So That’s What It’s For

Whether it’s my fault or Butler’s, it wasn’t until some 600 pages deep into this series that I finally understood Earthseed. We’ve talked about it a couple few times already, this question of why: Why take these relatively uncontroversial and certainly not new ideas and wrap them up in a religion? And whatever does the Destiny “to take root among the stars” have to do with these ethical precepts? And I have to wonder whether Butler was hearing the same question from readers, maybe editors, maybe fellow writers. Because then with just a chapter and an epilogue to go in Parable of the Talents, she has Len ask Olamina a question that really doesn’t logically lead into the manifesto she gets in reply:

“That’s what Earthseed was about,” I said. “I wanted us to understand what we could be, what we could do. I wanted to give us a focus, a goal, something big enough, complex enough, difficult enough, and in the end, radical enough to make us become more than we ever have been. We keep falling into the same ditches, you know? I mean, we learn more and more about the physical universe, more about our own bodies, more technology, but somehow, down through history, we go on building empires of one kind or another, then destroying them in one way or another. We go on having stupid wars that we justify and get passionate about, but in the end, all they do is kill huge numbers of people, maim others, impoverish still more, spread disease and hunger, and set the stage for the next war. And when we look at all of that in history, we just shrug our shoulders and say, well, that’s the way things are. That’s the way things always have been.”

“It is,” Len said.

“It is,” I repeated. “There seem to be solid biological reasons why we are the way we are. If there weren’t, the cycles wouldn’t keep replaying. The human species is a kind of animal, of course. But we can do something no other animal species has ever had the option to do. We can choose: We can go on building and destroying until we either destroy ourselves or destroy the ability of our world to sustain us. Or we can make something more of ourselves. We can grow up. We can leave the next. We can fulfill the Destiny, make homes for ourselves among the stars, and become some combination of what we want to become and whatever our new environments challenge us to become. Our new worlds will remake us as we remake them. And some of the new people who emerge from all this will develop new ways to cope. They’ll have to. That will break the old cycle, even if it’s only to begin a new one, a different one.”

Well that makes more sense. That’s what ties the community focus, adaptive practice, and visionary future together. It’s an interesting combination of historical analysis and evolutionary metaphor to say that the things we tend to think of as the bad side of “human nature” aren’t just impulses we have to learn to master, but a developmental stage we have to collectively make a leap out of. No one person, no matter how virtuous, can change these cycles through their behavior; the solution to a collective problem can never be reached through individual action. So Olamina has designed a project that’s intentionally too large for anyone to solve without cooperation on a massive scale, and then laid out personal-level ways to learn to welcome and participate in that cooperation.

It’s really extraordinarily hopeful, isn’t it? Reminds me of a very useful thing Josh Marshall wrote: “Optimism isn’t principally an analysis of present reality. It’s an ethic. It is not based on denial or rosy thinking. It is a moral posture toward the world we find ourselves in.” I know we’ve differed ’round these parts on the quality of Butler’s writing, but for me there’s a strong ethical imperative in it, often connected with minimizing harm in suboptimal situations—particularly after the recognition that harm can’t be avoided. (I like Erika Nelson’s view on it: the protagonist of another Butler novel “does what Butler’s heroines do well: She negotiates between poor options.”) Here it takes the form of a determined choice to look at the problem of a circle in three dimensions instead of two, and then to set up a pragmatic framework for being able to climb out into that third dimension.

