Unjustified optimism?

The end of the book provides something of a skeptical feeling of hope for our travelers.   I read in the Foreword that Earthseed was meant to be a trilogy; however, Butler only finished a sequel (and an unrelated novel) before she died.  The Foreword (by N.K. Jemisin also gives a spoiler to Parable of the Talents–uncool!  Even if the books are over twenty years old. 

By the way, Jemisin sounds pretty interesting.  Anyone read her?

To me, it is astonishing how many big questions go unanswered in the book.

I had mentioned wondering about the Mars mission and there’s no mention of that again.  We never find out anything about any state east of Central California and we never find out What Happened.  Obviously that information is irrelevant for the characters–they just have to move on–but it’s frustrating not to have even a hint.  [I accept that it wasn’t relevant to Butler, but I’m still curious].  We never hear anything about the community that the corporation bought, either–although there is a kind of follow up with someone from a similar community telling about how badly it turned out for the people living there.  

This section starts off with an earthquake.  Earthquakes are bad news in general but in this situation they are much worse because earthquakes tend to cause fires.  And we know who fires attract.  Zahra thinks that they might be able to scavenge for something they can use, but Lauren suspects, rightly, that it would be a dangerous thing to do–druggies and people more violent than they are would be there.  And this proves to be true.

In fact, it proves to be very smart to move on because they wind up putting some distance between themselves and the violent crowds that scavenged the burnt out houses.

Then they see a man pushing his belongings in twin saddlebags [I can’t actually picture this].  He’s about Lauren’s father’s age and looks in decent shape (and has all his teeth).  He says to her that the whole world’s gone crazy.  She replies that she’s heard that every three or four decades the world goes crazy.  He agrees: “The nineteen-nineties were crazy…but they were rich. Nothing like this bad.  I don’t think it’s ever been this bad” (229).

The man’s names is Taylor Franklin Bankole (call him Bankole).  Lauren likes him immediately. 

[Obviously Bankole’s name has significance as we shall see in a moment, but I wonder how much thought Butler put into names.  For a community that’s falling apart all around them, it’s interesting how much she specifies peoples names–first, middle, last nicknames etc.]

Lauren says

Our last names were an instant bond between us.  We’re both descended from men who assumed African surnames back during the 1960s.  His father and my grandfather had had their names legally changed and both had chosen Yoruba replacement names.
“Most people chose Swahili names in the ’60s,” Bankole told me.  “My father had to do something different.  All his life he had to be different” (230).

[So yes, he is one year older than her father would have been].

He joins their group, a bit warily at first, but is soon accepted.  And soon after, they get two more members. They hear two women screaming.  Normally one would ignore this sort of thing, but they felt safer in their big group.  The women were in an abandoned house when the earthquake collapsed it on them.  They were mostly okay, just a bit shaken up an bloody.

The two women are Jillian (Jill) and Allison (Allie) Gilchrist.  They are in their twenties and their father was their pimp.  They set fire to his house when he was really drunk–they don’t know if he survived.  Lauren hopes he didn’t.

Unfortunately, when the group helped the women, it made them an instant target.  A man grabbed Zahra and another grabbed Lauren.  Lauren stabbed the man up to the hilt of her knife–and the pain she felt was unimaginable.  Soon the pain died–which mean the man died.  Everyone was fine, but Zahra encouraged her to change clothes–she was bloody, which was an invitation to trouble.

By the end of the day they had made it to Salinas.  [Depending on where they started that’s roughly 300 miles]. It was untouched by scavengers but had a “stay on the road” look to it.  But people left them alone to shop and get supplies:

We were women and a baby as well as men, and three of us were white.  I don’t think any of that harmed us in their eyes. (240)

They got clean, bought water, food and ammunition.  “By the way,” Lauren bought “condoms for her own future”–I love the way she tucked that in with a “by the way” (241).

They also stopped at a kind of flea market and bought pots (Bankole’s cart could carry them) because they were 9 people now and needed more general supplies.  They also bought an old fashioned Winchester shotgun.

There’s also the first sign of the world outside of their immediate area.  Lauren managed to get a radio earpiece.  It doesn’t tell them much of the outside world, but it does tell them of trouble in the Bay Area.

[So there’s obviously someone broadcasting news.  This has to suggest some kind of basic infrastructure, right?  Similarly, the National Guard was called out–again, fascinating insight into the state of the country that there is still a National Guard but we let California (and more) get like this.]

They leave the 101 for a side highway, the I-5 which proves to be smart–fewer walkers and less trouble.

I’m fascinated by tis observation:

In some places, the rich are escaping by flying out in helicopters [where are they going?] The bridges that are still in tact–and most of them are–are guarded either by the police or by gangs.  Both groups are there to rob desperate fleeing people of their weapons, money food and water–at the least.  (246)

They made it to a safe spot and were able to rest, but soon enough they were woken in the night by gunfire.  Fortunately it wasn’t aimed at them.  Even though they were now a big group, they were able to keep themselves hidden and protected during the night.  But Lauren noticed that Bankole wasn’t in his spot.  She didn’t know if he’d run off or if he’d been shot while going to the bathroom.  But, in fact, he was trying to quiet an orphaned child–the boy’s mothers had been killed in the gunfire, and a noisy child is a giveaway they couldn’t afford.

Now their group was ten. The orphaned child, Justin Rohr, got attached to Allie–the more negative of the two sisters, so that seemed like a surprise.  Jill said it maid sense though because Allie had had a child of her own–a child who was killed by their father [graphically] because it cried too much.

Then they got to Hollister.  [I don’t know much of anything about California, so I don’t know if these town names are meant to signify anything to 1990s readers.  But Hollister seems to be a decent place to be].  The earthquake had done damage but the people there “seemed to be helping one another with repairs and looking after their own destitute.  Imagine that.” (257)

Things between Lauren and Bankole move pretty quickly, at least in her mind.

The nice thing about sitting and working alongside someone you don’t know very well, some one you’d like to know much better is that you can talk with him or be quiet with him.  You can get comfortable with him and with the awareness that you’ll soon be making love to him. (260)

But first she explains a bit of Earthseed o him.  He doesn’t exactly embrace it

It sounds like some combination of Buddhism, existentialism, Sufism and I don’t know what else (261).

But he’s not dismissive either:

She has fine tuned her ideas somewhat

The essentials are to lean to shape God with forethought, care, and work to educate and benefit their community, their families and themselves, and to contribute to the fulfillment of the Destiny. (261)

Bankole’s concern is that Earthseed is too straightforward. 

If you get people to accept it they’ll make it more complicated, more open to interpretation more mystical and more comforting (262). [I’m curious to see if this happens in the sequel].  But during the discussions, some of the others begin answering questions or chiming in with their ideas.  Earthseed is taking root among her flock.

Eventually Lauren and Bankole do settle down and make love and the enjoyable side of her hyperempathy is explored.  After they consummate, the reality of the fact that he’s 57 and she’s 18 sinks in.  He’s freaked out, but she is totally cool with it.

By September 9th the have made it all the way to Sacramento (another 185 miles), which is where they first see cannibalism.  Seems that trucks on I-5 are hitting people and not stopping which leaves parts for eating, I guess.

But compared to Southern California, there’s more water, more food, more room, so why were the people eating one another? (272)

But Lauren is more into Bankole than any other thoughts at the moment.  He has asked her to leave the group with him  She demurred and tried to read his intentions.

I didn’t see condescension or that particular kind of disregard that some men reserve for women.  He wasn’t deciding that my ‘no’ was a secret ‘yes.’  (273).

The big draw, though, is that he owns 300 acres further north (a piece of l can’t even imagine the size of).  His sister and her husband and children live there–and they had been in touch until he left.  Lauren rightly points out that here must be squatters there, but he says it’s hard to access the property from the main road.  

