by Harlan Ellison. Ellison encouraged her to apply to the Clarion Science Fiction Workshop, which she attended in 1971. There she made her first sales, including “Childfinder” to Ellison for a Dangerous Visions anthology he promised would launch her career, but wouldn’t see print during her lifetime. Butler would not sell another story for six years.

By the time of Butler’s birth, progress in cancer treatments had seemingly reached a standstill. A standardized approach and better tools were needed. For Johns Hopkins University cell biologist George Gey, the necessary tool was an immortal human cell line in which to study how cancer cells differ from healthy cells. Cell culture was a frontier science, with idiosyncratic protocols and questionable aseptic techniques, and what animal cells did grow invariably died after a few divisions. Gey had developed the necessary techniques, but he needed a cell line. Richard TeLinde, a Hopkins gynecologist, joined up with Gey in 1951 for a study to determine cervical whether cancer came in two different types or in two stages. Johns Hopkins was founded in 1876 to provide healthcare to poor communities in Baltimore, including poor back communities, which was a rarity in Jim Crow times. Therefore, when Henrietta Lacks, daughter of former Maryland tobacco farm slaves and mother of five, developed abdominal pain in 1951, she went to Hopkins. TeLinde did her exam, took a sample of her cervical tumor without her consent, then sent the cells off to Gey, where they were labeled “HeLa” and stuck in an incubator. Lacks underwent surgery and then radiation, charring and blackening her abdomen. She died later that year, but her cells survived. Gey sent them all over the world (along with instructions on proper cell culture practices), thus standardizing cell culture, though a cure for cancer remained elusive. But HeLa cells would save the world from a different blight—the polio epidemic was at its height in 1951, and human cells were needed to test Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine. Thanks to HeLa cells, the vaccine was released the following year, saving untold numbers of lives.

Throughout her years of frustration, Butler worked menial jobs to stay afloat financially, waking up at 2 or 3 AM to write. Her self-described “positive obsession” for writing ultimately led to success when she sold Patternmaster (1976) to Doubleday. It was the first installment in her Patternist series she’d been working on for 20 years—a synthesis of her major themes of alien visitations, psychic powers, evolution, and the struggle for dominance and survival. The series spans millennia, from Wild Seed (1980)—which traces the origins of the psychics in a centuries-long power struggle from Africa to America via the slave trade as one immortal seeks to dominate and breed another to create a super race—to Patternmaster, which depicts a far future were the psychics resulting from this breeding plan dominate the world. Butler’s productivity meant that by 1978 she could afford to live off her writing, so she bought a bus ticket to Maryland to research her next book.

The first unlikely breakthrough in modern cancer treatment came from the aftermath of World War I. Survivors of mustard gas exposure had been found to be suffering from anemia, their bone marrow specifically destroyed, which led an oncologist to try it as a “chemotherapy” to treat the proliferation of white blood cells in leukemia patients in the 1940s, resulting in temporary success. Learning of this, Sidney Farber, pediatric pathologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, wanted to find more chemotherapeutic compounds, but felt cancer research was inadequately funded to facilitate meaningful breakthroughs. Farber approached socialite Mary Woodard Lasker hoping to make a public issue of cancer, raise awareness of new tests available (Pap smears, for example—relating back to TeLinde’s study, which had determined separate stages of cervical cancer), and also raise capital. Their success in the 1950s resulted in the first modern clinical cancer trials, modeled after lessons learned from the antibiotics trials the decade before—but still no permanent cure was found. It wouldn’t be until 1957 when the first remission resulting from chemotherapy was achieved. Min Chiu Li was a physician at the National Cancer Institute treating breast cancer patients when he discovered that hCG (a hormone produced during pregnancy) in urine acted as a marker for cancer cells. As a result, he increased the length of treatment well beyond what was standard (leading to mounting side effects) until the hCG disappeared, achieving the first full remission, but Li would be fired by the NCI for what was seen as largely harmful experimentation before the outcome and beneficial impact of the chemotherapy treatment had yet become clear.

In college, Butler had heard a black activist express hatred for his parents and previous generations for passively accepting racism, saying, “I’d like to kill all those old people who have been holding us back for so long. But I can’t because I’d have to start with my own parents.” She wished she could make him understand some of what she had come to understand about her own mother, and thus Kindred (1979) was born: a standalone time travel fantasy about Dana, a black woman repeatedly pulled from ’70s Los Angeles to pre-Civil War era Maryland to save the life of her white slave owner ancestor. It’s a powerful twist on time travel tropes, exploring Dana’s escalating existential crisis as she makes increasingly morally compromising choices in order to survive in the past and the present. Butler wanted people to not just confront the fact that slavery existed, but to feel what it was like. Kindred became Butler’s most successful and widely read novel, allowing her to finally reach large black and female audiences. Success continued two of her short stories—“Speech Sounds” (1984), about the slow collapse of civilization after a pandemic destroys humanity’s ability to communicate, and “Bloodchild” (1985), about a dependent, parasitic, loving relationship between a young man and an alien—earned her Hugo, Nebula, and Locus awards. Delighted as she was, Butler began to worry she was pulling too much from older themes. She needed a new approach.

