I recently finished reading Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents and in the days since I’m finding that while I’m not actively thinking about the story, I’ve not been able to shake it. I feel it sitting in the back of my mind as a presence. I’m not ready to read her other stories but I want to know more about her as well as more background about the Earthseed story. I want to dig around in this thoughtscape.
The books were published in the early to mid 1990s and the story timeline in first book begins around 2024. And while the US of 2024 is not as broken down as it is in her books it certainly seems to be on the path she describes. We seem to be headed that way.
There is a simple and dark truth here of what we might expect in a more brutal world where social order is breaking down. We’re already getting glimpses how quickly humans can turn on one another and abandon previous social norms of respect. More is likely to come.
But in the midst of the brutality of this fragmented future Butler puts forth a young woman determined to spread her new “religion”, a discovery, which she calls Earthseed which she has written into a book, The Book of the Living.
Though it’s described as a religion or theology with verses that reference God, defined as change, it seems to me that it is better defined as an ethical framework and a description of the our relationship to nature, the universe. The first verse:
1. God is Change
All that you touch
All that you Change
The only lasting truth
Throughout the story we see Lauren Olamina, a young black woman determined to bend, adapt, learn and continue forward with her self-defined mission to carry humanity forward. As a contrast to the tech oligarchs so revered and despised today, she seems to have found a way of being change annd inspiring change that is not about her ego, gratification or other personal gain. Each step seems to be in service to the ideas or as she might say, her discovery of this fundamental truth of change.
So much about this story, the ethics and the main character is resonating with me. I’ve lived my adult life largely in opposition to the dominant social norms and structures I was born into: capitalism, the state, patriarchy - all systems of domination, command and control. Change is all I’ve ever wanted. But as I’ve lived, the changes I’ve witnessed have only carried us closer to the chaos and near oblivion we see in Butler’s telling of our present. We are here now in the midst of these long building crises.
Born into a broken world Olamina finds the strength to persist. She refuses to give in or give up. Over and over we see her embrace and adapt to the events unfolding around her. She bends, is changed and yet, in that transformative process, she returns the favor with careful, thoughtful response. Always seeking to understand and help others understand, she uses and demonstrates a process of cooperative learning.
She builds her community and movement, working through set-backs and a never-ending stream of obstacles. Butler has given us a character who demonstrates characteristics that we desperately need in our moment today. For Olamina there is no choice but to move forward. Her process is self-sustaining in that her sowing relies not on the coercion of others but in their empowerment. Like a community garden, her movement grows because her seeds become new gardeners and those new gardeners plant new seeds.
I’ve only scratched the surface of what I’d like to write. I expect I’ll expand this post further or add other posts. There’s a great deal of material online about the Parable stories as well as Butler’s other work. Below is just a tiny sampling.
What Butler saw in our future matters more today than ever. She saw a world headed toward collapse. She saw a Black, female prophet who understood that nothing was inevitable, that we have the power to change things and change course. On some level, as a 13-year-old, I understood that Butler’s work was not just a warning but also an invitation. It invites us to let go of the conventions that can lock us into a destructive future and to embrace our greatest power, to change. She introduces us to a humanist vision for the future that makes space for metaphysical spirituality without the need for a traditional, omnipotent God-figure.
My turn toward Butler’s work as a model, and toward fiction and creative nonfiction as additional forms, is an attempt at finding new ways to meet our current predicament. I have found Butler’s work and, just as crucially, her method to be instructive in thinking of history more as a resource than as a discipline—a trove in which we can gather tools to help us face our crises.
We need Butler’s historical insight, her way of imagining characters into disastrous moments where past and future touch, as we try to interpret the present and contend with what is to come. With this goal in mind, it is possible to read Butler’s novels as guidebooks, or how-to survival tales.
In the tradition of Octavia Butler, radical self-help, society-help, and planet-help to shape the futures we want. Inspired by Octavia Butler’s explorations of our human relationship to change, Emergent Strategy is radical self-help, society-help, and planet-help designed to shape the futures we want to live. Change is constant. The world is in a continual state of flux. It is a stream of ever-mutating, emergent patterns. Rather than steel ourselves against such change, this book invites us to feel, map, assess, and learn from the swirling patterns around us in order to better understand and influence them as they happen. This is a resolutely materialist “spirituality” based equally on science and science fiction, a visionary incantation to transform that which ultimately transforms us.
The visionary Black science-fiction writer Octavia Butler died 15 years ago on February 24, 2006, but her influence and readership has only continued to grow since then. In September, Butler’s novel “Parable of the Sower” became her first to reach the New York Times best-seller list. We speak with adrienne maree brown, a writer and Octavia Butler scholar, who says Butler had a remarkable talent for universalizing Black stories. “She wrote about Black women and about Black feminism, about Black futures, but she wrote in a way that appealed to all human beings,” says brown.
Butler was the first Black woman to win Hugo and Nebula awards for science-fiction writing and the first science-fiction writer to receive a MacArthur “genius” fellowship. Her best-known books include the classics “Kindred,” as well as “Parable of the Sower” and “Parable of the Talents” — two-thirds of a trilogy that was never finished. Her work inspired a new generation of Black science-fiction writers, and she has been called “the Mother of Afrofuturism.” Her 2005 interview with Democracy Now! took place shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and as President George W. Bush was overseeing the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When asked how she set out to become a science-fiction writer when there were so few examples of Black women working in the genre, Butler said she never doubted her abilities. “I assumed that I could do it,” she said. “I wasn’t being brave or even thoughtful. I wanted it. And I assumed I could have it.”