She changes his question into her own and proposes that they use that property for the first Earthseed Community–bring their entire group and set up a new there.

“The world is falling apart.  You could help me begin something purposeful and constructive.”
“Going to fix the world, are you?” he said with quiet amusement.”
“Are you sure you want God as your rival?”  (275-276)

He eventually turns this discussion into an offer of marriage–something his sister would be utterly angry about. [I’m fascinated that (promise of) marriage plays such a large part in this book, given the state of things].

They find a place to settle down for the night and when they wake up there are two more people among their group.  This is no good–clearly a failure of the watch, but they are lucky that the pair are friendly–a woman and her daughter.  They are clearly thieves, but they are not criminals (a nice distinction) and they do not try to steal from them.  Lauren realizes that–Emery Tanaka and her daughter Solis–are the most racially mixed people that she had ever met.  The woman had a Japanese father, a black mother, and a Mexican husband.

They worked for one of those giant agribusinesses.

Wages–surprise!–were never quite enough to pay the bills.  According to new laws that might or might not exist, people were not permitted to leave any employer to whom they owed money.  They were obligated to work off the debt either as quasi indentured people or as convicts.  That is if they refused to work, they could be arrested, jailed and, in the end, handed dover to their employers (288).

A few days later, they had two more companions: Grayson Mora and his daughter Doe.  Solis and Doe hit it off instantly and although Grayson was reluctant to join, he was happy to see his daughter make a friend.

Things seem to be going very smoothly.  Their posse is growing.  There is peace among their group, and they have a destination.

And then Jill is shot and killed.

During this skirmish, Lauren was hit by a bullet but it was a “cowboy wound”–hurt like hell and bled a lot but it was nothing serious (unless strangers saw that she was injured).  Bankole looks after her (he is a doctor!). 

While Lauren is thinking about this whole battle scene she realizes that Emery and Grayson as well as their kids are “sharers” like she is–that’s what they call people with hyeperempathy.  She wondered if the condition was transferred to children.  Some of their children did have it, but not all of them.

Then at last, on September 26, 2027 (56 days later) they reached Bankole’s land in the coastal hills of Humboldt county near Cape Mendocino. (They are still 150 miles form Oregon).  It was a wonderful moment of catharsis until they realized that his sister’s house was burnt to the ground and their bones were amid the ashes.

Bankole goes to the police to inquiry about the murder of his family, but they basically take all of the money he had on him–which wasn’t too much, but wasn’t too little either–they’d take something else if there wasn’t enough money.

Lauren knew it was a mistake from the get go and absolutely did not want the cops to come around.  [Given what’s going on in the country right now, this is a remarkable observation]

I wonder what you have to do to become a cop.  I wonder what a badge is, other than a license to steal.  What did it used to be to make people Bankole’s age want to trust it.  (316)

I also wonder if Octavia Butler hated dogs.  Dogs are sure evil in this book (and in Kindred).  When Bankole suggests getting dogs to protect their property Mora says “I wouldn’t give a dog nothing but a bullet or a rock.  I saw dogs eat a woman once.”

They decide that things will be okay, but Harry still wants to get a job.  In a rather disturbing moment Emery suggests that Harry could be a driver.  When he says he doesn’t know how to drive she says no, a driver of people.

Making them work.  Pushing them to work faster.  Making them do…whatever the owners says
Harry’s expression had dissolved from hopeful to horrified to outraged, “Jesus God, do you think I’ do that!  How could you think I’d do anything like that?”
Emery shrugged. It startled me that she could be indifferent about such a thing but she seemed to be…. “Some people think its a good job.”  (323).

The book ends on a tone of optimism from Lauren but pessimism from Bankole. He says “you’re so young … I wish you could have known this country when it was still salvageable.”

The eternal optimist, Lauren says “It might survive…  Changed, but still itself.”

But Bankole retorts:

No.  Human beings will survive of course.  Some other countries will survive. Maybe they’ll absorb what’s left of us.  Or maybe we’ll just break up into a lot of little states quarrelling and fighting with each other over whatever crumbs are left (327).

[Seeing what we’re witnessing politically these days, this seems scarily predictive.]

Bankole’s last thought in the book is “I don’t think we have a hope in hell of succeeding here.” (328).

And yet, they decide to name the place Acorn, which is certainly a sign of hope.

It would be five years before she would write the follow up.  I’m curious how you would read this if you didn’t know there was a sequel.  Is that an unreasonably optimistic ending?  Does it seem like Lauren’s ability to win people over shows that they have a chance of succeeding?

I’m very curious what the next book will show.

Sculptor and Clay

Having finished Parable of the Sower, I still have no idea how to receive the character and the teachings of Lauren Olamina. Looking back at the foreword by N.K. Jemisin after finishing the book, I was a little heartened to read this:

Lauren Olamina no longer felt anachronistically know-it-all to me, as she had when I’d first sampled the novel. (She always read to me as an older woman’s idea of what a smart teenager should be, rather than a realistic rendering of what smart teenagers are actually like.)

This doesn’t precisely capture my feelings about Lauren, though it comes close to capturing what bugs me about the epigraphs, which is that they feel kind of half-baked or faux-prophetic, so that I don’t know whether to receive them as if they’re a sort of scripture to revere or whether to receive them as if they’re a kid’s attempt to write a scripture to be revered. That is, I’m not clear on whether the crummy writing is Lauren’s or Butler’s. I’ve had similar thoughts about other books before — “is this a case of an unreliable narrator or does the author just not know how to write consistently from the speaker’s point of view?”

Jemisin writes in the foreword about reading Butler’s parable books at different times in her life and getting different things from them at each time. She certainly values Butler’s work, and her foreword makes me want to revisit the books a decade or two in my future. Meanwhile, I think I’ll content myself with putting aside further attempts to puzzle out intent vs. effect of the epigraphs.

I’ll go one step further and identify something positive I gained from the epigraphs. There is a quote from the epigraph at the top of chapter 22 that stood out to me in this week’s reading:

God
Is both creative and destructive,
Demanding and yielding,
Sculptor and clay.

Reading this was sort of a record-scratch moment for me, as it brought to mind two lines of poetry I’ve tumbled around together in my mind in association with one another for twenty-some years. The first is the closing line of Yeats’s “Among School Children“:

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

The other is a line from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:

Who is the potter, pray, and who the pot?

This notion of art and artist inseparable, articulated beautifully in these rhythmic questions, has always stuck with me, and I must’ve repeated these lines to myself a few hundred times over the years if only for the comfort of pronouncing the syllables.

I have no great revelation to share about these quotes. Butler’s phrase just stood out to me and made satisfying connections to some other things I had read.

As for the book as a whole? I liked it. It’s grim, but I like grim. And there’s hope, but I don’t think it’s wide-eyed, unbridled hope. There’s also a lot left on the table. What more might we learn about sharers in Parable of the Talents? Will Acorn turn into an oasis and counterpoint to Olivar or will it be scavenged and burned again? Will more be made of Olivar? Will Earthseed take hold? Will Lauren wind up among the stars? I haven’t read Parable of the Talents and am eager to begin.

A High-Five for Travis

I was so gratified to see Travis testing Lauren’s Earthseed philosophy. (Religion? I mean, yes, but is it yet?) I’d had some similar questions myself, and it was pretty clear that Lauren wasn’t going to just engage them in her journal. She’s got better things to do with her time. But it should have occurred to me that someone she met would do the asking for me. Plato gave Butler the dialogic tools for it a couple thousand years ago.

