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?

5 thoughts on “The Benefit of the Doubt

  1. Daryl L. L. Houston March 27, 2021 / 6:57 pm

    I felt much the same in the first part of the book. I read this one a few years back but had pretty much forgotten it. I’ve just today finished up our second chunk, and a lot of it is coming back to me. And I think I’m liking it a lot more, engaging with it a little more deeply than I likely did that first time through (which is not to say, however, that I’ll have anything especially profound to say about it).

    I’ve tended to think of apocalyptic fiction as cautionary literature, a “this is what we’re heading toward if we don’t shape up” sort of thing. I guess that fits into your pessimistic prediction bucket. I don’t know if it’s just that, though. Grim as things are in this book, I think there’s a thread of optimism. Lauren seems to be writing a book for the after-times, after all.

    I don’t know how much apocalypse literature I’ve read, really. The books that come most to mind for me as I read this one are Fahrenheit 451 and The Road. The first isn’t exactly in an apocalypse and the latter is definitely post-apocalyptic. McCarthy’s book seems to me to owe a great debt to Butler’s. I also managed to put both of those books down feeling a sort of optimism, though it was a bit more of a stretch for me in The Road.

    So maybe the function of these sorts of grim books is, or can be, to say “here’s what we’re headed toward, but we don’t have to.” I agree that this doesn’t seem like an aesthetic pleasure. But then I think aesthetics may generally be distinct from meaning. McCarthy’s The Road is, as I recall, a beautifully if sparely wrought object, though the story it tells is horrifying.

    • Paul Debraski March 31, 2021 / 9:42 pm

      I posted my comment before reading yours, Daryl. My wife read The Road for a book group and HATED EVERY SECOND OF IT. Interestingly, she loves post apocalyptic fiction (especially YA), but she couldn’t stand The Road, and as i tell her about Sower, she says she would hate that as well.

      So, what is the point, I wonder.

      I am starting to see hope (there’s a bit of a spoiler knowing there’s a sequel, I do admit, although I have no idea how that ends).

  2. Paul Debraski March 31, 2021 / 9:39 pm

    Jeff, I mention The Road in my post, and how I would never read it–I dislike apocalyptic fiction. Although i do like post-apocalyptic fiction (Mad Max, anyone?). I find this book to be very dispiriting. And I agree with your question…what’s the point? (Not of this books specifically, but the genre in general). Is this fun? No it is not. So one assumes there must be something more at stake.

    Is the point just to show off how gruesome you can make the world?

    Has anyone read American Psycho? I read it back when it came out (on trend that I was). I find Sower about 100 times more disturbing and gruesome than that one.

    And if you have read The Road, is there anything at the end of the road?

  3. Jeff Anderson April 4, 2021 / 8:00 pm

    I talked with a friend who loves this stuff—his Number One Book by a long shot is The Stand, and his favorite part is the first third or so, when everything’s falling apart—and he says it’s basically a species of horror. Which, there’s one reason I don’t get it (not a fan of horror). But apparently there’s also an element to it of the Triumph of the Human Spirit: what (some) people can get through, etc. etc.

    So there’s the aesthetic argument I said I was open to, heh. A little funny, I guess, that it’s that simple. De gustibus and so on!

  4. Paul Debraski April 9, 2021 / 5:27 pm

    Interesting. I used to love horror when I was a younger kid. Used to love Stephen King. I don’t really go for it much anymore–not even movies. That’s in par because my wife hates them and I guess I’ve lost my taste for them over the years.

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