Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Octavia Butler and the Parables (part 3; on the Sower novel)

Butler, Parable of the Sower

This lengthy summary/analysis will be greatly abridged in the book, but hopefully this more lengthy version will encourage people to read this thought-provoking novel.

Butler's science fiction novel Parable of the Sower combines the story of a young woman “coming of age” with a quest story—with people searching to find a place to survive and perhaps even to live happy lives. But, as McGonigal observes, many of Butler’s works could better be categorized as science fact, instead of science fiction: “It is imaginative writing but it is firmly grounded in the world in which we live, where we come from, and in the bodies and minds we inhabit, not only physically, but morally and spiritually” (Francis 2010: 134). Butler herself notes:
I have written books about making the world a better place and how to make humanity more survivable. . . . [T]he Parable series serve as fairy tales. I wrote the Parable books because of the direction of the country. You can call it save the world fiction, but it clearly doesn’t save anything. It just calls people’s attention to the fact that so much needs to be done and obviously [there] are people who are running this country who don’t care. I mean look at what the Congress is doing in terms of taking money away from every cause that is helping people who aren’t very rich (Francis 2010: 227).
. . .
I want to talk about what’s going to happen if we keep doing what we’re doing, if we keep recklessly endangering the environment, if we keep paying no attention to economic realities, if we keep paying no attention to educational needs, if we keep doing a lot of the things that are hurting us now, and that’s what I wound up writing about . . . (Francis 2010: 220).
Lauren is the first to realize that life within the walled enclave is unsustainable; sooner or later, their neighborhood will be attacked, looted, and destroyed, and the inhabitants killed. Most of Lauren’s cohabitants in the walled enclave are deluded into thinking that if they only survive long enough, the “good old days” will return. As Butler notes:
Their way of life is going nowhere. What they’re doing is trying to hold on until the good-old-days come back. Even though they’re decent people, that’s what we would do, because we wouldn’t know what else to do. And the people who pick it up and carry on from there are the kids. Because it doesn’t occur to them that they don’t know what gold-old-days they’re talking about because they weren’t around for them (Francis 2010: 46).
Lauren, however, realizes that their time is limited before the community is attacked and destroyed:
God I hate this place.
I mean, I love it. It’s home. These are my people. But I hate it. It’s like an island surrounded by sharks—except that sharks don’t bother you unless you go in the water. But our land sharks are on their way in. It’s just a matter of how long it takes for them to get hungry enough (48)
Society has been so devastated that people cannot or do not trust each other unless they are family or are partners within a walled community. People in Lauren’s community travel in armed groups whenever they had to leave their walled community, but they were not safe from attacks, even within their walls. One by one, people begin to be killed. Thieves also regularly break in to steal food or other valuables, so the small community set up a neighborhood watch with two-person patrols to guard the neighborhood at night. The attacks worsen, as thieves start breaking into homes and murdering people who got in their way.

The long term plan of Lauren’s emerging Earthseed God-is-change religion is to bear fruit, like the seed of the Sower parable that fell on the good soil, but the good soil was ultimately to be found on other planets:
We are all Godseed, but no more or less so than any other aspect of the universe., Godseed is all there is—all that Changes. Earthseed is all that spreads Earthlife to new earths. The universe is Godseed. Only we are Earthseed. And the Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars (71).
Like plants who “seed themselves” both near and far to survive—they don’t “sit in one place and wait to be wiped out”—human beings have to move both near and far to ensure their ultimate survival (71-72). Religion is the tool that Lauren (Olamina) uses to create the long-term goal of what Butler calls “human insurance” of Earthseed taking “root among the stars,” where people “go to heaven” while still alive and hopefully prevent human beings from going the way of the dinosaurs on earth (Francis 2010: 175).
Lauren begins to prepare to survive on her own by studying books on how to live on one's own in the wilderness, California plants and their uses, what to do in case of medical emergencies, how to build log cabins, and other works helpful for survival. She prepared a “survival pack” in case she needed to escape quickly.

It became clear that their time of relative safety was soon coming to an end when there were seven intrusions—three successful—by thieves into the community in less than two months. Lauren’s brother Keith was killed, and then her father went missing and was presumed dead as well. Even though she was no longer a Christian, Lauren took his place at church the next Sunday and preached a sermon to the dwindling congregation of frightened people. 

