When Siberia is a refuge

2033 is a brutal year for Acorn and Earthseed.  The end of the section was really hard to read.

As the year opens, our narrator, who we later learn is named Larkin Beryl Ife Olamina Bankole says that her mother should have left Acorn and gone to Halstead like Bankole asked.  It makes it seem as though perhaps Bankole went without her, but he did not.

“Larkin” is a derivative of Lauren and from the Greek Laurel ,  “Beryl” was his mother–emerald is type of beryl.  “Ife” is the Yoruba word for “Love”

Olamina dna Bankole had actually stayed in Halstead for a short time.  A family was moving from Halstead to Siberia (!) for a better life.  The election of Jarret was the last straw for them.  Bankole is amazed:

If [when I was a boy] anyone had said that Americans would be giving up thier homes and their citizenship and going to make new lives in Siberia, the rest of us would have looked around for a straightjacket for him (130).

Olamina and Bankole stayed in the family’s house while Bankole was trying to decide if he should move there.  Well, he knew he should, he was trying to convince his wife.  She doesn’t want to move but says it was a good trip for her.  Living in a modern house with plumbing.  Being so close to the Ocean.  She could see the appeal.

Bankole had told people that they were leaving.  Or, more specifically, Marc was telling people they were leaving and the faithful were understandably freaked out.  But she convinced them, and herself, that she wasn’t leaving.

When I started this year I was taking notes on things that interested me, but after having finished it and reading all the horrors, it seems bizarre to include little observations about things that made me smile.  But I get to throw this one in because I am a cataloger for a library.

Olimani and Channa have been sorting and cataloging books for their library and Olamina hated to be interrupted, but not too much: “Still, cataloging is tedious” (137).

The first bad news comes from Marc.  After he had been rescued by Olimani and taken in by  Acorn, he decided that he wanted to preach his own Christian beliefs to the people.  He was going to do it without asking his suiter, but Olamina found out and told him to preach at their next Gatehring.  She warned him that he would be questioned about what he said and he was cocksure enough to go on with it.

Marc preached that the Bible says god doesn’t change, But these people have read the Bible and they are all over him.  Tori says:

To take action is to change. It’s to go from action to inaction. And he goes from calmness to anger–he gets angry a lot.

and her stepsister Doe says

In Genesis he lets some of his favorite men have children with their sisters or daughters.  Then in Leviticus and Deuteronomy he says anyone who does that should be killed.

Jorge continues

It is no good to say that something is true because the Bible says it is true and then forget that a few pages later, the Bible says–or shows–something completely different.  (139)

She let him speak because she was worried that he might influence some of her people.  But she knew he wasn’t ready and she let him get taken down a few pegs,.

Larkin says that Olimani meant to make Earthseed a nationwide movement but she had no idea how to do this.  She also didn’t want simple recognition, she wanted people to believe.  She had a truth that she wanted to teach and an outer-space Destiny that she wanted taken seriously and someday fulfilled. (141)

When Marc preached a second time, he mocked the “fantasy explorations of extrasolar worlds.” But Travis who was once very critical himself replies that

The Destiny is important for the lessons it forces us to learn while we’re here on Earth, for the people it encourages us to become.  It’s important for the unity and purpose that it gives us here on Earth.  And in the future it offers us a kind of species adulthood and species immortality when we scatters to the stars

Another Earthseeder asked Marc:

Why do you find it so easy to believe we go to heaven after we die, but so hard to believe we can go into the heavens while we’re alive?  144

Meanwhile President Jarret is stirring up hatred against Alaska, calling them traitors and quoting Jesus that a house divided cannot stand.  Was Christ wrong?  Was our Lord wrong?  (142)

And people, mostly men, in the local communities were agreeing with that.  A lot of the younger men would like a war–a chance to prove yourself and become a man,.

And then comes two big shockers in a row.

Marc left and he took the Peraltas (who had voted for Jarret) with him.  Marc used to despise Jarret, but now he says Jarret is just what America needs.   So he left Earthseed without so much as a tear.

