I wound up reading this book very quickly. I finished it before the deadlines of the first week’s read. I was totally sucked in. I hated parts of it–the woes of 2033 were unbearable–but I couldn’t stop reading it.
And wow, did Butler mess around with my head.
Contradict the first page of the story late in the book, but have it be a totally justifiable reason! Check.
Not reveal why one of the character has a book published until almost the very end and have it be a real surprise! Check.
Make me completely reassess the tone of the book and why Butler was writing it? Check.
This break was a pretty fortuitous one because this week’s reading starts with a lengthy introduction from Asha Vere. She began making up her own Dreamasks when she was 12. When she was discovered he was punished. But that didn’t stop her from writing fictions to escape her own life.
When she was 15, an enemy in her school told her that her mother was a heathen and a whore–Asha punched the girl and broke her jaw. She was spared detention by her stepfather who mostly just liked to molest her.
Once the diaries resume, we see what Olamina’s dealing with. She is desperately seeking her daughter and is still trying to build up Earthseed. Allie has actually been settling down with Justin. She’s making furniture and instructing younger kids how to make it as well. But Olamina can’t stay in Georgetown. She has decided to head up north. Inexplicably she is going to go to Portland to find her brother–the brother who disagrees with everything she stands for and who ran away from her.
Allie has arranged a traveling companion for her–against her wishes. Her name was Belen Ross but she went by Len. She was born to a rich family; however, she was born from a surrogate and once the family had a natural birth, they gave the cold shoulder. At 18 ,she was kidnapped and held for ransom. But her familty never paid it. Eventually her captors just abandoned her. When she returned home she found that her parents has moved to Alaska. She had no other option but to go to Alaska.
So here were two people going in search of those who don’t want them.
As they talked, Olamina recognized that Len was a sharer. When she addressed it, Len got furious and stormed off. But she came back in time to leave explaining that she’d never met another sharer before and wasn’t sure that others existed. She believes that if her brother had been a sharer too, her life might have been different–she would have felt less ostracized. It was like her parents blamed her for being a sharer.
People do blame you for the things they do to you …
These days projecting blame is an art form (306).
Every since she’d been on her own, she has had to resort to stealing things to survive. When she was younger, she was idealistic and would never steal anything
Now I feel moral because I’m a thief instead of a prositute (308).
Len also reveals that her mother had gotten hooked on her V-room (a kind of Star Trek Holodeck). Her mother’s real friends were all addicted to their v-rooms as well. Nobody saw each other they just created idealized versions of their own friends and hung out with them instead. She couldn’t stand real people with real egos of their own.
I thought it was interesting that her mother was in a futuristic technological realm while her father returned to slave-owner turf.
He was busy making money and screwing the maids and thier children–some of whom were also his children (311).
In the next chapter, Larkin reveals that she met Uncle Marc when she was 19. He was the Reverend Marcos Duran. She , like many others, thought he was the most beautiful person she’d ever seen.
She had left the home of her adoptive parents when she was 18 (and told to never come back). She did some local jobs trying to save up money to start a small business “a small café perhaps” (314).
She had been going to church with them for as long as she could remember–just another habit. She started singing at the church because it was a place to belong and it got her away from her stepfather’s hands. The detail that he would grope her in church is wonderfully lurid.
But since she left the church, rumors started that she was sleeping with all different men and that she was pregnant. Or she had joined her mother in a heathen cult. She gave up the church. Until she heard that Marcos Duran was coming to town to preach.
She gathered in front of the First Christian American Church of Seattle. (President Jarret was long dead and his church no longer had influence, but it was still sizable). Many more faithful had gatehred before the show and waited outside form the Reverend. While she was there a woman approached her and asked if she was Asha Alexander. She had a note from Marc saying he thought they might be related. I wondered how on earth he found her (it’s implied her found her because of her voice), but we find out later that Marc had been keeping tabs on her since she was very little–completely undermining his sister’s desires by not telling her.
That’s how Asha learned that her mother was dead. Marc explained that her mother was his half-sister, but he wouldn’t tell Asha anything else about her. He told her about their life in Rebledo and about Acorn. She notes “Not until he began to talk about Acorn did he begin to lie.” He said nothing about Earthseed
Marc hadn’t found out about Acorn’s destruction until a few years later. He knew that she Asha had been placed in a new Christian American house; he kept track of her but never reached out to her. If she pieced two and two together then–he knew about her horrible adoptive parents–she would have been pissed.
