We are Earthseed.
And the Destiny of Earthseed
Is to take root among the stars.
Does Octavia Butler have a crystal ball? That was the main question I asked myself as I read this book, so much of what Butler wrote (back in 1998) seems to speak to not only the early 2000s, but right now, literally right now as the US elections are only days away and there is the (I hope) slimmest chance that a racist, sexist, hate-mongering, lying xenophobe could be elected into power. This book is scarily prescient and like all great science fiction (Ursula Le Guin’s Lathe of Heaven or Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale), it is both a product of its time and follows through on the logic of history’s current path to forge a dystopian future not too distant from our own that acts both to illuminate our current society and act as a kind of warning.
I’ve just finished this book and I have a lot of emotions and thoughts. Spoilers follow.
cw: rape, violence against women, Donald Trump
The story follows the dual narrative of Lauren Oya Olamina and her daughter Larkin. Larkin’s story forms the framing device presenting to the reader her mother’s found diary entries between the years of 2032-5 and details the beginnings of her mother’s religion Earthseed which she is fighting to establish in an America ravaged by the ‘Pox’ a combined collapse of socio-economic wealth in the country and severe damage from climate change, culminating in the outbreak of World War Three. The story starts with Olamina having established a small settlement on the West Coast with her husband after having fled the walled enclave her family lived in before raiders attacked and killed her family. Each chapter begins with a third text, excepts from Olamina’s religious book The Books of the Living and introductions from Larkin recounting her own personal history and her feelings towards her mother who she was separated from shortly after her birth frame each diary entry.
It’s worth noting here that this is book is the second in a planned trilogy that Butler sadly never completed, the first book Parable of the Sower recounts Olamina’s journey from childhood, to traversing the West Coast and starting Earthseed. Thanks to my library copy’s vagueness about Parable of Talents being the sequel I’ve read this first, but I think it works as a stand-alone novel.
I want to talk about some of the main themes of the novel: religion and faith; race and gender; violence and rape; motherhood and family; hope and sacrifice.
Religion and Faith
I’ll start with the most obvious theme.
Butler explores religion and faith overtly in the novel pitching Olamina’s created religion (some would call it a cult) of Earthseed against a far-right, extremist Christianity. Olamina’s religion is a strange mix of Christian morality and Buddhist way of thinking, mixed in with a big dose of American optimism and work-ethic. On both sides we are presented with charismatic leaders, Lauren Olamina and her daughter both comment of Olamina’s ability to draw people to her and to manipulate them for her own gain. Olamina’s shadowy twin is to be found in Texan Senator Andrew Steele Jarret: a fundamentalist at the head of ‘Christian America’ a new sect, who seek to purge their country of it’s perceived weakness and lack of morality. Jarrest uses implication and scare-mongering to drive his most extreme followers to attack and kill any ‘undesirables’ (‘heathens’, non-Christians, ‘sexual deviants’, any minority groups really that is too poor and too oppressed to defend itself) – witch hunts are back in America. Jarret is where you’ll find some startling and troubling crossovers with our current political climate, complete with you-know-who’s slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. So two version of religion, two ways of approaching power and leadership. Olamina says at one point that she is no ‘demagogue’ and seeks to remove herself from conventional power structures, instead preaching a religion that involves education and questioning rather than blind following. Jarret’s uses older techniques: fear of the other and moral grandstanding.
I want to be clear though, Butler is a very nuanced, clever writer, it is not so simple as Earthseed = good, Christian America = bad. Christian America is shown to have some positives, and people in it who do care about helping others, but it is an example of how easily ideals and morality can become corrupted. Earthseed is not without it faults either: Butler shows us Olamina’s passion and drive, her faith in her new religion and the kindness she shows to her followers, but also her ability to manipulate others to her cause. She has no qualms exploiting others wealth or skills to further her cause. Her single-minded obsession with reaching the stars, ‘Earthseed’s Destiny’ as she calls it drives her to explot others and disregard any issues that do not further her vision. The novel never preaches: Olamina’s rhetoric is balanced out by Larkin’s skepticism – instead it asks the reader to consider: is this faux-mysticism and foolish optimism or something greater?
