Octavia Butler’s Parables for a Troubled Time

Drowning people
Sometimes die
Fighting their rescuers
- Octavia Butler, from Parable of the Sower (1993)

Recently I re-read a pair of books I’d originally read almost twenty years ago, not too long after they were first published. Normally, I feel a bit guilty about going back and re-reading stuff while my shelf of shame is overflowing with unread books and comics, but the events of this year had me thinking about them quite a bit and I really wanted to revisit them. The books in question are Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by the late, great Octavia Butler.

A very simple summary of these books is that they are about the establishment and growth of a new religion (as indicated by their biblical titles), or perhaps better stated, a very goal-oriented philosophy for life and community building, called Earthseed, as recounted mostly through the journal entries of its founder, Lauren Olamina. The basic premise of this philosophy is that ‘God is Change.’ It posits nothing supernatural, nor any hope of divine intervention, nor an eternal reward in the afterlife. Rather, everything depends on individuals confronting the challenges of reality, and relying on themselves and others to build communities and improve life. The ultimate aim of Earthseed is to have humanity eventually leave the confines of Earth and ‘spread their seed’ to the stars. That’s a very oversimplified summary, as the ideas are elaborated in much greater detail during the course of the book and also demonstrated by Lauren’s experiences. Every section of the book begins with a citation from Lauren’s writings, like the one at the beginning (and end) of this post.

What makes these books particularly intriguing, especially given the current situation in the United States, but also the wider world, is the setting: a dystopian near (now very near) future America. Society has largely broken down due mainly to climate change. Life is characterized by extreme wealth inequality and the vast majority of people live in either severe poverty or on the edge of it and cannot depend on even the most basic services or protection from local, state or federal authorities.

(There is, by the way, also a graphic novel adaptation of this one)

Parable of the Sower begins in the year 2025, when Lauren is in her late teens. She lives in a walled community in Los Angeles with her father (who’s a college professor and Baptist preacher), step-mother and three younger step-brothers. Life is relatively safe in the community, but Lauren realizes how precarious their existence is. This prompts her to begin planning for the worst, and also formulating her belief system. True to Lauren’s fears, the community is attacked and destroyed, and most of its residents are killed or scattered. Lauren makes it out relatively unscathed and because she had anticipated such an event and had a go-bag prepared, she is able to get her bearings on the streets. She soon re-connects with two of her former neighbors who also survived the attack, and they quickly decide to head north, to Oregon or Washington, where life apparently isn’t quite as brutal as in southern California. They set off on foot along the major former highways and freeways, like US 101 and I-5, part of a large exodus of people. Along the way, they have to confront violent gangs of thieves and contend with wildfires, among other things, but they are soon joined by others on the road, mainly people they help out of various scrapes who decide to stick with them for mutual assistance and also because they’re attracted by Lauren’s magnetic personality.

The events in the sequel, Parable of the Talents, begin about five years after the end of first book. This time around, the story is told from several points of view: the main one is, like in the first book, provided by the journals of Lauren Olamina, but also interspersed are comments written at some point in the future by her daughter, as well as brief excerpts from the writings of Lauren’s husband and one of her younger brothers (who also survived the events of the first book and eventually becomes a Christian minister).

As in the first book, a key event in the second is a devastating tragedy that impacts its main characters. In this case, the community that Lauren and the others founded in northern California at the very end of the first book, called Acorn, is attacked and destroyed by a well-armed fanatical Christian militia. For a time, Lauren and the others in that community are held in captivity to be ‘reformed’ because of their heathen ways, while their children, including Lauren’s baby daughter, are taken away from them. Eventually, they are able to escape from their captivity, and Lauren spends the rest of her time traveling through northern California and Oregon, trying to find her daughter while also reformulating her approach to disseminating the Earthseed idea and turning it into a broader movement.

One thing about this second book that received some attention online since 2015/16 – and was mentioned in at least one of the political podcasts I listen to – is that in 2032 there’s a right-wing populist US presidential candidate, Andrew Steele Jarret, whose slogan is ‘make America great again.’ This guy, however, is not a con-man and reality TV star, but rather a former preacher/televangelist and junior senator from Texas. The mega-church that he had established earlier, called ‘Christian America’, has branches throughout the country. He also inspires the formation of militias called “Jarret’s Crusaders,” who often commit horrific acts of violence while claiming that they are making the country safer by dealing with ‘criminal elements’ (usually that means attacking homeless people or, say, ‘heathens’ like the Earthseed community). Jarret, of course, disavows any affiliation with these Crusaders and thus washes his hands of responsibility for their crimes.

There are so many things that make these books compelling, not least of which is the scarily plausible future that Butler portrayed. There are times as I was reading this that I thought she may have been looking into a crystal ball back in the 1990s when she was writing them. Indeed, it was that aspect that prompted me to pick them up and re-read them. However, there’s much more to these books than that. Among other things, you can see them as a consideration of how people find refuge in belief systems, or even create new ones, during times of extreme crisis to help them cope and find a way to move forward. One of the things that struck me both times I read them is that the Earthseed idea is the closest thing I’ve seen to a blueprint for an atheist religion, as oxymoronic as that may sound.

In lieu of some kind of lengthy, long-winded conclusion, I’ll just say that I really think everyone should these books, especially now. Not because they’ll make you feel better – they won’t and they’re not supposed to. Rather, like all good literature, they’re meant to make you think.

In closing, here’s a bit of apropos advice from Butler:

Choose your leaders
      with wisdom and forethought
To be led by a coward
      is to be controlled
      by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool
      is to be led
      by the opportunists
      who control the fool.
To be led by a thief
      is to offer up
      your most precious treasures
      to be stolen.
To be led by a liar
      is to ask
      to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant
      is to sell yourself
      and those you love
      into slavery.
- from Parable of the Talents (1998)

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