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).

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