Olamina has far many more redemptive qualities than Jarret, she is honourable, compassionate and asks for understanding, tolerance, hard work and acceptance. This does not stop her however from performing violent acts, turning those away who betray her or killing her captors (arguably justifiable). Olamina is a strange mix of realist and fantasist and it’s easy to see how these two qualities: ruthless pragmatism and righteous conviction can become twisted and corrupted into extremism. Butler shows us that there are no more dangerous groups than those who believe they are in the right: utter conviction in one’s own moral high ground paves the way to extreme acts of cruelty, justified by acting in ‘their best interests.’
Race and Gender
It’s entirely of my own failing that I haven’t read much science-fiction written by black writers and as such race is often left out of the equation in the sci-fi that I’ve read. Author’s like Le Guin and Atwood touch on issues of gender but not on the intersection of race, gender and sexuality like Butler does in Parable of the Talents. She shows us what happens in a society which already functions on systematic racism and white privilege and the effect is has disproportionately on people of colour and in particular women. Olamina’s community is one which naturally gathers ‘minority’ groups to it: black women and other people of colour, queer women, ex-slaves and interracial couples all find a home in her new settlement, offering an alternative way of living outside the constraints and oppressions of a rising white supremacy which privileges as usual the voices of white people, and especially those from a higher social and economic backgrounds.
Butler in the novel draws attention the lack of representation of black voices in fiction and specifically black women. In the novel Larkin at one point despairs over the lack of female characters in the ‘dreammasks’ (a virtual reality story-telling device) and latches onto the one black heroine Christian America will allow in their didactic, moralistic tales:
Asha Vere was a tall, beautiful, Amazon-like Black Christian American women who ran around rescuing people from heathen cults, ant-Christrain plots, and squatter camp pimps. […] Strong female characters were out of fashion in the fiction of the time. President Jarret and his follows in Christian America believed that one of the things that had gone wrong in the country was the intrusion of women into “men’s business.”
There are parallels here with Olamina herself, she is also a ‘tall, beautiful’ black woman and might fit the trope of ‘strong female character’ : Olamina in “men’s business” she sets herself up as a leader of a religion in opposition to people like Jarret, her preacher father and her brother, Marcus, who joins Christian America to also preach sermons. However Olamina, much like in Kindred’s Dana Franklin, does not fit the stereotyped ‘strong female character’ Larkin describes, she is complex: she is strong yes, but also vulnerable, loving, ruthless, uncertain, a survivor and a leader. Olamina and the other women Butler writes are never just one thing. She writes so many well-rounded female characters that they are never reduced to one facet of their identity, they are allowed to triumph, to fail, to betray, to lead, to love, to hate. In short she presents us with people, messy and changeable and real.
Violence and Rape
Violence in the novel is presented as the inevitable outcome of social collapse, or rather I should say escalated violence, since we already live in a world where violence and particularly violence against women and black men can become background noise in our daily lives. Like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake Butler’s dystopian is suffused in violence. Here the danger of simply existing as a person marginalised by the ruling power structures (be that by race and gender and religion and sexualty and ecomnoimc wealth) is shown to have real, brutal consequences. Sound familiar?
In one section Olamina recalls a news story about a innocent black boy, beaten and killed, accused of robbery because of the colour of his skin. It’s a story we already know, but seeing it in the context of a dystopian novel, something that is supposed to highlight how bad things could get is startling. Because things are already this bad: black boys are already being killed for no reason, and, as Ava DuVernay shows in her documentary 13th, slavery is alive and well in America in the form of the prison system (Butler’s Christian America reeducation camps are her version) and a man is running for president who uses thinly veiled hate speech to stir up far-right religious extremism, fueling and perpetuating the racism and xenophobia that is already indentured in our society. Butler didn’t need a crystal ball to see into the future, she only had to look around her and plot out the next steps.
The increased and more open use of violence and enslavement is shown to be a symptom of a society which has regressed to a more primitive, less tolerant, time, (Olamina despairs over whether they have reverted to the eighteenth century while enslaved). This acts as a counter to Jarret’s manifesto of using nostalgia to paint a picture of an idealised America, where times were ‘simpler’ and ‘America was Great’ – the reality Butler shows us, is that things were only ever great for rich white people. Nostalgia is dangerous when combined with willful ignorance of the mistakes of our racist history: slavery, lynching, witch hunts, colonising of land, the rounding up and labelling of the homeless and jobless as ‘vagrants’ to be imprisoned. Butler doesn’t have to make any of this up, it’s there already.