That conversation between Lauren and Travis got me thinking more about Earthseed itself, though, and what we know of it. Principally, that’s the epigraphs—which we’ve talked a little about already. But looking back on the disappointment we expressed there, I see that mine is pretty firmly rooted in reading them as literature. That’s certainly a legitimate way to read parts of a novel! (He says, understating the case.) But they’re not part of the narrative here, they’re sort of in-world apparatus to the text. So they’re susceptible to a reading for that function too, their Watsonian value as scripture. So I guess I’m doing exegesis this week! Or at the very least, taxonomy.

Chapter 1 starts with actually a pretty strong couple verses: “All that you touch / You Change. / All that you Change / Changes you. / The only lasting truth / Is Change. / God Is Change.” That’s actually just pretty straightforwardly good Buddhist philosophy, and focuses on the interconnectedness of everything. A pretty good summary of Earthseed, I expect. Except then suddenly the word “God” shows up, and I agree with Travis: Why? Lauren’s answer is essentially a matter of durability and social engineering (shades of the Bene Gesserit), but I’m not convinced. I mean, personally I’m not convinced by any argument about God; but the Eightfold Path of Buddhism is good and enduring, and it doesn’t couch its exhortations in terms of a god. Compare the Ten Commandments to the Eightfold Path: one is an authority telling you how to circumscribe your behavior, the other is guidelines for measuring yourself against yourself and striving to improve. It’s not clear to me that the introduction of the concept of God strengthens Earthseed.

It strikes me that for a book named after one of Jesus’s parables, we don’t get any parables from the Book of the Living. We get close a couple times, with Chapter 6 (“Drowning people / Sometimes die / Fighting their rescuers.”) and Chapter 14 (“In order to rise / From its own ashes / A phoenix / First / Must / Burn.”), but notice that neither of them uses a definite article. A parable, as Daryl said, is a simple story, but it’s also a specific story. Take the Chapter 6 epigraph, for instance. In the form of a parable, it would be a simple little story about a person who was drowning and thrashed so hard that their would-be rescuers were unable to hold onto them and pull them back to shore. Not some nebulous drowning people, whom it’s difficult to identify with, but a specific person. (Notice that it’s the Parable of the Sower, not a Sower.) The more elliptical statements in Lauren’s Book of the Living are more distant, more abstractly philosophical. They seem to invite an either/or kind of understanding—”I get it!” or “I don’t”—rather than the experiential sort of process that a parable, with its conscription of narrative, takes devotees through.

More effective, I think, are the more direct verses, by which I mean Chapters 2 (“A gift of God / May sear unready fingers.”), 5 (“Belief / Initiates and guides action— / Or it does nothing.”), 8 (“To get along with God, / Consider the consequences of your behavior.”), and 15 (“Kindness eases Change”). They’re not trying to gussy up any of their meaning, and they’re not meant as koans or contemplative prompts; they’re telling the faithful of Earthseed how to be. Be ready, be active, be thoughtful, be kind. This is the moral philosophy of Earthseed, where the scripture tells readers how to be good according to their beliefs.

Chapter 13 (“There is no end / To what a living world / Will demand of you.”) isn’t quite the same type, to me, but it’s one of my favorites, and there is some relationship. It’s more about a mindset than any specific practice or trait to cultivate, which is also the case with Chapters 3 (“We do not worship God. / We perceive and attend God. / We learn from God. / With forethought and work, / We shape God. / In the end, we yield to God. / We adapt and endure, / For we are Earthseed / And God is Change.”), 4 (“A victim of God may, / Through learning adaptation, / Become a partner of God, / A victim of God may, / Through forethought and planning, / Become a shaper of God. / Or a victim of God may, / Through shortsightedness and fear, / Remain God’s victim, / God’s plaything, / God’s prey.”), and 11 (“Any Change may bear seeds of benefit. / Seek them out. / Any Change may bear seeds of harm. / Beware. / God is infinitely malleable. / God is Change.”). These verses are emphasizing the way to understand the world around you, the wisdom counterpart to the previous category’s praxis.

There’s a sort of cosmological/sociological strain too, which seems to me the weakest of all of the epigraphs: Chapters 7 (“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.”), 9 (“All struggles / Are essentially / power struggles. / Who will rule, / Who will lead, / Who will define, / refine, / confine, / design, / Who will dominate. / All struggles / Are essentially power struggles, / And most are no more intellectual / than two rams / knocking their heads together.”), 10 (“When apparent stability disintegrates, / As it must— / God is Change— / People tend to give in / To fear and depression, / To need and greed. / When no influence is strong enough / To unify people / They divide. / They struggle, / One against one, / Group against group, / For survival, position, power. / They remember old hates and generate new ones, / They create chaos and nurture it. / They kill and kill and kill, / Until they are exhausted and destroyed, / Until they are conquered by outside forces, / Or until one of them becomes / A leader / Most will follow, / Or a tyrant / Most fear.”), and 17 (“Embrace diversity. / Unite— / Or be divided, / robbed, / ruled, / killed / By those who see you as prey. / Embrace diversity / Or be destroyed.”). These are the ones, honestly, where I wish we had parables instead. They’re just so…diagnostic. “This is the way the world is.” Well that’s a lot of cases to try to cover. They would be rhetorically stronger, I think, and more scripturally effective, if they were told as stories that exemplified the themes but showed the counterexamples as well, for followers to identify with. It’s easy enough to think of how it could be done; hell, off the top of my head, Chapter 17 could be about two farmers, one practicing monoculture and one crop diversification, or two villages, one insular and disproportionately affected by a genetic disease and another constantly welcoming newcomers and making the whole genetic pool more robust. Better than “Embrace diversity or be destroyed.”

Lauren’s building a mindfulness component into her doctrine, too. Chapters 12 (“We are Earthseed / The life that perceives itself / Changing.”) and 16 (“Earthseed / Cast on new ground / Must first perceive / That it knows nothing”) both have a real humility and depth to them in terms of rooting the practice of Earthseed—whatever it is—in the center of your being. Who you are, what you’re experiencing, what you know, what you don’t. It keeps you in communication with yourself and challenges you to be connected and honest. Clearly Earthseed is going to be cast on new ground—there’s a Destiny—and so some of this is about preparing those travelers for success. But all of life is a journey, it says; anywhere is new ground.

And then there’s the one that truly made me scoff when I read it: Chapter 18 (“Once or twice / each week / A Gathering of Earthseed / is a good and necessary thing. / It vents emotion, then / quiets the mind. / It focuses attention, / strengthens purpose, and / unifies people.”). (It is, of course, also the chapter in which Lauren gets her first convert. This is not a coincidence.) It seems so…paltry. It’s not “here’s how to be a good person,” it’s not “here’s how societies are structured but shouldn’t be,” it’s not “know thyself”—it’s “have church a couple times a week, for these specific reasons.” But then I realized something that I think is actually really neat about this one, more than any of the others. This particular set of verses is about how to establish an Earthseed community. It’s the rules of the early church, not doctrine but management. More than any of the other epigraphs, it gives a vision into the process of Earthseed turning from one girl’s ideas into a community and presumably then a movement and a religion. There are things like this in the Christian New Testament too, what seem like finicky little details on how to run services or to operate a church. They’re not really instructions on how to worship; “once or twice” is entertainingly vague for scripture. But what Lauren needs if Earthseed is going to grow is for it to spread. She needs Earthseed communities to sprout in more places than just wherever she is, and for them to have a shared identity. Now that I’m reading this epigraph as community consolidation rather than scheduling, I can’t help feeling like it would be such an interesting one for future historians of Earthseed to use in re-creating the early communities of their faith, and that just tickles me.

A Germ of Hope?

(Apologies for not getting this up sooner, Spring Break has put me off my game!).