Two weeks later Dan came back and had found his sister, Nina!  His other sister was killed, but Nina had survived all kinds of things.  Dan brought them both back to Earthseed.  But on their travels they were attacked by a group of thugs .  Dan didn’t make it.

But they regrouped and things started to look up.  They bought another truck, Larkin was born and we learn all about” Change-aunts” and “Change-sisters” (which is just awkward, honestly).

And then it comes time for Olimani to confront Bankole about Halstead–about what she really wants.  She talks about big plans hat she never dared mentioned aloud before.  She says she’s afraid of scaring people off because of her big plans and

Worst of all, I’ve worried about seeming ridiculous.  It is ridiculous for someone like me to aspire to do the things I aspire to do.  I know it.  I’ve always known it. It’s never stopped me. (164)

And she concludes I’m no more likely to leave Acorn now than I am to leave Larkin:

Earthseed is true–is a collection of truths, but there’s no law that says it has to succeed.  We can always screw it up.  I can always screw it up. There’s so much to be done. (164) 

Bankole succumbs to her beliefs and agrees that he’s in it for good.

Which is what makes chapter eleven so devastating. 

On September 26 2033, A group of men dressed in the black robes with white crosses burst onto the property with armored vehicles (maggots) and tear gas.  They overwhelmed the entire property, put shock collars on the survivors, took away the children and turned the entire property of Acorn into Camp Christian Re-education Camp.

Bankole is dead, Zahra is dead and we only know Larkin is alive because she is writing this book.

The men and women were put into different quarters are were not permitted to talk to each other.  The separation of genders here is instructive because Butler talks about inherent sexism

When men have absolute power over women who are strangers, the men rape.  (182).

If a collared man and a collared woman are talkin together it’s the woman who tends to be lashed. Women are temptresses, you see. (206)

Essentially everyone was treated like as lave–shock collared and lashed when the misbehaved and raped regularly.

Olamina was only able to keep her journal under moonlight by hiding it. 

Larkin explains that she was taken to a maximum security prison–Pelican Bay State Prison which they renamed Pelican Bay Christian Reeducation Camp.  She was only two months old so her experience wasn’t terrible like the older children’s’ were.  She was renamed Ashe Vere after the star of a series of Christian films that people watched on Dreammasks.  It’s interesting that Butler throws in some high tech sci-fi technology in the middle of this horror.

Asha Vere was a unique strong female character among the Dreammasks.  Jarret and his followers in Christian America believe that one of the things that has gone wrong with the country was the intrusion of women into “men’s business.” 

I’ve seen recordings of him saying this and large audiences of both men and women cheering and applauding wildly. (200)

So although Asha Vere was a powerful woman, she used all her power to follow and enforce Christian ideals.  That’s the only reason she was allowed to exist on screen.

Larkin was eventually adopted by the Alexanders, middle class Black members of the Church of Christian America.

There’s a moment when Olamina reveals that some of the women in the Acorn room have been making love with each other.  When they ask Olamina if she’s got a problem with it, she only replies, “Do you love each other? … then be good to one another.” Obviously it would not be approved of by Jarret’s Christians.

They are there through the end of the year and their captors have been bringing more and more people to their camp.  One man, Day, is able to reveal a bit of the outside world.  Most importantly is that no one knows anything about these reeducation camps.  And honestly, if people did, they’d probably think it was a good idea to take vagrant and cultists off the streets (which is what everyone is told Jarret is doing).

Olamina gets lashed by the shock collar a number of times.  This is the most abuse we’ve seen her take that wasn’t felt by someone else as well.  And she is pretty detailed about the pain.

One of the more disturbing moments in the book, is when Olamina experiences her hyperempathy with her captors–she feels the pleasure that hey get in lashing her.