In the novel violence against women and especially women of colour is endemic, violence is used as a way to make them conform to a white, heteronormative idea of ‘femininity’. Butler repeatedly shows us the hypocrisy of the ‘white saviours’ – those who preach sexual piety and damn all the women as whores and sluts and then go on to rape and abuse women’s bodies. Like Kindred Butler does not shy away from the realities of slavery for women (and men, she makes it clear that all bodies under slavery are subject to mental, physical and sexual abuse) but never does so in a way that becomes gratuitous. There are no scenes of rape, we are told they happen and we see the psychological and physical toil it has, but not the act itself. While we see many vulnerable men and women in the novel we also see acts of great bravery, survival and strength.
Motherhood and Family
An interesting theme that is often not seen in sci-fi/dystopias is that of motherhood. Much of the narrative drive throughout the second half of the book comes from Olamina’s search for her missing baby (stolen when she is forced into slavery) and the conflict she feels between doing this and furthering her vision. Larkin describes her mother as having two children: herself and Earthseed and Earthseed was the one she wanted most. We see Olamina as a loving, caring mother, not only for her own child but for others, she often helps children out on the road. But Larkin herself feels betrayed and abandoned by her. And it does seem at times that Olamina gives up on her search for Larkin, choosing instead to focus her energies on Earthseed and growing her new religion. At the end of the novel Olamina refers to Earthseed explicitly as a kind of child, herself the mother. As the first shuttles leave for the stars, her vision fulfilled, she describes it as a kind of ‘birth’. Olamina never fully reconciles with her daughter or her brother Marcus, who together make an odd, but caring family unit.
There are various ‘unconventional’ family groups presented in the novel, many children are adopted or surrogates, there are queer parents and family units without parents, and strangers who find each other and make a family. Butler shows us again the capacity that humanity has for love and tenderness as well as hate and cruelty. That those who are rejected and oppressed have within them, perhaps, a greater ability to love and care for others. A stronger sense of empathy; a warmer heart.
Hope and Sacrifice
Finally I want to touch on the theme of hope in the novel, much of what I’ve written about seems bleak and depressing, but this novel is not that! This book, and Olamina’s religion is at its core a message of hope and optimism, of the greatness of human endeavour and a belief in science and of bettering ourselves. Earthseed is a religion based around education, self-betterment, it literally looks to the stars. Earthseed is in it for the long haul. And Butler doesn’t shy away from showing us the personal cost of this, or the fanaticism that is needed to push for change, how passion can tip over into extremism. Butler shows the personal loss involved in trying to create something greater than yourself, by giving us Larkin, Olamina’s daughter’s narrative, as well as Olamina’s diaries, we see the loss on both sides, the sacrifices made. Larkin loses her faith early on, in people and organised religion but she finds a family in her uncle. And Olamina loses her family through violence and her own need to plant her religion, yet she never loses her faith.
The end of the novel is hopeful, triumphant even, but tinged with sadness and loss. Butler ends with the Parable of the Talents from the Bible: a warning against squandering the gifts we are given. This novel explores what happens, when bold vision is given to good person: what they might achieve, what they will lose on the way and the compromises they will have to make to see it bear fruit.
I can think of few science fiction novels that I’ve read (and please recommend me more!) that write so explicitly and compellingly on the subject of religion, faith, family, race and gender while delivering a plot driven narrative, swimming with complex, interesting characters. Her novel is bleak and heartbreaking, but speaks of human survival, of humanities goodness and kindness, it’s ability to love and repair itself. And most of all it’s ability to hope.
When I finished the novel I sat still for a few moments and had a good cry, not because the book ends tragically, but because the book ended. When a writer as good as Butler lets you into a world they have created so completely there is always going to be a sense of loss when you have to leave it.
I’m planning to go back and read the first book Parable of the Sower but might wait until the election is over and we can all have more reason to hope.
[Edit: Aug 18. Butler seems even more prescient every day]