I have not read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and I don’t intend to.  But I feel like this book acts as a precursor to that one.  And that is something I did not in any way expect.

2026 opens in June, almost seven months after the previous entry.  I’m curious about the distance between entries.  It’s possible that Lauren has dozens and dozens of pages that just said, “today sucked” and we don’t need to see that.  But I am curious about the time jumps.

Is it a way for Butler to move us ahead quickly so that something that needed to take a few years to happen is given the time to do so?  I’m thinking about Mars a bit.  In two years a lot can happen with the space program.  Of course, the President was supposed to cancel the program.  So who knows what’s going on there.  Aside from basic passage of time, did we need to wait six months to see what came next?  I’m not sure.

In June Keith is back–bigger and more confident.  He’s not yet 14, but he’s very successful, bringing home money and gifts (but none for his father).  He has ingratiated himself into a gang by being the only literate one in the group:

They’re all older than me, but not one of them can read or write anything.  They stole all this great stuff and they couldn’t even use it.  Before I got there they even broke some of it because they couldn’t read the instructions. (105)

Lauren and Keith have a heart-to-heart–really their first ever.  He learns a bit about her and while he gains a little more respect he also tells her that she’d never survive out there–she doesn’t know enough.  He also tells her about these new crazies called Paints who paint their skin green or blue or yellow and eat fire and kill rich people.

Keith comes back on her birthday and gives her a present.  A month later he is dead–killed in a horrific and gruesome way.  He was clearly tortured and left to be found.  His death was a message for someone–a rival gang, probably.

But they don’t call the police:

cops liked to solve cases by “discovering” evidence against whomever they decided must be guilty.  Best to give them nothing.  They never helped when people called for help.  They came later and more often than not, made a bad situation worse. (114)

In October, a new component to the story crops up. 

Kagimoto, Stamm, Frampton and Company (KSF) has taken over a nearby town called Olivar.  It is small and well to do.  The citizens voted to let their town be taken over–privatized.  They intend to set up energy resources in the community–solar, wind, desalinization.  They mean to own great industries in an area that people have given up on.

Kagimoto, Stamm Frampton: Japanese, German, Canadian.  When I was young, people said it would come to this. Well why shouldn’t other countries buy what’s left of us if we put it up for sale. (121)

This is another aspect of the story that confuses me.  Is it basically that Los Angeles has exploded and the rest of the country is okay?  There’s talk about work up north, but why?  What happened to the country that they/we would let L.A. collapse but nothing else.  Or maybe it’s the entire South West?  Nobody knows anything about the East Coast, apparently.   I’m hoping that they will get explained a bit later on.

Olivar was accepting applications to live there.  They were looking for educated people.  And here we learn that both of Lauren’s parents have PhDs [a commentary on the invisibility of Black scholars?].  Her stepmother thinks it’s a great idea to go to Olivar.  They would be guaranteed safety and security.  But her father is against it, calling it “half antebellum revival and half science fiction” (122).

Anyone KSF hired would have a hard time living on the salary offered. In not very much time, I think the new hires would be in debt to the company.  That’s an old company-town trick–get people into debt, hang on to them and work them harder.  Debt slavery. That might work in Christopher Bonner’s America. Labor laws, state and federal are not what they once were. (121)

Come November, the Garfields have been accepted at Olivar.  The Garfieds include Joanne, Lauren’s one time best friend (who misplaced Lauren’s trust by tattling to her father).  Joanne has been serious with Harry Balter.  But Harry is staying in Rebledo.  Lauren suggests they get married and then Harry can move in with them, but she says that Harry wants to get married and travel north.  He thinks they way Lauren’s father does about Olivar.

But the Garfields are still going: “conservative and sensible and mature and wrong” (128).

In November, Lauren’s father did not come home one night.  They spend days looking for him with no luck.  The search parties uncover all kinds of remains, some of which they think might be her father’s but which turn out not to be.

The search also reveals an aspect of Lauren’s hyperempathy that we didn’t know–sound doesn’t trigger it (she hears a man screaming), only sight does. 

Five days alter they have a Sunday survive that turns more or less into a memorial.  Lauren speaks at he service and proves to be powerful preacher.  She speaks of God but presumably she means her own god–the earthseed god.  By mid-December they have a formal funeral–they accept that he would have found his way home by now.

Later, when KSF came for the Garfields, it was in an armored truck

The two movers were a black and a white, and I could see that Cory considered that hopeful.  Maybe Olivar wouldn’t be the white enclave that Dad had expected. (139)

All along Lauren has been romantically involved with Curtis.  People anticipated that she would get married an have a baby with him–something she strongly resisted.  Indeed, her plan all along was to leave Rebledo without him.  But now with Lauren’s father gone (he was the reason she hadn’t left yet–she didn’t want to hurt him), Curtis suggests that they both go.  He’s upset that she wanted to go without him, but she explains that she didn’t want to force him to make that choice.

Two days later, someone burned down the Payne/Parrish house; while that was going on. they robbed three of the other houses including Lauren’s.   

I’ve been frightened at the phrases that Butler says that prove eerily prophetic to the last few years:

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.  (143)

Interestingly, the drug that gave Lauren her hyperempathy–Paracetco–was initially a legitimate drug intended to help victims of Alzheimer’s disease.  Pyro was an accident–a homebrew on the East coast it made it was away across the country.

People on the fire drug get off on watching things burn.  Blaze, fuego, flash, sunfire.  The most popular name is pyro short for pyromania [I’m fascinated that she needed to spell that out as I feel that in 2021 (and much earlier) it was a common abbreviation].

As the year ends, the families try to make due with what they have left.

Then we enter 2027.  Once again it’s six months into the year.  And this is when things change dramatically.   Thieves drove a truck through their wall and set everything on fire.  Nearly everyone in the community was killed.  [I did wonder if it was worthwhile learning anyone’s names, and it was two people I didn’t think twice about who survived].  The description is a violent orgy of death, rape, fire and who knows what else.  It is brutally described.  Lauren escaped.  She had the forethought to run back in and put on clothe and shoes and grab her bug out bag.  No one else in her family had done so. She saw them n bare feet and pajamas and then she didn’t see them any more.  She managed to get outside and to hide until the next day,

She crept back into her community and went to her house which was being looted and stripped. She knew where there were some hiding places and she managed to get clothes for her family as well as money that was hidden in the ground.  She grabbed a gun and got out, looking like all the other miserable looters.

Lauren was sure she was alone.  Then out of the rubble came Harry Balter and Zahra Moss–the youngest wife of Richard Moss the polygamist.  Zahra’s baby was killed (brutally) and an attacker was about to (or had begun to) rape her when Harry saved her (and got beaten for his help).  Neither one had planned for anything like this and they are pretty hopeless.  Lauren decides that three is safer than one and invites them to go North with her.

Zahra’s backstory is interesting.  Richard bought her from her mother who was a drug addict and a prostitute.  Zahra has lived on the streets and she knows what’s what.  She takes them to Hanning Joss, the biggest secure store complex.  I’m fascinated to learn that there are are still megastores and that they have security allowing people to shop safely there–commerce always wins.

Then they do what everybody else does–they head North.  Lauren has decided to pass as a man.  She’s tall and muscular and can do so, so she cuts her hair short.  They encounter much danger and violence but manage to get relatively far north.  Harry is a trusting guy, trying to avoid violence in any way possible.  But Lauren (and Zahra) knows the reality of the situation–kill or be killed; steal or be stolen from.  And with Lauren’s hyperempathy, she can’t afford to let people around her suffer.  She winds up cutting a man’s throat to stop the hurting that he (and she) are feeling.  Harry is appalled at her.  So she finally admits to her hyperempathy assuming they’ll abandon her.  But they do not–three is better than two.