Lauren preached a sermon about perseverance, and she chose as her text the parable of the Importunate Widow. Lauren says that she always liked that parable, because it tells the story of a woman who is so persistent in her demands for justice that she “wears down” the amoral judge. The moral of the parable is that the “weak can overcome the strong if the weak persist. Persisting isn’t always safe, but it’s often necessary” (124). Lauren’s point was that the community had to persist, now without her father’s leadership, in order to survive. She concluded by warning the congregation/community of what awaited them if they did not persist:
. . . Starvation, agony at the hands of people who aren’t human any more. Dismemberment. Death.
            We have God and we have each other. We have our island community, fragile, and yet a fortress. Sometimes it seems too small and too weak to survive. And like the widow in Christ’s parable, its enemies fear neither God nor man. But also like the widow, it persists. We persist. This is our place, no matter what (125).

Lauren herself had been preparing to leave the little walled community for over two years, but she preached this sermon for her father and for what he stood for, even though she knew her words about the community were not true: “. . . as much as I want all that I said to be true, it isn’t. We’ll be moved, all right. It’s just a matter of when, by whom, and in how many pieces” (125).

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Octavia Butler and the Parables (part 2)

A case of writer’s block hampered Butler’s progress on what was to become the 1993 Parable of the Sower novel. For four years, Butler wrote and rewrote the first seventy-five pages of the novel several times, but, she says, “Everything I wrote seemed like garbage.” Finally, poetry broke the logjam: Poetry appears in the novel as excerpts from Earthseed: The Books of the Living, a holy text written by the main character in the novel, Lauren Oya Olamina (Butler noted later that figuring out what she believed was essential to writing about what the character Lauren believed).  

A quotation from Earthseed begins every chapter of the novel, and Lauren’s new vision of God and the role of human beings develop out of those quotations. The first chapter, for example, introduces the new conception of God as change, and it is written on Lauren’s fifteenth birthday, July 20, 2024:

All that you touch
You Change

All that you Change
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change

Is Change 
Most of the Earthseed selections elaborate this idea, as does the entry at the beginning of Chapter 25, the last chapter of the novel:

Create no images of God.
Accept the images
            that God has provided.
They are everywhere,
            in everything.
God is Change—
Seed to tree,
            tree to forest;
Rain to river,
            river to sea;
Grubs to bees,
            bees to swarm.
From one, many;
            from many, one;
Forever uniting, growing, dissolving—
            forever Changing.
The universe
            is God’s self-portrait.
Butler argues that, in using religion in this way, she is merely describing humanity as it is, since all cultures have a religion. Lauren, however, also uses religion as a tool, something that she uses to help people who follow her, and others influenced by them, “to save themselves.” The key idea is that humanity can “scatter among the stars” as a form of “insurance” for its survival: “This is one way, probably, that some of us will survive somewhere . . .” (Francis 2010: 113).    

Complicating the fact that Lauren is a teenaged woman creating a new religion is that her father is a Baptist minister, and she does not want to hurt him by telling him that, at least three years earlier, his God stopped being her God and that his church stopped being her church (Butler 1993: 7). Lauren’s father is a good, pious, and educated man, but he and his religion cannot adequately respond to the devastating changes around him, Lauren believes. In brief, climate change has drastically affected much of the planet, and California, where Lauren lives, suffers from a devastating drought. Lauren lives with her family and a few neighbors in an enclave twenty miles from Los Angeles that is surrounded by walls to protect them from the numerous dangers outside that are always threatening to attack.
Butler argued that her parables series is not apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic. Instead the stories take place during the time in the near future—Parable of the Sower “begins” on Saturday, July 20, 2024—when the greenhouse effect has caused severe changes in climate, significant starvation, and “agricultural displacement”; because in the United States, because of the heat and drought—can longer produce enough crops to feed its population. When Lauren reports that it rained on March 2, 2025, she says that it had been six years since the last rain (45). Many people are homeless and in desperate straits, and they commit murder to obtain food, water—which costs several times more than gasoline (18)—money, other possessions, and jobs (see Francis 2010: 35). Homes and neighborhoods are subject to vandalism, robberies, and other attacks—arsonists often burn people and buildings, because they are high on a drug that makes them enjoy seeing things burn. Politicians decide to suspend the minimum wage, environmental laws, and worker protection laws so that corporations might hire homeless people and provide them at least with adequate room and board. Predatory corporations such as “KSF” take over and privatize entire cities; jobs are offered to people for just room and board, an offer that many people accept, because the situation is so dire. In reality, such companies trick people into “debt slavery,” where they, no matter how hard they work, become increasingly indebted to the “company store” (as the old song by Tennessee Ernie Ford puts it); they become ensnared and are unable to leave (e.g., 109-112).