The son of a bitch smiled and pressed his button over and over as tough he were fucking me, and he grinned while he watched me groaning and thrashing. (208)


There are a few men here, though, a few “teachers,” who lash us until they have orgasms. Our screams and convulsions and pleas and sobs are what these men need to feel sexually satisfied. I know of three who seem to need to lash someone to get sexual pleasure. Most often, they lash a woman, then rape her. Sometimes the lashing is enough for them. I don’t want to know this as clearly as I do know it, but I can’t help myself. These men feast on our pain—and they call us parasites.  (211)

One of the men who has been after Jorge’s sister Cristina specialized in this strange, self-pitying attitude. He talked to her about his wheelchair-bound wife, about his disrespectful children, about how poor they all are. She says she begged him to let her alone, and he threw her down and forced her. He said he was a loyal, hardworking Christian American, and he was entitled to some pleasure in his life. But when he had finished, he begged her to forgive him. Insanity

Of course

Rape is done with a pretense of secrecy. After all, these men come to the camp and do a tour of duty. Then at least some of them must go home to their wives and kids. … They rape, but they pretend they don’t. They say they’re religious, but power has corrupted even the best of them. (212)

This is some pretty damning and dramatic writing for a mainstream sci-fi book.  I have no idea if it was unique or pushing the envelope for feminist thought at the time.  But even in 2021 it’s a pretty powerful passage.

This was all bad but the thing that upset Olamina most is that the collars were able to take “bits of my own mind” when she would literally have gaps in her memory.

Race of course enters into Jarret’s plans as well. 

The thieves were said to be Black and Day and his friends were Black, so Day and he friends were presumed guilty. (208)

Vagrancy was a much worse crime than it once was.  Vagrants were indentured to the Church of Christian America.  If you had people vouch for you with a job you were freed.  Mr. Day had no one to vouch for him so he was there for a long time.  He was told he could donate a kidney or cornea to be allowed to go free, but he refused.

We walk the highways and scrounge and scavenge and ask for work and all of that reminds people that what’s happened to us can happen to them. They don’t like to think about stuff like that, so they get mad at us.  They make the cops arrest us or run us out of town.  They call us names and wish somebody would do something to make us disappear.  And now somebody is doing just that. (209)

The year ends with the revelation that Olamina has been raped several times.

Some of the men who work there disapprove of the rape but their superiors have told them that the prisoners are enemies of the country and they get what they deserve.  

And in rhetoric that we hear almost every day now, 

Their superiors have told them that parasites and heathens like us brought down “America the mighty.” America was the strongest country on Earth but people like us went whoring after foreign religions and refused to do our duty as citizens.  We women lost all modesty and offered ourselves in the streets and the men who should have controlled us became our pimps. (212)

As the year and reading ends Olamina has almost given up.   She has decided that she must repulse her captors so they do not try to grab her anymore: 

I have decided to stink like a corpse.  I would rather get a disease from being filthy than go on attracting the attentions of these men.  I must do this or I will kill myself.  (212)

That’s a pretty low point to have reached.  And I had to read on pretty quickly to see if anything turned around for them.

Daryl, I don’t know if you knew the book hit its darkest point here, but it was a perfect stopping point, dramatically speaking.

4 thoughts on “When Siberia is a refuge

  1. Daryl L. L. Houston April 20, 2021 / 10:18 pm

    Daryl, I don’t know if you knew the book hit its darkest point here, but it was a perfect stopping point, dramatically speaking.

    I wish I could say I were prescient or otherwise did this on purpose, but I hadn’t read this one before and just looked for reasonable-looking breaks in roughly 100-page chunks.

    Who knows, though — maybe it gets darker still!

  2. Jeff Anderson April 24, 2021 / 7:11 pm

    It’s definitely significant that this “reeducation” program chose Pelican Bay. That prison opened less than a decade before this novel was published, as California’s first supermax prison. It’s notorious for its specially designed solitary-confinement wing, where men were held in 8-by-10 concrete boxes for 23 hours a day, seven days a week, for decades. (According to Mother Jones, the system that could earn people indefinite sentences to solitary there rewarded snitches and punished Black literacy, basically.) There’s been a whole legal process, aided by the Center for Constitutional Rights, that Butler never got to see, but the place is still a symbol of the very worst of the racist carceral system in this country.

  3. Paul Debraski April 25, 2021 / 2:21 pm

    Thanks for the background on Pelican Bay. I knew it sounded familiar but i had no idea about the context. It seems like a prefect choice, then..

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