Zahra and Harry become a couple and have unprotected sex (what harm could come from that?) 

Then the trio meet another family who seems to be tagging along after them.  Everyone is out for themselves, but Lauren takes pity on this mixed race couple with a baby.  She helps them out at the second Hanning Joss and a few days later, when Lauren saves their baby from a feral dog, they agree that five (or six) is better than three and two (or three).

The new people are Travis Charles Douglas, Gloria Natividad Douglas and six month old Dominic. They are going to Seattle where Travis’ aunt lives.  Travis is quite taken aback when he learns that Lauren is a woman–especially since she saved them, but he’s going to have to get over it.

All of this time, Earthseed has been running around in Lauren’s head, but it hasn’t really shown up. 

Then in chapter 18, Lauren starts talking to them about Earthseed.  Travis is a (surprisingly) intelligent man–he knows about entropy.

Travis’s mother was a live in cook for a rich man.  But before that she had written for newspapers and magazines.  She taught Travis to read. The man she worked for had a library and she would sneak out one book at a  time–he didn’t want Travis touching his stuff.

Of course. Slaves did that two hundred years ago.  They sneaked around and educated themselves as best they could sometimes suffering whipping, sale or mutilation for their efforts. (218)

Natividad was a maid and the rich man let them marry:  The son of the cook marrying one of the maids. That was like something out of another era too.

They discuss her poems–Earthseed.  Travis pushes back against her ideas, although never in an aggressive way.

She argues that here is no pore pervasive power than change.  Travis says that nobody is going to worship change.  Lauren says she hopes not

This excerpt from God is Change summarizes this discussion nicely:

“I was looking for God. I didn’t know whether there was a god to find, but I wanted to know. God would have to be a power that could not be defied by anyone or anything.”
“Change.”
“Change, yes.”
“But it’s not a god. It’s not a person or an intelligence or even a thing. It’s just … I don’t know. An idea.”
“It’s a truth. Change is ongoing. Everything changes in some way— size, position, composition, frequency, velocity, thinking, whatever. Every living thing, every bit of matter, all the energy in the universe changes in some way.”
“Sort of like saying God is the second law of thermodynamics?”
“That’s an aspect of God. There are all kinds of changes in the universe.”
“But why personify change by calling it God? Since change is just an idea, why not call it that? Just say change is important.”
“Because after a while, it won’t be important. People forget ideas. They’re more likely to remember God— especially when they’re scared or desperate.”
“Your stuff isn’t very comforting.”
“It is after a while. I’m still growing into it myself. God isn’t good or evil, doesn’t favor you or hate you, and yet God is better partnered than fought.”
“Your God doesn’t care about you at all.”
“All the more reason to care about myself and others. All the more reason to create Earthseed communities and shape God together. ‘God is Trickster, Teacher, Chaos, Clay.’ We decide which aspect we embrace— and how to deal with the others.”
“But nobody’s going to worship change.”
“I hope not.  Earthseed deals with ongoing reality, not with supernatural authority figures. Worship is no good without action. With action, it’s only useful if it steadies you, focuses your efforts, eases your mind.”
“Praying makes people feel better even when there’s no action they can take. I used to think that was all God was good for.”
“That isn’t what God is for, but there are times when that’s what prayer is for. And there are times when that’s what these verses are for. God is Change, and in the end, God prevails. But there’s hope in understanding the nature of God— not punishing or jealous, but infinitely malleable. There’s comfort in realizing that everyone and everything yields to God. There’s power in knowing that God can be focused, diverted, shaped by anyone at all. But there’s no power in having strength and brains, and yet waiting for God to fix things for you. Best to understand that and return the effort: Shape God.”

Lauren thinks he might join her movement.  Zahra is already on board. 

She imagines finding and isolated place on the coast and making a deal with the owners–if there were more of them and they were better armed, they could provide security as well as education.

This fantasy, this plan gives the first sign of hope in this bleak world of Lauren’s.  It seems impossible.

Intersectionality

Probably you’ve heard of intersectionality. But maybe you haven’t. I hadn’t until the past few years. It’s a metaphor coined by law professor and anti-racist activist Kimberlé Crenshaw that helps describe compounded disadvantages. You could find far worse ways to spend 7 minutes than to listen to her explain the metaphor and its origin here. Go watch it if you haven’t run across the term before. I’ll wait. (I started trying to briefly explain it, but Crenshaw is so eloquent on it that my ham-fisted attempt to render it in my own words seemed folly.)

Photo by Joey Lu from Pexels

We see lots of compounded disadvantage in The Parable of the Sower. There’s sexism, classism, racism, and other bigotry on display. People who can’t read are further disadvantaged. Lauren is especially interesting, as she is a Black woman (there’s a familiar intersection there), but she’s also a sharer. This compounds her disadvantage by making it very difficult for her to even defend herself effectively, since if she does so, she’ll knock herself down with empathetic pain when she knocks down any assailant. It’s a particularly nasty disadvantage that reminded me of Dana’s double bind in Kindred; if Dana didn’t rescue Rufus, she would be undoing herself, recall.

We see some other little glimpses of intersectionality when Lauren and Zahra and Harry leave their neighborhood. Lauren disguises herself as a man to rid herself of the disadvantage of clearly being a woman. They joke about Harry getting a tan so that he can rid himself of the disadvantage of being a member of a mixed-race party.

There are of course actual paved intersections in the book. On page 197 in my edition (early in chapter 17), Lauren and company move from the 118 to the 23 freeway. There’s a big fire nearby, and there’s also the danger of a water station as they transition, approximately through this intersection. These dangers are in play all along their route, but it struck me that Butler brought these two elemental opposite dangers together as these freeways converged.

Just a few pages later (same section, page 203 in my edition), the party comes to the beach and has moved from the 23 to the 101, which runs all the way through California heading north and which they’ll follow as far as they can. It’s at approximately this intersection that they team up with the small family — a Black man, a Latina, and their child who have their own disadvantages. And it’s at about the time these groups come together in spite of their shared caution that things really start clicking with Lauren’s Earthseed ideas. She gets, she thinks, her first convert in Travis Charles Douglas, the father in their group of new companions. It was at the one intersection that Lauren helped the family and after banding together at about the time of the second freeway intersection that sharing their struggle made the whole group stronger.

My impression is that Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality was mostly limited to legal circles in its first few years, which would have coincided with Butler’s work on Parable of the Sower. So I don’t mean to suggest that Butler is picking up what Crenshaw was putting down and dramatizing it. Intersections have been symbols going way back before Crenshaw and Butler ever put pen to paper. Still, it’s a neat convergence, especially in a chapter whose epigraph reads, in part, “Embrace diversity / Or be destroyed.”

There’s a lot more going on in this section than this tenuous connection to critical race theory. We’re learning more about Lauren’s belief system. The stuff about entropy was pretty neat to run across. Lauren acknowledges that it’s weird to personify a belief system as a deity and explains why she chose to do so (it’s pragmatic, basically). I had been wondering, so I’m glad she answered. We see a budding romance and some attendant tension, and we see Harry betray Lauren’s pronouns (is this a sort of thoughtless microaggression, I wonder?), and I sure wonder how that’s going to come back later. And we learn more about Lauren’s vision for Earthseed, which is, somehow, “to take root among the stars,” which connects back to the Mars mission she thinks about early in the book. So we’re seeing, perhaps, a turn away from apocalypse fiction and toward science fiction, which is beginning to whet my appetite for Parable of the Talents.