She’s also the one who tells us that it was Belen Ross who really seemed to focus Olamina’s missionary designs. Belen knew that Olamina had to teach teachers–gathering families had not worked. She needed people to scatter and teach on her behalf.
And indeed, Len, who was skeptical of Earthseed, was charmed by Olamina and her verses. She told her that if she really wanted to get people to listen to her she had to do what religions do:
Focus on what people want and tell them how your system will help them get it. (322)
She has to think differently.
Politicians are short-term thinkers, opportunists, sometimes with oncsciences, but opportunitists nonetheless. Business people are hungry for profit. A lot of people would stand to make money from interstellar travel (322).
She needs to realize that
the world is full of needy people. The don’t all need the same things, but they all need prurpose. Even some of the ones with plenty of money need purpose. (334)
And I think this sentence sums up why Earthseed was a religion (something we’d wondered while reading).
It will take something as essentially human and as essentially irrational as religion to keep them focused and keep it going (323)
If that’s what you believe why don’t you tell people to go to the stars because that’s God want them to do–and don’t start explaining to me that your God doesn’t want anything. I understand that, but most people wont understand it. (323)
They began walking and Olamina was inspired by Len’s ideas, so she took an unexpected detour to talk to an older woman who was working in her garden. Olamina used her charm and offered to help the woman dig. Then she drew pictures of the woman (Nia) and soon enough they were staying for a few days and discussing Eartheseed.
Nia is probably the best first candidate they could have had. She had been a public school teacher for many years–as disgusted by Jarret as anyone could be. She was bitter about politicians in general.
Even the pretense of having an educated populace was ending. Politicians shook their heads and said sadly that universal education was a failed experiment.
People who could afford to educate their children in private school were glad to see the government finally stop wasting their tax money, educating other people’s children. They imagined that a country filled with poor, uneducated, unemployable people somehow wouldn’t hurt them.
Homosexuality has come up a few times in the book. First, there was the two women in Camp Christian. Olamina was okay with that but some others were not and those two women were eventually punished for it. Later on in the book Asha reveals that Marc preferred men sexually. He never said it but it was appanetly clear, but his church taught that homosexuality was a sin and he chose to live by that doctrine.
Here Olamina says that she found Nia (a much older woman, it might be noted) to be so welcoming and so needy that she might have taken her to bed.
I had gone through 17 months at Camp Christian without wanting to be with anyone…and I have never been tempted to want to make love with a woman. Now I found myself alwmost wanting to. And she almost wanted meto. But that wasnt the relationship that I needed between us. (333)
She decided to keep trying to find new converts on their way to Portland. But the next person they tried to talk to sicc’d her dogs on them. I’m glad the story didn’t make it all perfectly easy for her.
It’s also nice having Olamina interacting with people in the real world to see that not everyone is crazy for Jarret. She meets a local businessman who complained that Jarret’s crusaders had been in town recently–rounding up vagrants and watches. The Crusaders are bad for business. They collar his highway customers or frighten them away, and they intimidate his local customers so that he’s lost a lot of his regulars. …
Jarret says he can’t control his own Crusaders …Next time out I’ll vote for someone who’ll put the bastards in jhail where they belong. (336)
The last chapter before the epilogue must be how Olamina dies, right? But Earthseed is still in its infancy, so how can she possibly have accomplished anything with so few acolytes?
Asha’s story picks up as she tells us that she went back to church because of Uncle Marc. She had hated what the Christian Americans had done and she decided to live a decent life and behave well toward other people. She didn’t care so much about the church but she liked the community.
Uncle Marc took her in and she earned as Masters in history. Then she began working on her PhD–living at marcs in upstate NY. She also continued to make Dreamasks, but now she had the technology at her disposal to make really good ones. She created them under the name Asha Vare because she didn’t want anything to do with the Alexanders and she didn’t want to trade on Marcs last name. And Marc hadn’t said much about Bankole, so the name meant nothing to her. I love that she was so casual bout her PhD that she didn’t get it until she was 32.
