Photo: Montavius Howard, Pixabay
The Parable of the Sower: Science Fiction or Science Fact?
Octavia Butler is an inspiration to many. The Octavia Butler Legacy Network has promoted research and scholarship into her work for over ten years. In Octavia’s Brood, 20 contemporary writers use Butler as a springboard to speculate on the futures of radical social change. In 2017’s niche-hit Emergent Strategy, you can barely go five pages without adrienne maree brown name checking Butler.
I’m just late to the party.
I first heard of Butler’s iconic novel Parable of the Sower in the first years of the Trump era. People were making comparisons to the current age, citing the similarity between the president in the book and our real-life president. I left the book unread. It felt too raw to expose myself to fiction that too closely resembled real life (bleak!). But now that we (maybe briefly) are in the Biden era, I wanted to know: were the comparisons apt, or apropos nada?
In the near future, the United States has slid into a state of chaos. Scarcity. Inflation. Unemployment. Arson. Years-long drought. Corrupt police.
After living the first 18 years of her life in a walled neighborhood, protected from the decaying carcass of society beyond, the daughter-of-the-preacher Lauren Olamina is cast out on the road after a fire kills her family and destroys her home. Around her a small group of weaklings bands together under the young protagonist’s vision for a new religion: Earthseed.
“All that you touch You Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.” — Lauren Olamina in Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler
Oh yeah, Earthseed’s ultimate goal? For humanity to colonize other planets.
Is society’s collapse imminent?
Unfortunately, you don’t have to look very far to find evidence that says: yes. However, humanity does love to predict the end of the world so I tend to slightly discount popular forecasts of imminent armageddon.
That being said: climate change is already disrupting many systems we rely on and threatens to do much more. If you squint, it’s everywhere. Maybe we are coming up on a tipping point where collective action will gain traction. Maybe we are already past the most important ecological tipping points.
Water scarcity? According to the National Water Quality Inventory, 1/4 of waters designated as public water supply are impaired. Less than 1/2 of waters set aside for fishing and aquaculture are rated as good. The EPA recently signed off on a change to Minnesota’s water quality rules that does away with monitoring the actual levels of pollutants. California, where the majority of American fruits, vegetables, and nuts are grown, is in a drought so deep even a record-breaking storm can’t end it.
There’s plenty of work to be done, but conditions for workers have deteriorated to a point where many people are saying “no.” See: labor shortage, recent wave of strikes, and the proliferation of think pieces on why people are quitting their jobs. Short term this could be higher wages and more perks. Long-term, it’s just more fuel for the automation fire. Will that leave us with more time to enjoy life in a post-capitalist paradise, or a greater divide than ever between the haves and the have-nots?
No wonder Jeff and Elon plan to bug out.
For me, the strength of this book came from the unassuming details. Lauren’s world resembles our own. School, work, and church adapt and endure. Notably, even as society collapses people will still kill for dollars.
Personally, I don’t want to live in Lauren’s world. I like to camp. I don’t want to prep a go-bag. I like to garden. I don’t want to live on a subsistence diet I grew myself.
This is Octavia Butler’s unsettling vision for where we are going. In Parable of the Sower, the cause of America’s collapse is never mentioned. But it’s telling how easy it is to fill in the backstory. Plausibility brings pangs of urgency. A taste for action.
A science fact: “All that you touch you change.”
Even a thermometer changes the temperature of the body it is measuring by absorbing some thermal energy to take a measurement. Even just a dozen people have more influence than a thermometer. We are agents in a complex adaptive system. We can choose to act habitually to maintain it, or purposefully to change it.