The Benefit of the Doubt

Seems like we’re sort of all in the same boat responding to this first chunk of reading in The Parable of the Sower: It’s only Act I, so we’ve got both too much and too little to work with. But I’m also about to give y’all whiplash, going from my rah-rah explorations with Kindred to holding my nose on the way into this book (but looking forward to it anyway, because Butler is a great read). And yet.

Here’s my question, underlain by my personal tastes, but it’s an honest question: What is the purpose of apocalypse fiction?

I’m specifically making a distinction between apocalypse fiction and postapocalyptic fiction, because I totally get the point—and the appeal (which is a different thing)—of the conjectures and experiments that postapocalyptic fiction allows. How might human societies be reorganized after a sea change in certain structures or resources or conditions? Good question, with so many knobs and parameters to fiddle with! It’s one of the versions of the question “What if?” that I mentioned at the beginning of this IZ go-round, which sf as a literary approach is made for answering.

I suspect that’s where we’re going with these Earthseed books, but it’s not where we are. Right now we’re in the slow-motion apocalypse itself. And sure, the details may differ from example to example, but this story always goes the same way, right? It’s an inevitable descent, at one speed or another, into a Hobbesian nightmare of warring clans under the law of the jungle.

So: Why? Given the formula, and the straight-up misery and panic that always accompany the apocalypse, I’m skeptical of an argument for aesthetic pleasure. (Although I’m open to hearing one!) Does it have an instrumental function, then? Is it a pessimistic prediction? An Old Testament–style prophecy? Or is there even truly such a thing as apocalypse fiction as distinct from just the incipit of a postapocalyptic story? Is it just an extended buildup to the postapocalyptic part, giving us time with the characters on their way to the real meat of the story?

The Devil is in the Details

For me, it feels early yet to say much of substance about Parable of the Sower. It’s dystopian. It seems prescient, as Paul has noted. I think it’s not so far from our current reality, perhaps, as Paul suggests, though certainly it’s not quite our reality. I thought for example about “the talk” that Black children are given and wondered if the story didn’t offer a way into trying to understand what it might feel like if all kids (all people) had to live with that pervasive fear. That is, maybe the world does feel this dangerous, or nearly this dangerous, to Black people who are doing things as audacious as driving while Black, walking while Black, etc. The book was published in 1993; Rodney King was beaten by police in 1991. The police in Parable of the Sower seem little more inclined to administer justice than the L.A. police of 1991, or the Minneapolis police of 2020.

But I feel a little uneasy about presuming to say much more than that about the topic. It just feels a little weird for a reason I’m having trouble sussing out for myself, much less writing about coherently for you.

So, as is my way, I’m going to zoom in on a weird little detail and make much out of nothing.

I came to this detail by way of thinking about the epigraphs, which I sort of hate. Lots of sci-fi and fantasy books have these sorts of epigraphs — things that give little slices of the world that don’t exist precisely within the story. They add texture and a sense of sort of deep time and weight to the books when done well. But here they seem to me like so much nonsense — perhaps like the “deep thoughts” of a child trying to articulate a tolerable worldview in bleak times. I’ve wondered if Lauren is indeed some sort of philosopher or sage or whether she’s just a kid making up nonsense and calling it poetry. She expresses some doubts about this herself, and her father characterizes her as arrogant. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve taken a liking to Lauren. But the epigraphs really aren’t working for me so far.

Noodling on this brought me around to thinking about form or genre in general, which is one of my tics. This is a parable. So what is a parable exactly? It’s a simple story told to teach a lesson. Butler’s parable happens to build on and be named after the parable Jesus told in Matthew 13, which I won’t here attempt to interpret (though perhaps there’s some self-reflection I could do based on the parable given my thorny reception of Lauren’s verses). No, I’ll leave the hermeneutics here to fitter minds and turn my attention to word origins.

Parable. It’s a weird little word, short in length for its three lovely syllables. Sometimes I can pretty confidently figure out the approximate origin of a word based on its roots, but this one I wasn’t sure about. The words “parabola” and “palaver” came to mind, and as it turns out, the three are related. In geometry, a parabola is a comparison of a line relative to a fixed point, resulting in the familiar curve (I wonder, suddenly, how many parables we might find in Gravity’s Rainbow?). In story-telling, I suppose we’re looking at the comparison between the essentially straight line of the surface story relative to the fixed point of the lesson it aims to purvey. Maybe that’s too fanciful.

Going back a little farther in the origin of the word, we get to the Greek parabállein — meaning “to cast before” — of which the bállein part means “to reach by throwing, let fly, strike, put, place.” Ok, neat enough. Thinking of both math and story-telling put me in mind too of the hyperbola and of hyperbole, which seemed similarly fashioned. And it turns out that the bol part of all of these words comes from that same Greek root bállein. Given that a sower is one who casts seeds, then, the parable of the sower is, in a way, a casting before one who casts, which is not significant but is oddly satisfying.

The final word connection I’ll make here is one that surprised me — these words are all tangentially related to the word “devil.” It makes more sense when you think of the Spanish “diablo” or of “diabolical.” See that “bol” root again? The word comes ultimately from the same bállein plus dia, meaning “across.” The devil is the one who tries to sort of throw some obstacle across your path. This sidebar has nothing at all to do with the book but was a fun thing to discover.

I will, at last, make one observation about the book itself, which is that the Biblical parable of the sower is much more about the reaper than the sower. Where the sower’s seeds fall has an impact on how the seeds will grow, but Jesus connects the growth of the seeds to the recipient of scripture, so that the sower has little to do with the story at all. Butler seems so far to be doing something rather different, as the story is very much about Lauren as the sower of Earthseed. Of course in the end, it may turn out to be about the recipients of Lauren’s (and Butler’s?) scripture after all. We don’t yet know what will come of Lauren’s world, but as Paul points out, we’re already seeing how some of Butler’s warnings about our recent past and near future seem to be coming at least partially true. Maybe Butler’s book is ultimately about the recipient too.

Bleakness

I found Kindred to be an enjoyable (not exactly the right word, I know) novel.  I thought the premise was really cool and I thought the content was impactful and was conveyed really well.  It was a powerful story that did not shy away from brutality.

But it in no way prepared me for Parable of the Sower.

I didn’t know anything about this book at all before starting.  At first I thought it was neat that it was set in 2024 (hey that’s so close!)  And that, coincidentally, myself and my daughters are almost the same ages as the main character and her father (will this be our future?).

But then, holy crap, Butler doesn’t hold back.

The brutality of Kindred was based on reality.  It was horrible and, in retrospect, hard to believe that people could do such things.  The brutality of Sower, however, is all based on the future projection.  The book was written in 1993. Basically, she posits that in 30 years, America has become a rotting hellscape.  And while we haven’t reached quite the levels that she imagines, there are some pretty eerie accuracies.  I have to assume, given the natural of the elected politicians, that some things are going to get very very spookily prescient.

The book opens in 2024 with a quote from Earthseed.  We don’t know what that is yet, but by the end of this week’s read we’ll learn that Earthseed is a sort of manifesto written by the main character, Lauren Oya Olamina–I didn’t realize her name was given after the first quote from Earthseed until looking back on it.  Each chapter has another quote from Earthseed and then the story unfolds as a series of diary entries.

There is a lot in these chapters about Lauren’s feelings about God and how she starts to develop her beliefs and theories that she wants to write up under the name Earthseed.  It’s still underdeveloped in these first two chapters, and I imagine someone else will talk about it more than I’m willing to at this point.

The first entry in her diary is Saturday July 20, 2024 which is Lauren’s fifteenth birthday and her father’s fifty-fifth.  It opens talking about Lauren’s dreams, and I found the story a little unfocused–I was afraid I wouldn’t enjoy the book.

But the next day’s entry brings things into focus and while I enjoyed the writing more, the content quickly becomes horrific. 

