Octavia E. Butler’s 21st century

PARABLE OF THE SOWER by Octavia E. Butler (1993)

PARABLE OF THE TALENTS by Octavia E. Butler (1998)

Octavia E. Butler, who died in 2006. was one of the outstanding science fiction writers of her time, and the most successful black woman SF writer.  

Two of her 1990s novels are getting renewed attention because because they seem prophetic of what the 21st century USA is becoming. 

The first book in the series, Parable of the Sower, depicts complete social breakdown in the 2020s.  The second, Parable of the Talents, depicts the rise of murderous religious nationalism in the 2030s.

We meet the protagonist, Lauren Oya Olamina, in 2024 at the age of 15 through a journal she keeps.  She has already decided to found a new religion, called Earthseed.  It would be based on the idea that “God is Change,” but that it is possible to shape God.  Its long-range goal would to spread human life throughout the universe.  All the chapter epigraphs are based on excerpts from its sacred book.

Civilization is breaking down, especially in California, due partly to catastrophic climate change.  The new President, Charles Morpeth Donner, has a plan to restore prosperity by privatizing government services, ending environmental and labor regulation, and allowing indentured labor.

Lauren is black, as are most of the central characters.  She suffers from a condition called hyperempathy,  which causes her to literally feel any physical pain she witnesses.

She lives in a walled community in southern California, Robledo, which is led by her father, a Baptist minister, who preaches mutual aid, armed self-defense and self-sufficiency, such as making bread from acorns.

Eventually the community is overrun by insane pyromaniac drug addicts, who are seen by some of the homeless poor as a liberating force.  Most of the community, including Lauren’s father, are killed.  She and two other survivors flee north on foot.  

Only 18, she emerges as a tough, competent Heinleinesque leader.  She lead a growing band through perils from robbers, rogue police, cannibals and feral dogs.  This part of the novel is a very enjoyable action-adventure survivalist story; it is a real page-turner.

Among those who join her band is a middle-aged physician named Bankhole, who falls in love with Lauren and eventually marries her.  They reach a Bankroll family property in northern California.  They stop and found a new community named Acorn, based on the Earthseed religion.  

Most, however, are only weakly committed to Earthseed.  The community is held together by Lauren’s charisma and leadership, not a doctrine.

Parable of the Talents is set sometime after Lauren’s death and is told through excerpts of Lauren’s journals as framed by the commentary of her estranged daughter, Larkin.  It details the invasion of Acorn by right-wing fundamentalist Christians, Lauren’s fight to survive their religious “re-education,” and the final triumph of Earthseed as a community on its way to a distant planet.

The United States has come under the grip of a new Christian fundamentalist denomination called Christian America led by President Andrew Steele Jarret.  Elected in 2032 with the slogan “Make America Great Again,” Jarret embarks on a crusade to enforce Christian morality and doctrine. 

Acorn is attacked and taken over by Christian American “Crusaders” and turned into a re-education camp called Camp Christian.   The children are taken away.  

For the next year and a half, Lauren and the other adults are enslaved and forced to wear unremovable “shock collars,” through which they can be subjected to intense pain through the push of a button on a slave master’s belt.

Christian American captors exploit them as forced labor while forcing them to listen for hours to sermons and to memorize and recite long Bible passages.  Lauren and other women are regularly raped by their captors.  

I found these lengthy descriptions of intense sadistic cruelty hard to read.  They reminded me of the Simon Legree passages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Lauren tells her followers to pretend to be totally submissive until they get their chance and kill their captors, which they finally do.  By 2036, President Jarret is defeated after a single term due to public dissatisfaction with, among other things, a low-intensity war with Canada and newly independent Alaska.  After that life slowly returns to normal.

Lauren looks in vain for Larkin and after a year or so gives up.  Instead of trying to re-start the Acorn community, she instead teaches individuals about her religion and trains them to evangelize others.  One of her followers helps her publish Earthseed: the First Book of the Living, which contains verses she wrote expressing the religion.  Her ideas spread worldwide.

Meanwhile Larkin is adopted by an African American Christian America family and grows up never knowing who her biological parents are.  As an adult, she reunites with her uncle Marc, Lauren’s half-brother,  who has become a Christian America minister.

Marc encounters Lauren, but doesn’t tell her about her daughter nor Larkin about her mother.  Eventually mother and daughter do meet, but Larkin refuses to forgive her mother for dedicating her life to Earthseed instead of continuing to look for her.

In fact, none of Lauren’s loved ones believe in Earthseed – neither her father and mother, her brothers and sisters, her husband or her daughter.

Lauren dies at the age of 81 while watching the first shuttles leaving Earth for the starship Christopher Columbus, which carries settlers in suspended animation to found the first human colony on another world.

Octavia E. Butler

I enjoyed both novels as novels, the first more so than the second.   They are highly readable.  Butler was. as good at describing action scenes as she was at showing the dynamics of families and small groups.

I also enjoyed the novels as science fiction – speculations about what may come to be.  A future social breakdown is still highly plausible.  So is an attempt to restore social cohesion through a religious revival or a new religious synthesis.  Of course the details, as in most SF, require a certain willing suspension of disbelief.

The theme of the possible revival of slavery reminded me that, just as many Jewish people have an underlying fear of being wiped out as a people, many African-Americans have an underlying fear of being re-enslaved.

The goal of making humanity an interstellar species shows the enduring power of the meme created by American science fiction writers of the 1940s and 1950s.  It has influenced a lot of people outside the science fiction community.  But based on what we now know of physics and human biology, it is probably impossible.


Octavia E. Butler Wikipedia page. 

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