Lauren is a “sharer”; she suffers from “hyperempathy syndrome,” a condition that causes her to share either the pain or the pleasure experienced by others she sees. She has this condition because her mother, while pregnant with Lauren, abused the drug Paracetco, the “Einstein powder” that people took to improve their thinking abilities. Lauren is often debilitated when someone in her presence is in great pain. Butler emphasizes, however, that Lauren is not empathetic; she feels herself to be empathetic. In other words, she is not actually “actively interacting telepathically” and suffering with other people; instead “[s]he has this delusion that she cannot shake. It’s kind of biologically programmed into her.” She is not a telepath: “What she has is a rather crippling delusion” (Francis 2010: 70-71). Parable of the Talents makes it clearer that Lauren’s (also called Olamina) condition is a “delusional disorder” (e.g., 17).

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Octavia Butler (1947-2006) and the Parables (part 1)

Octavia Butler (1947-2006)

The author Octavia Butler wrote two science fiction works that incorporated Jesus's parables into their titles and stories: Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). Butler also started a third book in the series (Parable of the Trickster) but abandoned that project. 

I am grateful to my friend and colleague Adriane Ivey for suggesting that I include these two works in my book. The first draft about them is almost 8000 words, so only 25% of that will make it into the final manuscript. That means that most of what I include here will not be incorporated into the book.

First, some background about Butler, most of which is found in Butler's own words (from pieces collected in Conseula Francis, Conversations with Octavia Butler). 

At the young age of twelve, Octavia Butler saw the science fiction film, Devil Girl from Mars, thought it to be a “silly movie,” and was convinced that she could write a better story (Francis 2010: 82). The film inspired her to embark on what would become a prolific writing career before her untimely death in 2006: her books and short stories won numerous awards, including two Hugo awards and two Nebula awards—science fiction’s most prestigious prizes—as well as a James Tiptree award. She also won a MacArthur “genius grant” in 1995.

Butler’s father, who shined shoes for a living, died when she was a baby, and Butler and her mother survived on what her mother earned as a maid. Painfully shy, Butler coped with her difficult childhood by daydreaming, reading, and writing. As she noted in a 1993 interview: “I’m black. I’m solitary. I’ve always been an outsider” (Francis 2010: 38). She read her way through the children’s section of the Pasadena Public Library and, since she could not be admitted to the adult section of the library before the age of fourteen, started reading science fiction magazines. It was love at first sight. She started sending stories to publishers at age 13, and, in 1969, Butler was admitted to the Screen Writers Guild Open Door program, where she studied with the science fiction writer, Harlan Ellison. He suggested that she enroll in the Clarion Science Fiction Writers’ Workshop. This six-week program was in effect a “science fiction boot camp” for aspiring writers. Butler actually sold two stories while attending the workshop, but she did not have another piece accepted for publication for the next five years. While she worked at various jobs to support herself, such as sweeping floors and washing dishes, she arose at two or three in the morning to write. Finally, her novel, Patternmaster, was published by Doubleday in 1976, the first of her ten novels and the first of five novels in her Patternmaster series (Francis 2010: 40).

Butler’s works include the challenges involved with issues of the use and abuse of power, the care and destruction of the earth’s resources and environment, and different ways of being human and humane, including gender, race, ethnicity, and class differences. In addition, in a 1995 autobiographical essay, Butler defended both the importance of science fiction writing in general and in particular its efficacy for representing the type of struggles associated with African American history. The specific question she addressed was, “What Good is Science Fiction to Black People?” Some of the points she makes could also apply to parables:

What good is any form of literature to Black people? What good is science fiction’s thinking about the present, the future, and the past? What good is its tendency to warn or to consider alternative ways of thinking of doing? What good is its examination of the possible effects of science and technology, or social organization and political direction? At its best, science fiction stimulates imagination and creativity. It gets reader and writer off the beaten track, off the narrow, narrow footpath of what “everyone” is saying, doing, thinking—whoever “everyone” happens to be this year. And what good is all this to Black people? (Francis 2010: 99).

"The Work of Christmas," by Howard Thurman

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