I don’t know how much of this comes through to folks from elsewhere, but in the books we’re reading this go-round, Butler feels like such a Californian writer. She knows this place, its past and present, and uses it in the books. Unfortunately, the two really good examples of that from this week’s reading are awful.
I mentioned one in a comment on Paul’s most recent post: Pelican Bay State Prison, which Christian America converts to Pelican Bay Christian Reeducation Camp. Honestly, I’ve read and written as much about that today as I feel like dealing with; if you’re not familiar with Pelican Bay, and the brutality of its Special Housing Unit, and the prisoner hunger strikes, it’s easy to search up. As far as currently operating prisons in California (so, with Alcatraz ineligible), it’s pretty much the symbol of the most notoriously terrible practices.
And then there’s Camp Christian. The concentration-camp elements are clear and obvious, but the unique characteristic is the religious bent of it, which calls to mind the history of the Spanish missions in California. Some version of this is standard fourth-grade history out here, but I don’t know how familiar everyone else is with them. The missions are a series of outposts up the coast, from what’s now the US–Mexico border all the way up to north of the San Francisco Bay. They were designed as religious frontier communities, more or less, for the specific purpose of converting the Native Americans in the local area. And of course they were abusive; they were a holy mission, after all. Men and women were housed separately, Native Americans were only allowed to leave with a priest’s permission once they had “consented” to join the community, obviously their prior beliefs were stamped out by whatever means necessary. There’s some dispute about what conditions were actually like for the Native Americans at the mission sites (of course there is), and I don’t think there’s good reason to presume it was only and everywhere terrible. But the parallel to Camp Christian seems deeply intentional.
The other reason it comes to mind is again back to Pelican Bay, but this time as an analog to the Indian boarding schools and forced assimilation policies of the US government: “Kill the Indian, save the man.” (Not only the US, of course. There’s also Canada, and Australia’s Stolen Generations, and surely more. If you take your enemy’s children from them and raise them as your own, you’ve already conquered the future.) Again, the history is discouraging and easily available. (As Leslie Knope says, “We need better, less offensive history.”) And the thing that’s significant about it is that it doesn’t matter whether it’s legal.
Daryl and Paul have both asked about the legal infrastructure of the US we’re shown in these books. They have taxes still? They have copyright? Well, some people do. As an absolutely extraordinary comment on Crooked Timber put it a couple years back: “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.” This has always been the case, and what’s disorienting about what we see happening in the Earthseed books is that we can feel the contraction of that line between in-group and out-group. It’s almost like we can see the dome produced by the shield generator shrinking, until suddenly our protagonists are outside it, exposed.
“But that’s not right!” I imagine you object, because I try to imagine the best of people until they teach me to stop. But of course, the law isn’t right or wrong, the law is power. This is the lesson of a minority existence. James Tiptree, Jr.—whose true identity as Alice Sheldon came to light at the beginning of Butler’s career as a novelist—has a pitiless, excellent story called “The Women Men Don’t See” (1973) in which the male narrator is stunned to hear from the woman he’s stranded with after a plane crash:
“Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like—like that smoke. We’ll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see.”
(There’s a great biography of Sheldon by Julie Phillips called James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon. She invented aerial photography intelligence for the Air Force! Her parents were big-game hunters! She and her husband completed a suicide pact! And the Tiptree stuff is worth reading for its own sake.) I guess I don’t really have an argument in this post, just associations. This stuff was rough to read! All the same, you can see how Earthseed will apply for its adherents. Their belief is that change is inevitable, but not inevitably good or pleasant, and you can either be its victim or shape as much of it as you can. It’s survivalist. Might as well give them something they have to survive, right? Also, what upstart religion would be complete without a persecution narrative?
I hadn’t thought of this as a distinctly Californian book, but then I don’t know California that well. I did make the connection to the Indian boarding schools, and I’m grateful that you shared a bit more about that, as for me it was more of a “hmm, sounds familiar” connection that I didn’t pursue.
On terrible conditions at Camp Christian, I found myself waffling a bit. I wrote myself a note to the effect that the men holding Lauren and company hostage were sort of caricaturishly malevolent, much more extreme than real people with families and feelings of true faith and so on would really be. And then I turned on a dime because, well, there’s actually quite a lot of evidence that people will behave this badly. Even today, in America with relatively progressive leadership, we’ve got kids in cages at the Mexico border and people being murdered without cause (as if cause would even justify it) by police officers who otherwise are no doubt seen as pillars of their communities. Bummers indeed.
Having finished the book (almost a week ago, actually; it got to an unputdownable point for me!), I can say with spoiler-infused confidence that it’s no accident that these are familiar atrocities, repeated from more than one time and more than one place in human history—and the fact that we’re still repeating some of them in this country, and other are still being repeated in other places, speaks to one of Olamina’s central theses that finally gets clarified in our final week’s reading.