Lauren says that three years earlier, her father’s God ceased to be her own.  Yet on this day, she and some others in their neighborhood were going to be baptized.   She tells us that things are bad in their neighborhood–kids don’t go to school anymore, and in fact, parents are nervous about their kids going outside at all.

Sounds like overprotective parents have gone too far (this was written in the 90s, after all, the start of the helicopter parent).

Then she starts giving details–churches burned, there’s no water, thieves are everywhere and their neighborhood is surrounded by a wall that they really never go past.  They live 20 miles from to L.A. (in Robledo), and although her father says “the city is one big carcass covered in maggots” (9), Lauren tells us the maggots are in her town too.

The people involved in the baptism–the children and their parents, rode their bicycles (“gas was pretty much only used for torching things these days”) to the one church still standing. And that’s when the details get really gruesome.

There are people lying all over the roads.  “I saw at least three people who weren’t goin to wake up again, ever.  One of them was headless” (9). Then she sees a young woman, walking, naked, down the street. She was dazed or drunk or something: “maybe she had been raped so much that she was crazy.   I’d heard stories of that happening.  Or maybe she was just high on drugs.” (9). The boys were pretty amazed to see a naked woman, no matter her condition.

Why did no one help her?  “My stepmother says she and my father stopped to help an injured woman once, and the guys who injured her jumped out from behind the wall and almost killed them” (10).

This book is science fiction, but at first it just seemed like a purely dystopian novel.  Then we learn that Lauren has a particularly science-fictiony condition.  One that makes it especially difficult for her to live in this world.  She suffers from hyperempathy.  Whenever she witnesses pain, she experiences it herself.  Her father believes it is something she can get over, but that doesn’t seem to be true.  Butler really likes to explore this kind of aspect interpersonal connection and i look forward to what she’s going to do with it.

Her brother Keith would fight her and when she hit back, she would feel the same pain.  Then she’d get punished for hitting her brother and feel more pain.  She has this “organic delusional syndrome” because her mother took too many Paracetco, the Einstein powder, which killed her.

The syndrome is supposed to make her share pleasure and pain, but there’s not much pleasure to be seen.  The good news is that once she got her period, she stopped actively bleeding in response to others’ blood.

Moving forward a few days, Lauren tells us that one of the astronauts on the latest Mars mission has been killed.  This is an interesting sci-fi component that i assume will be explored more later.

Poor folks in Robledo think the space program is a waste of money since they have so little on Earth. But for Lauren (and others) it is a source of hope.  Hope of getting the hell out of this.

The politicians are introduced soon after.  Christopher Morpeth Donner is against the space program and promises to abolish it if he’s elected.  Lauren’s father plans to vote for this man (although on election night, he doesn’t bother voting at all).   When Donner is elected, his first plan is to put people back to work –he wants to suspend overly restrictive minimum wage, environmental and worker protection laws for those employers wiling to take on homeless employees and provide them with training and adequate room and board.” (27).

She wonders,

Will it be legal to poison, mutilate or infect people–as long as you provide them with food, water and a space to die? (27)

Many characters are introduced in the neighborhood, and it’s a little unclear who is important to hang on to.  Some are killed pretty quickly.  Others seem to cause nothing but trouble.  An old lady kills herself (she was formerly sanctimonious and God-fearing, and yet she chose to kill herself knowing she would not go to heaven).  Her children and grandchildren all died in a house fire a few days earlier.  Clearly she just couldn’t take it anymore,

2025 opens with a February entry.  A fire occurred in their neighborhood.  They wasted precious water putting it out.  It was set by a little girl, Amy.  The girl is the daughter of Tracy, a girl one year older than Lauren.  Tracy was 13 when she had Amy and was 12 when her 27 year-old uncle started raping her.

Problem: Uncle Derek was a big, blond, handsome guy, funny and bright and well-liked. Tracy was, is, dull and homely, sulky and dirty-looking. (33)

There’s another observation about men on page 37:

Some middle class men prove they’re men by having a  lot of wives in temporary or permanent relationships.  Some upper class men prove they’re men by having one wife and a lot of beautiful, disposable young servant girls.  Nasty.

Tracy didn’t have maternal instincts and Amy roamed wherever.  Lauren kind of took her in and decided to look after her and help teach her–her maternal instinct had kicked in.

Back to the woman who committed suicide–her house is inherited by relatives.  They immediately blame the neighborhood for stealing from the abandoned house.  The neighbors did take back things that belonged to them, but any actual thieving was done by actual thieves before she died.  The neighborhood doesn’t care for the accusations though:

“This is a small community.  We all know each other here.  We depend on each other.” (35)

But the new residents (“Payne and Parish, what perfect names they have”) say “we’re not very social.  We mind our own business.”  I wonder how long they will last.

Lauren explains that her father takes all of the children (and adults) for gun handling practice once they reach fifteen.  They usually go out to open fields–unless there are corpses (and there usually are).  Even though he is a man of God, he tells the community they should all have a gun: “The police may be able to avenge you, but they can’t protect you.” (39)

While they are shooting, feral dogs get close.  The people are understandably concerned about feral dogs, although one dog and a dozen people makes for pretty good odds.  But when one gets too close, her father shoots it.  As they walk past the body, it seems to resist death and it’s up to Lauren (who is a crack shot) to finish it off.  She shoots:

I felt the impact of the bullet as a hard solid blow, something beyond pain.  Then I felt the dog die. (45)

March brings a kind of miracle: rain.  It rains so infrequently and water is so scarce, that everyone gets buckets and pots to gather as much as possible.  Most of the kids simply run around in it.  When it ends, Lauren says “I wonder how many years it will be before we see rain again.” (60).

But even in a time of relative pleasure, bad things happen–little Amy was shot by a stray bullet.  The funeral would be tough, especially for Lauren.

At the funeral Lauren confided in her friend Joanne Garfield.  She trusted Joanne and told her about her ideas–about God, about the future, and how maybe those who died were the lucky ones.  She tells Joanne she would love to get out of here.  But Joanne says there’s no where to go

Not is you don’t have money.  Not if all you know how to do is take care of babies and cook. (53)

But where would you go even if you had somewhere to go?  There’s cholera in Mississippi and a measles in New Jersey  Measles!

Surely Butler wasn’t anticipating anti-vaxxers, but in the real world, there was in the U.S. an uptick in cases of measles from 1990-1992.  But I credit her with some prediction:

From January 1 to December 31, 2019, 1,282* individual cases of measles were confirmed in 31 states. This is the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 1992. The majority of cases were among people who were not vaccinated against measles. Measles is more likely to spread and cause outbreaks in U.S. communities where groups of people are unvaccinated. 

The problem, according to Lauren is that the adults are waiting for the good old days to come back.  

I know there were climate change deniers back in the early 90s (like one who recently died and cleaned up the radio waves by doing so), but she is certainly on point with

Your father says he doesn’t believe people changed the climate in spite of what scientists say.  He says only God could change the world in such an important way.

The rain is a good example of the practical effects of the climate change though.

Lauren, an early prepper (well, early for 1993, not 2025), proposes making Emergency Packs, “Grab and Run” packs (shame she didn’t think of “go bags” as a phrase).

Then a few days later Lauren finds out that Joanne told Lauren’s father about what Lauren was saying.  What if she had said more than she did?  She can never trust Joanne again.  Her father has a serious talk with her.  He is is angry but mostly because he doesn’t want her to scare the others with her talk.  He’s also concerned that her bug-out bag would be a gift to a burglar–every thing he could want in one handy place.  So there’s no way he’s letting her put a gun in it.

But there’s more important things to worry about–like the thieves that broke into their garden. They have started a Neighborhood Watch program.  Certain families who don’t participate are, of course, under suspicion.