She never wanted to marry–marriage had the feel of people tolerating each other, enduring each other because they were afraid to be alone .(339)
And then there’s that bitterness once again
Meanwhile my mother was giving her attention to her other child, her older and best beloved child, Earthseed. (340)
Asha asked him questions about Earthseed–she was history major after all–because it was growing. But it was an unusual cult in that it financed scientific exploration and inquiry, and technological creativity. It set up grade schools and eventually colleges and offered full scholarships to poor but gifted students. Eventually, there were prominent Earthseed practitioners: lawyers, physicians, journalists, scientists, politicians even members of Congress. (340)
Marc still dismissed them: “the answer to all human problems is to fly off to Alpha Centauri” (340). Why does he keep saying Alpha Centauri?).
Then comes Olamina’s last few journal entries.
She says that she finally got to Portland and tried to reach out to Marc on several occasions. He didn’t want to see her but eventually agreed. He met her in his apartment which was like a dorm. “It was gray and sad–the place worked hard at being as dreary and cheerless as could be managed” (345).
When Olamina says that he should care about his niece, he reiterates his suggestion that she join CA. She asks if he could have joined Cougar as an employee? He gets mad and says its not the same.
What Cougar did to you, CA’s Crusaders did to me. The only difference is they did it to me longer. (346).
Reading it through the first time, you feel like Marc is a callous guy who genuinely doesn’t care about his niece or his half-sister. But as you learn what happens at the end, these responses come to be so much more pointed and brutal.
–I’ve finally got a chance to have what I want …. You’re not going to wreck it for me.
–This isn’t about you….I wish you had a child, Marc. If you did, you might be able to understand what it’s like not to know where she is, whether she’s being well treated or even whether she’s still alive. If I could only know!
We know he could answer all of her questions, but
He stood over me for a very long time, looking down at me as though he hated me. I don’t believe you feel anything…. You think you’re supposed to care, so you pretend to. Maybe you even want to but you don’t. (346)
And all along he knew everything about her. Ouch.
Especially when in the next diary entry he says, We aren’t enemies. You’re my sister and I love you, too” (347).
Then she explains the incremental growth of Earthseed. She finds influential people who invite her to speak to others. And with each session she gets one or two more converts.
As 2035 draws to a close, she says that she talked Harry into coming north. He hasn’t found his children, but he has picked up three orphans. He saw their mother get his by a truck.
And then in a fascinating technological twist, Olamina put The First Book of the Living “free on the nets.” She says she was always afraid that someone would take her words and twist them into something else. By making it free for everyone wit her name on it, no one can change it.
They aimed the publications to small universities and smaller free cities. This should lead to more attention than she’ll know what to do with.
2035 draws to a close on Dec 30 (a month an and half after she put the book on the nets). She has been invited to tour the country speaking to university groups. She is paid to travel.
I’m curious why she mentions specifically the towns that she does–although we do get to se a little of the country outside of California. She goes to Newark, Delaware; Clarion, PA; Syracuse, NY; Toledo, Ohio; Ann Arbor, Michigan; Madison, Wisconsin, Iowa City, Iowa.
They’ve been welcomed, listened to and taken seriously. They’ve also been laughed at argued with booed and threatened with hellfire–or gunfire.
But Jarret’s kind of religion and Jarret himself are getting less and less popular these days.
They are bad for business, bad for the U.S. Constitution, and bad for a large percentage of the population. …The Crusaders have terrorized some people into silence, but they’ve just made others very angry (351).
It’s a remarkably happy ending for Olamina whom we’ve assumed was long dead.
Until the epilogue. Where Asha says “My mother, when I met her, was still a drifter. She was immensely rich-or at least Earthseed was immensely rich. It had established communities in both North and South America.
Asha went to meet her at an Earthseed community in Red Spruce in the Adirondacks.
Asha was 34 [so that’s pretty huge global exposure in under thirty years]. She had been researching Lauren Olamina and learned that the woman had had a daughter.
People always said how much Asha looked like the heathen cult leader. Olamina had publicly said that CA destroyed Acorn and enslaved her people. CA sued and she countersued and they settled out of court
Jarret’s fall and the revelation of his past (he and his friend had burned accused prostitutes’, drug dealers and junkies (many of whom were innocent). They paid off and threatened silences..
