All creeds spring from catastrophe.
The late Octavia Butler, as keen an explorer of the human soul as ever trod a future-scape, understood that far better than most. In plain, well-turned prose she charted the bonds that hold (or fail to hold) us together through time, space and tragedy.
Perhaps the pinnacle of this search is her 1993 novel Parable of the Sower (also: read Kindred, trust me). The tale is framed as the journals of Lauren Olamino, a woman who might one day be revered as a prophet or messiah. For now though, she’s just a terrified teen in the middle of an apocalypse, praying for survival.
Dystopian fiction, along with its post-apocalyptic sister, is a popular genre these days, and with the fractious times we live in it’s not hard to see why. Since I’ve begun writing this column, I’ve had more than one reader comment how energizing rebelling against a dystopia would be or how freeing it would be to “see it all burn down.” The recently departed J.G. Ballard was right when he noted that “The suburbs dream of violence… they wait patiently for the nightmares that will wake them into a more passionate world.”
In Parable Butler strips any bit of glamour away right out of the gate: dystopian times are mostly death, fear and desperation (ask anyone who’s ever lived through a warzone). But while she topples down one dream, she gives the reader a wondrous and utterly rare thing in novels of a dark tomorrow: hope.
It’s Christmas Eve.
Last night someone set fire to the Payne-Parrish house. While the community tried to put out the fire, and then tried to keep it from spreading, three other houses were robbed. Ours was one of the three.
Thieves took all our store-bought food: wheat flour, sugar, canned goods, package goods…. They took our radio, our last one. The crazy thing is, before we went to bed we had been listening to a half-hour news feature about increasing arson. People are setting more fires to cover crimes–although why they would bother these days, I don’t know. The police are no threat to criminals. People are setting fires to do what the arsonist did last night–to get the neighbors of the arson victim to leave their home unguarded. People are setting fires to get rid of whomever they dislike from personal enemies to anyone who looks or sounds foreign or racially different. People are setting fires because they’re frustrated, angry, hopeless. They have no power to improve their lives, but they have the power to make others even more miserable. And the only way to prove to yourself that you have power is to use it.
Lauren’s journals begin with deceptive quiet: with a child’s still-potent dreams and a youth’s quest to work up the courage to tell her father that his god is not hers.
There are hints, at first: a mention of far better times, of the wall that surrounds her neighborhood or going to the church in a caravan of shot-gun wielding bicycle riders. Something’s wrong. Lauren knows it, but this is the world she’s grown up in.
Butler takes her time, letting the reader inside the fear and risk that permeate this world gone to hell. There’s no sudden end, just a continuing, worsening breakdown, cutting away everything that makes a human society, bit by bit. The book begins in a world that’s a pretty horrifying decline from our own time, but still something Lauren’s family is trying desperately to preserve, knowing that things can (and do, eventually) become far, far worse.
As if that’s not enough, our intrepid protagonist is cursed with “hyperempathy,” a legacy from her intelligence-enhancer abusing birth-mother. She can literally feel the pain of others.
As Butler lets us sink into this world, into Lauren’s small pleasures and faint hopes, it becomes all the more striking when the sword finally falls. A young girl and her scattered crew are thrust out into the world.
Each chapter begins with a brief snippet of poetry from Earthseed, the faith that Lauren will eventually found. They sound hokey at first, but grow in power (“God is Change,” “Learn or Die”) as the book continues, as we learn exactly how much painful wisdom lies behind them.
Lauren grows in power too. Despite her empathy, she kills and kills again, because the alternative is worse. She understands that a proverb that’s naive scribbling in better days becomes incredibly potent when repeated around a small fire, clutching guns and readying for death. Creeds do spring from catastrophe and Parable is a damn good reminder of why.
Watching Lauren change from a sheltered teen with some weird ideas to a leader of surprising power is a literary feat of no small brilliance, done in fits and starts, growing slowly but steadily. Butler pulls off one of the most believable pieces of character development I’ve ever read here and by the end of it, you will shiver. Like life, it never really ends, and within her, Lauren’s revealed seeds that could grow her into a healer — or a fanatic.
There is a sequel, the superb Parable of the Talents, and before her untimely passing, Butler intended it to be a trilogy, but this work stands well in its own right, as a reminder that humanity bands together as well as tears apart, driven as much to create as destroy.
“I didn’t make up the problems,” I pointed out. “All I did was look around at the problems we’re neglecting now and give them about 30 years to grow into full-fledged disasters.”
“Okay,” the young man challenged. “So what’s the answer?”
“There isn’t one,” I told him.
“No answer? You mean we’re just doomed?” He smiled as though he thought this might be a joke.
“No,” I said. “I mean there’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers—at least. You can be one of them if you choose to be.”
Butler, from A Few Rules for Predicting the Future
Question: What’s your answer?