On the scientific front, however, oncologists embraced old themes. The belief persisted through the 1960s that different forms of cancer were all the same disease; with the small number of chemotherapeutic victories, and when studies of a type of chicken tumor revealed it to be caused by a retrovirus called the Rous sarcoma virus, scientists became confident that they could achieve a cancer cure “moon shot” of their own. Nixon wanted science to be more goal-oriented, and he needed a PR win in the face of the endless and demoralizing Vietnam war, so in 1971 he declared “war on cancer” with the National Cancer Act, granting 1.5 billion dollars to cancer research with the aim of discovering a cure within three years. The result was a boom in chemotherapy drugs effective against certain cancers, including the estrogen antagonist Tamoxifen, which is extremely effective against a specific sub-type of breast cancer. But the three years came and went, the viral hypothesis went bust, and researchers went back to the drawing board, examining more epidemiological causes—which in turn led to the first lawsuit against tobacco companies in 1983 for a cancer death. Over the next ten years of litigation, ads were pulled, warning labels implemented, and smoking rates declined. Soon, asbestos and Hepatitis B joined the list of carcinogens and prevention became a major focus of cancer treatment (along with an increased focus on Pap smears and mammograms), and by the 90s, these advances when combined with better optimized chemo regimens resulted in a drop in mortality rates among a subset of cancer types.

Meanwhile, Butler was taking a highly synthetic approach to her next books. A comment made by Ronald Reagan about the Soviet’s belief in a “winnable nuclear war,” the loss of a friend from leukemia, a Rolling Stone article about Henrietta Lacks, and trips to the Soviet Union and Peru all got her thinking about cultural differences and biological diversity, and her fiction began to take a biological turn. She chose cancer as the instigator for the narrative of her emotionally wrought and thought-provoking Xenogenesis series. Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989), follow the life of Lilith, a cancer survivor and abductee, and her children, tracking how far they will go to save the humanity both within them and without, while an alien species called the Oankali—a non-hierarchical, nonviolent race with three sexes and a talent for genetic and social manipulation—condemn humans as hopeless due to our warring and incompatible hierarchical and intelligent natures.

In a similar vein, policies of deregulation and privatization, Gaia theory, and threats of global catastrophe combined to inspire Butler’s next series, about a woman seeking power to save humanity. In the disturbingly prophetic Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998), we follow the life of Lauren Olamina (modeled after Butler herself) who has hyperempathy, a birth defect that allows her to literally feel other’s pain, in an America where climate change, economic and social collapse, violence, drug addiction, and mass privatization have sparked an apocalypse. Olamina founds a new religion around the concept of change, with the goal of focusing humanity’s destructive energy on exploring the stars. In 1995, while working on Talents, Butler won a MacArthur “Genius Grant,” the first ever awarded to a SF writer. Her money problems were solved for the foreseeable future and Parable of the Talents would go on to win a Nebula.

Returning to the ongoing war on cancer: the cumulative influx of cash and knowledge over several decades would finally solve the cancer mystery in the 1990s. The first piece came from the aforementioned Rous virus, the first retrovirus ever discovered, in 1960. In the ’70s, its four genes were mutated, identifying the protein (Src) responsible for excessive growth. In 1977, Src was shown to be a kinase, a protein master switch that regulates cell signaling—but Src activated everything, including proteins involved in cell division. More “oncogenes” would be discovered soon after—from genes that encourage cell division (proto-oncogenes) to genes that discourage it (tumor suppressor genes)—first in mice, then in humans with the 1979 discovery of the Ras gene. Cancer was a disease of failing brakes and jammed accelerators, as one control after another mutated over time due to carcinogens, accidents, and chance. This understanding has led to further advances in chemotherapy drugs and surgery, and now DNA sequencing can match tumor mutations to their best treatments, but this also means there will never be a magic-bullet cure for all cancers, though prevention and research may mean we can eradicate some types. For example, in 1980, researchers discovered human papillomavirus 18 in HeLa cells: the virus that gave Lacks cervical cancer. Her cells were then used in the development of the HPV vaccine that is today turning cervical cancer into a preventable disease.

In 2000, Butler moved to Seattle, where she wrote what would be her last book, Fledgling (2005), her take on vampire mythology, exploring semi-symbiotic relationships within a chosen family. After years of declining health, she died suddenly at home after a fall in 2006 at age 58. Butler had built a chosen family of her own over the years, helping to inspire the Afrofuturist movement as well as the next generation of black women writers, including Tananarive Due, Nisi Shawl, Nnedi Okorafor, Nalo Hopkinson, and N.K. Jemison. Her work is a staple of college syllabi, discussed everywhere from basic lit classes, to seminars focused on women’s studies, queer studies, and black studies, to postcolonial theory courses, and in 2006 a memorial scholarship for students of color to attend Clarion Writers Workshop was dedicated in her name. Butler’s work continues to demonstrate the power of writing from your own perspective, that all stories are unique and messy, and stories from different voices matter.

Next up we’ll be examining two phenomena that acted as a shot in the arm to their respective fields in the ’80s: namely, Star Wars and the invention of polymerase chain reaction.



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