‘Humans survive through an intricate logic of interdependence’
Sign at the March for Science 2017 in Washington, DC.
From The New Yorker:
Octavia Butler’s tenth novel, “Parable of the Sower,” which was published in 1993, opens in Los Angeles in 2024. Global warming has brought drought and rising seawater. The middle class and working poor live in gated neighborhoods, where they fend off the homeless with guns and walls. Fresh water is scarce, as valuable as money. Pharmaceutical companies have created “smart drugs,” which boost mental performance, and “pyro,” a pill that gives those who take it sexual pleasure from arson. Fires are common. Police services are expensive, though few people trust the police. Public schools are being privatized, as are whole towns. In this atmosphere, a Presidential candidate named Christopher Donner is elected based on his promises to dismantle government programs and bring back jobs.
“Parable of the Sower” unfolds through the journal entries of its protagonist, a fifteen-year-old black girl named Lauren Oya Olamina, who lives with her family in one of the walled neighborhoods. “People have changed the climate of the world,” she observes. “Now they’re waiting for the old days to come back.” She places no hope in Donner, whom she views as “a symbol of the past to hold onto as we’re pushed into the future.” Instead, she equips herself to survive in that future. She practices her aim with BB guns. She collects maps and books on how Native Americans used plants. She develops a belief system of her own, a Darwinian religion she names Earthseed. When the day comes for her to leave her walled enclave, Lauren walks west to the 101 freeway, joining a river of the poor that is flooding north. It’s a dangerous crossing, made more so by a taboo affliction that Lauren was born with, “hyperempathy,” which causes her to feel the pain of others.
By writing black female protagonists into science fiction, and bringing her acute appraisal of real-world power structures to bear on the imaginary worlds she created, Butler became an early pillar of the subgenre and aesthetic known as Afrofuturism. (Kara Walker cites her as an inspiration; and, as Hilton Als has pointed out, Butler is the “dominant artistic force” in Beyoncé’s visual album “Lemonade.”) In the ongoing contest over which dystopian classic is most applicable to our time, Kellyanne Conway made a strong case for George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four” when she used the phrase “alternative facts” and sent the novel to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list. Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” also experienced a resurgence in sales, and its TV adaptation on Hulu inspired protest costumes. But for sheer peculiar prescience, Butler’s novel and its sequel may be unmatched.