As the summer comes to an end, the biggest crisis comes from Lauren’s brother Keith.  Keith has always been a pain, acting older than he is.  He is also Lauren’s stepmother’s favorite child (he is one of her birth sons after all).  He gets away with a lot, but Lauren’s dad doesn’t give in.  Keith desperately wants to go for gun-handling training with the others but he is not old enough.  Their father knows Keith is not mature enough, as evidenced when Keith makes the pathetic argument that his sister is allowed to go and she’s a girl.  

Then one night he took the key to the gate that surrounds their community and snuck out of the walled in neighborhood.  He came back a few hours later, bloodied and beaten in only his underwear.  Worst of all is that the thieves now had a key.  The neighborhood watch had to keep surveillance until they could put up a new lock and get new keys made.  Their father is furious, as is most of the neighborhood.

But a few days later Keith was gone again.  This time he took a BB gun and was gone for a few days.  He came back with newer, nicer clothes than he went out with.  Their father beat him until he cried.

So he left again.  This time he snuck back in when their father was out.  He had a wad of cash which he gave to his mother.

As the section ends, he leaves again promising to be back and to bring presents (but not for his dad).

The next section is 2026.  This above scene happened in August 2025.  That means quite a lot will have happened for next week’s reading.

We are so on trend! (Kindred on FX)

https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=Octavia-E-Butler-Kindred-FX-Series-Adaptation-bookpulse

Buzz for Butler

The works of Octavia E. Butler, the renowned sci-fi author who passed away in 2006, have seen a resurgence in popularity over the past several months. Last week, her 1993 novel The Parable of the Sower hit the NYT Paperback Trade Fiction best-sellers list for the second time—the first being this past September. And this week there’s news that a pilot for an adaptation of her 1979 novel Kindred is set for FXVariety has details.

Plus, with the recent release of the Library of America edition of the first volume of her collected works, The New Yorker has a feature on Butler, “the sixth science-fiction writer to be featured in the landmark series, and the first Black science-fiction writer.”

Also, in a fitting tribute, the spot where NASA’s Perseverance rover recently landed on Mars has been named “Octavia E. Butler Landing.”

The End of All Our Exploring

The other posts here, and an exchange I’ve been having with another friend who’s also just read Kindred for the first time, have had me ruminating on a few things that I think I’ve figured out how to solidify together. There are two parts to this, really: the description of what I see happening in the text, and the interpretive metaphor. Let’s go with the metaphor first, since it’s more overarching and I’ve already broached the subject in a comment on Daryl’s recent post.

Butler is giving us a way to reconceive the psychic force of our shared history of slavery as not primarily a horror, but a wound. (Dana’s lost arm, Kevin’s PTSD…) That’s not to say there’s no horror—Paul reminds us of an especially hideous moment that branded itself on Kevin’s memory. But it’s important, I think, that we get that incident at some remove: Kevin’s telling Dana about a thing he saw years earlier (in his subjective time frame). The move here is to locate another category we can assign to the gravamen of slavery and its legacy, not deny any of it, and then to look at what that new framing means for the possibilities of our relationship to it.

Throughout the book, Butler shows us that the system of slavery is destructive to everyone. Obviously I’m not saying what we really need to think about in terms of slavery is how it hurt White people; what I’m saying is that Butler is very clearly showing us that it also hurt White people. This is one of the reasons for the move from horror to wound, because it’s hard to feel a moral demand to care about the effects on a monster of their monstrousness. You don’t sympathize with Dracula—but you can with Renfield, because he’s been damaged too. It’s empathy, not absolution.

We’ve talked some about Tom and his code of honor, and in this last week’s reading Rufus became an especially complex character. The reason it’s so uncomfortable to engage with them is that Butler gives us enough to see who they could have been if they hadn’t been warped by the world they live in. As my friend said to me, slaveowners were humans too, after all, with all the psychological and emotional needs that entails. They developed their own moral and ethical code to contain their lives in the system they lived in—and vastly benefited from—and justify the inversions of human feeling that it demanded. It’s no sure thing, but we get enough flashes of the man Rufus could have grown up to be, I think, to feel the loss of the comparison with who he ended up as. (Especially when the man he ends up as is a man who will drive the woman he believes he loves to kill herself because it’s so plausible that he would punish her—for resenting being serially raped—by selling their children.) It’s nothing like Alice’s losses, or Isaac’s, or Sarah’s, but it’s still a loss.

There’s a purpose here for Margaret Weylin too; remember that Dana illustrates Margaret’s neuroticism in terms of her micromanagement of the house. Her function is supposed to be running the household, but in the system of slavery, that’s accomplished by means of a community in her home that she’s not a part of—people she needs but won’t love, and can’t trust. No wonder competence in a Black woman is a threat to her. She’s forbidden to have any herself, or to complain about that.

And again, Butler’s careful to make sure we know she’s never just talking about the past. Given the time-travel conceit in this book, Faulkner’s aphorism is more apt than he even knew: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Remember Dana’s uncle, and how angry he was that she married a White man? “The last thing my uncle said to me was that he’d rather will [his apartment buildings] to his church than leave them to me and see them fall into white hands.” The book takes place only 20 years after Brown v. Board—that uncle grew up under Jim Crow, and may well even have gone to segregated schools. The wound was never healed. In the second paragraph of the first proper chapter of the book, Dana mentions that she and Kevin have just moved into “a house of [their] own a few miles away in Altadena.” That’s not just a line about how greater Los Angeles is made of gazillions of separate cities and neighborhoods: Altadena is where Owen Brown eventually settled after he survived his father John’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. (Check out his gravestone here: “Son of John Brown the Liberator.”) And bringing the past into the present, Altadena was also one of the first middle-class Black neighborhoods in the LA area, because it escaped the redlining that prevented Black people from buying land and owning homes in so many places. The wound was never healed. I come back to Dana and Kevin’s “chocolate and vanilla” coworker, too, because miscegenation only even exists as a concept in order to enforce racial categories—the core mandate in the system that we inherited from slavery.

Over and over again, we see that slavery brutalizes Black people specifically but injures everyone. Butler’s not the first person to observe this, of course, and I’m nowhere near the first person to take up medical imagery for the subject; Lincoln’s Peoria speech describes slavery’s euphemistic presence in the Constitution’s as “a wen or a cancer, which [an afflicted man] dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death.” It’s figured there as a potentially fatal wound to the entire country, which indeed it has very nearly been, more than once. But here’s the trick, I think—the whole point of this change in stance: a wound can be healed. There’s a connection here to my previous post, in that considering slavery only as a horror forecloses a lot of constructive responses to it. What can you do with an atrocity? Depends on which side you’re on, of course, You hope that the victims find the grace to forgive you for it. You recoil in shame from complicity in it, or privileges descended from it, and harden the walls of your ego-protective reaction. Or you resent the original sin against you and your people, and you swallow the embers every day from the match that can’t be unstruck. But wounds… Wounds we have a framework for, one that acknowledges both the possibility of healing and the necessity of being an active part of your own healing.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. And it doesn’t mean that some pristine state from before is recoverable. Scars are a part of healing too. But it means there is a kind of wholeness that can be striven toward. I don’t think Butler’s project in this book extends so far as to prescribe; expecting her to reminds me of the breathtaking audacity of the book’s setup, in which the universe kidnaps a Black woman more or less at the existential version of gunpoint and forces her to play guardian angel for a White boy. It’s Daryl’s Hurston quote again, “the mule of the world.” It’s on us White people to do the work of healing the body politic just as assiduously and conspicuously as we (as a group) take self-care measures like therapy and meditation and going to the gym. The only real obstacle is our collective will.