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.

7 thoughts on “Unjustified optimism?

  1. Daryl L. L. Houston April 7, 2021 / 9:56 pm

    I’ve read Jemisin and think she’s written some pretty good stuff. The Broken Earth trilogy is my favorite and the latest series, of which she published the first book in the last year or so, is my least favorite so far. I think I sort of like her work more than Butler’s, to be honest.

    I’ve just dipped into the beginning of Parable of the Talents, and your “scarily predictive” rings really true in the early part of the follow-up.

  2. Paul Debraski April 9, 2021 / 4:40 pm

    It was Broken earth that was so raved about. I was really inspired to read it and then I saw that each book is like 500 pages. Not that I shy from a big book, but that’s a COMMITMENT.

    Predictive. Yes. Big time.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston April 9, 2021 / 5:00 pm

      The books move pretty quickly as I recall. And they are just so original in the world they present. They were really unlike anything else I can remember reading.

  3. Jeff Anderson April 10, 2021 / 6:51 pm

    Haven’t read the Broken Earth series (first one is waiting for me in my stack), but I floved the Inheritance trilogy (starting with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms). For what it’s worth, I see—as I’m sure you already did too—that the Broken Earth series made her the first Black writer ever to win a Best Novel Hugo, and then the first writer to win three years in a row, as well as for all three books of a single trilogy.

    You know what part from this week’s reading freaked me out the most? The walk from/through the fire. Earthquakes, pshaw. We just had a cluster of like four at four in the morning less than a week ago. But the fires out here have become pretty scary.

    • Daryl L. L. Houston April 11, 2021 / 6:43 pm

      Ah, no doubt. I read a book last year that lands some people right in the middle of some wildfires, and it was harrowing. It was Peter Heller’s The River. Heller is worth a read, though this one (and another sort of potboiler he wrote) isn’t his strongest work. Sounds like The River at any rate might not float your boat because it hits so close to home.

    • Paul Debraski April 20, 2021 / 3:35 pm

      I can’t imagine the experience of wildfires. We had one in NJ that was contained pretty well, but even looking at the pictures is terrifying to me.

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