Angry business people, protestors against the Al-Can War and champions of the First Amendment worked hard to defeat him for reelection in 2036. And then Jarret drank himself to death.
Interestingly, Marc says that all the bad things Jarrett did are true–but they are irrelevant. Jarret’s teachings were right even if the man himself did wrong (355).
Finally Asha asked him point blank if Olamina could be her mother. He basically cut her off without answering. She had to find out and it turned out that Olamina was in upstate New York.
it took a while for her to get to see Olamina. It wasn’t until she met a young acolyte named Edison Balter. When she told him she was Asha Vare, he knew her from her Dreamasks. And he brought her to see her mother (who was now 58).
Their meeting is initially tender. Olamina is a warm and hugging type of person but Asha was standoffish.
Earthseed does come across as rather cult-like, though.
As Olamina’s acolytes come and go they all say “God is change” and she replies “Shape God.” A response that sounded both reflexive and religious.
As she tells her mother about her life she talks about her adoptive parents and then how she met Uncle Marc. Then we see how Marc came to hate her
She stood up staring down at mem staring with such a closed look, frozen on her face. It shut me out, that look, and I wondered whether this was what she was really like–cold, distant, unfeeling,. Did she only pretend to be warm and open to deceive her public? 359
AS they talked, Asha revealed that she never felt that anyone loved her until she met Marc. Olamina said that she and Bankole loved her very much. But Olamina hadn’t found her and Uncle Marc had. I wondered just how hard she’d really looked (360). Ouch.
When she reveals that Uncle Marc found her at 2 or 3 years old Olamina was understandably freaked out
I never thought he hated me enough to do a thing like that. I saved him from slavery! I saved his worthless life, goddamnit.
It’s remarkable how dim Asha is.
I was angry with him but even angrier with her, somehow (362)
She says to Olamina,
He doesn’t have any children’s. I don’t think he ever will. But I was like a daughter to him. He was like a father to me.
When Olamina called her Larkin, she rejected it: my name is Asha Vare.
Olamina lived to be 81. She saw the first shuttles leave for he first starship assembled partly on the moon and partly in orbit. She desperately wanted her daughter to be there. But Asha rubs it in just a little further.
I was not on any of the shuttles, of course. Neither was uncle marc, and nether of us has any children. (362)
At least the book lets us end with Olamina’s final entry July 20, 2090. Earthseed’s first starship: The Christopher Columbus
I object to the name. This ship is not about shortcuts to riches and empire. It’s not about snatching up slaves and presenting them to some European monarch. But one can’t win every battle. One must know which battles to fight. The name is nothing.
But she know Larkin wasn’t there:
My Larkin would not come She’s caring for Marc. How completely thoroughly he has stolen my child. I have never even tried to forgive him (364).
The book ends with the parable of the talents, which I have to say I rather dislike. The tone of it is pretty terrible–the servants get punished for not making money for their master?
Parable of the Talents: I prefer to understand it this way…think of talents as abilities not as money. The ones that do not use the talents that they’ve been given to enrich the community (instead of burying them), have their talents taken away. Don’t think of the talents as money. Olamina would understand this completely. She uses her talents to teach and write to “sow” Earthseed. She recognizes the talents of others and encourages them to use their talents to build the Acorn community. She uses the word community repeatedly throughout the two books. For me, community may be the centerpiece of Butler’s two novels.
I like your take on this, Kathleen — that community may be the centerpiece of the two novels.
I agree about community, but on the parable itself, I can’t help getting stuck on the last sentence: “For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” That doesn’t say use it or lose it—it says the rich (in whatever sense) get richer, and devil take the hindmost.
I’m so glad you included Olamina’s line “I have never even tried to forgive him.” That one hit me in the gut. (And I don’t blame her.)
As for the cities, I can’t say for sure, but there are some sf connections to a number of them: Iowa City (Icon), Ann Arbor (ConFusion), and Madison (Wiscon) are associated with cons—and Wiscon was specifically founded as a feminist alternative. And although it wasn’t still held there by the time Butler was writing this book, Clarion was the original home of a pretty significant workshop for aspiring sf writers. Maybe it’s an Easter egg. 🙂