This vantage point of cycles, though, makes the title of the novel a much sharper critique than I had supposed until the very last page, though. I even read the Parable of the Talents (the Bible story) before starting the novel, as I imagine the rest of you did too—and I read right over the interpretive coda. I had Luke 12:48 in my mind: “For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.” Or to put it another way: with great power comes great responsibility. But that’s the wrong parable. I just mentioned this in a comment, but the ending of this parable is so much harder to swallow than that: “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.” And that’s the end of Butler’s novel. The critique I’m seeing here is the implication that even the teachings of Jesus find their way into another of those ditches Olamina mentions. Not just that religion does, once it’s been separated from its founder and made more convenient or more palatable or more useful—we’ve already seen that with CA. But this is a parable we’re meant to take as being direct from the mouth of Jesus. It reads like a cold-eyed description of “the way things are,” but it’s presumably supposed to be aspirational; it is, after all, what “the kingdom of heaven” is like, according to the first line of the parable. Same as it ever was, I guess, at least until we put in the work, as a species, to leave our collective adolescence behind.

One thought on “So That’s What It’s For

  1. Daryl L. L. Houston May 12, 2021 / 7:36 pm

    Well spotted, Jeff. I think that by this point in the book (and the trio of books), I was sort of rocking a case of senioritis and, on top of my other frustrations with trying to see a lot of depth and craft in the book, I just wasn’t reading real carefully. I’m glad you’re here to pull me back in and show me the things I’ve not managed to see.

    I agree that there’s a strong ethical imperative in the books. I admire that in general, but I guess I like it better when it’s also more artful than I think Butler is. Of course this goes back to my post from earlier about sort of stacking the deck against Butler given that she’s already sort of carrying some extra weight in having to write through and about a legacy of oppression, etc.

    The section you quote here made me think of two other books, Contact and — I”m embarrassed to name it — Atlas Shrugged. If I recall correctly, there’s some talk in Contact about the messages being sent back requiring global cooperation in order to solve the puzzle and, in so doing, to be considered evolved enough to be ready to see higher forms of life. Am I remembering that correctly? Is that Contact? It’s in some other sci-fi book, at any rate, and there’s a resonance between my memory of whatever book it is and what you’ve highlighted here. I haven’t read Contact in many years, and I wonder now how I’d feel about it — would it meet a literary standard for me that Butler’s duo of books does not? I do remember liking it an awfully lot some 20 years ago when I read it.

    But then I also fell hook, line, and sinker for Atlas Shrugged when I was young. I had thought previously while reading these parables of Galt’s Gulch and Acorn as examples of utopias (though I won’t say that I’d personally find GG a utopia). But the way the quoted passage sort of broadcasts and summarizes the Big Idea here reminded me of the ~50-page treatise that occurs late in Atlas Shrugged. Or take Roark’s courtroom speech in The Fountainhead if you prefer. Rand too had a strong ethical imperative. When I was young and read her books, I really liked that she laid her argument out clearly and forcefully in the voice of a protagonist (though I did grow weary of Galt’s speech maybe 30 pages in). Maybe I’m just crotchety now, but I feel these days like it’s a little cheap to write a story and then just sort of barf out the philosophy in a monologue. Like, don’t you trust me as a reader? Can you not work in a more nuanced way?

    Well, Rand I suppose wasn’t really going for nuance. She wanted acolytes, and laying out a forceful and clear philosophy directly suited that purpose. I like to think that Butler was working toward more humanist ends, and I suppose that makes me wish she had also written more artfully, but again that may not be fair to Butler at all.

    The final thing I’ll say here is that I just have a real hard time believing any of this came from Lauren. When she left her walled neighborhood, she had known maybe 50 or 100 people ever in her life, right? She really had precious little exposure to the world outside. Unless she’s some sort of mystical enlightened sort of figure, it’s just hard for me to imagine that just noodling on this stuff in idle moments while trying to subsist would have resulted in the sort of strong ethical imperative and far-seeing vision she has. Like, she’s smart and all, but is she really a Buddha, or some trained-from-birth-and-augmented-by-spice Paul Atreides? I dunno, it just doesn’t work for me, like so much of the facts of the world Butler has created. It sort of creates a credibility problem for me.

    Well, I sure didn’t mean to write a screed here, but there it is. As always, your engagement with the text has benefited mine, even if the text itself didn’t do a lot for me in the end.

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