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.

Thou Shalt Not

(Quick note: I usually post late enough in the week that it’s basically the next week anyway, so I’m going to draw some from our final week’s reading in this post too. Hopefully by the time you read this, you’ve finished the book anyway in preparation for the last round of scheduled posts going up.)

My sister was born when my mom was 21. She was dangerously premature, born around 32 weeks, if I remember right; once she was allowed to come home, my parents dressed her in doll clothes—as in outfits sold for actual dolls—because she was too small for baby clothes. While my mom was still in the hospital, recovering from giving birth, her pastor’s wife came to visit. More specifically, she came to ask my mother “What sin is in your life?” that would explain my sister’s struggle to survive being born.

That was the end of my family’s attendance at that church, but not of our being Southern Baptists generally. We had to come to that point individually, each of us, whether through reasoning, unsatisfied questioning, or simple recoiling from the multitude of restrictions and cruelties and constant browbeating that suffering was inflicted out of love. (This last, of course, was my aunt’s rationale for getting down on her knees every night and praying that my husband and I would be unhappy together, so that we would be nudged into correct, acceptable, heterosexual lives. Sin is a nonsense idea, a means of installing the surveillance camera inside your head and abdicating the responsibilities you have toward anyone who might be able to confront you with choosing to fail them—but if there is such a thing, surely willing for a fellow human being any more misery than whatever they might already be carrying counts.)

One of the great contrasts Butler gives us between Earthseed and Christian America is in the ways the two beliefs treat people’s humanity. In all that we see of people living Earthseed, there’s a great focus on your responsibilities to the larger community and to yourself. You work, you share, you learn, you teach, you make your own decisions. You’re answerable to the community in terms of whether you try to be of benefit to it, and if you’re harmful to the community, they expel you. (We hear about that, right? At least one case?) But you decide how much you believe, on your own timeline, and as long as you’re willing to pitch in, you don’t even have to believe. You are a person, whom Olamina and much of the rest of Acorn hope to convince that their way of doing things makes the most sense. (There’s an extraordinary bit in Terry Pratchett’s Feet of Clay where a golem gains the ability to make his own decisions rather than merely follow his programming. His moral manifesto makes me cry every time: “NOT THOU SHALT NOT. SAY I WILL NOT.”)

Then there’s Christian America, where all the decisions have already been made for you, including what you will and won’t believe, and your options are to conform or be forced to. And unlike Earthseed—whose god is understood as a force and a process and a truth and an inevitability, but offers no comfort—CA refers all its issues upward, to a god who will love you, you’re told, and will stop punishing you, if you’ll just decide to be good enough. If you still require correction, well, whose fault is that?

The evil of Jarret’s Crusaders is plain, even (as Daryl pointed out) melodramatic. And for Jarret and the rest of CA, it’s useful in multiple ways. On the one hand, it gets the results they want: subjugation. “Cleansing.” Impunity. Marc even calls them “courageous” in his note to Olamina: “misguided, but courageous,” and there’s another way they’re useful. They’re the bad apples. As long as the Crusaders are around, everyone else in CA can point to them and say, “There are your bad guys.”

But there are lots of kinds of zealots, and they don’t all wear big white crosses on their chests and enslave heathens “for their own good” and rape them and torture them to death. It was the Alexanders who tipped me off to what Butler is doing. At first I was a little disappointed with Asha’s stories of growing up: the evils of adoptive parents, right? That old trope. But what Butler’s showing us is how water flows downhill. This is the whole model of god as the abusive parent, reproduced on every scale in a person’s life, because that’s how totalitarian ideology functions. The differences between how Olamina is treated at Camp Christian (her home, before it was taken) and how Asha is treated in her home are only in degree. (“Even in the homes, there were no collars except as punishment for the older children, and then only after warnings and lesser punishments had failed.” Oh well in that case.) “Quiet was good. Questioning was bad,” Asha says. At three or four, she’s slapped and screamed at and made to burn herself, and then told she’s going to hell where it’ll be worse. She’s sexually assaulted by a man the church has put in authority over her. She’s forbidden to write and forced to confess publicly. She says herself about rank-and-file Christian Americans: “They were so certain that they were right that, like medieval inquisitors, they would kill you, even torture you to death, to save your soul.” There’s not a good wing and a bad wing of CA, just the difference between a factory and an Etsy shop.

And then there’s Marc. He’s horrified by what Olamina tells him about Camp Christian (and even just reading her recital again, I can feel my own anxiety start squeezing)—so horrified that he tells her again and again that she’s mistaken (because what she was put through is so mistakable, and of course she couldn’t know her own home that she built when she’s interned there), that he doesn’t believe her, that it’s not true, because he knows the people of CA and they’re good people. So horrified that he punches her for telling him the truth about what he’s chosen to be a part of.

And what kind of bullshit offer is it that he makes to her, that if she joins CA, maybe she’ll find out where her daughter is? That’s the same paragraph where he says, “Some of our people have relative or friends who are Crusaders.” Only a few paragraphs after conceding that “if Acorn was attacked” (my emphasis; the cognitive dissonance of granting Olamina a shred of credence would destroy his beliefs, so she must be the one who’s wrong) it was by Crusaders, he tells her to embed herself among people he knows has intimate ties to them. Surely if he’s done the research he says he has, he’d know how unlikely the Crusaders would be to let an escapee from Camp Christian walk free if they were alerted to her location.

He actually has more good to say about the Crusaders in his letter than bad—because he agrees with them. As far as I can tell, he finds his niece within a couple years, but she doesn’t meet Olamina for another 30 years, and that’s only after discovering his lie that Olamina and Bankole are both dead. (The woman who bought him out of slavery.) It’s like Olamina says in the Epilogue: “How completely, how thoroughly he has stolen my child.” He’s just the beautiful face of eliminationism, even within his own family. I’m genuinely sitting here at my desk seething from thinking so much about him. It’s breathtaking what some people will do in their zealotry, in far more insidious ways than the “simple” brutality of Camp Christian. That insidiousness, that awareness of the different and subtler forms of interpersonal violence that moral certitude licenses just as much as the grosser forms, is one of the lessons of this parable.

Bummers Abound!

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?

Another Dispatch from Your Religion Correspondent

Wikipedia and a bunch of nonscholarly places claim that epistolary novels don’t have to be made up of letters: “The usual form is letters, although diary entries, newspaper clippings and other documents are sometimes used.” (I have not yet, in a quick search, found a scholarly source to confirm that this understanding is shared by the critical community.) On basically etymological grounds, though, I’ve always reserved the term for novels that are made of epistles, and I unvented the term “documentary novel” to cover the ones that insert other kinds of “preexisting” documents. (“Unvented” comes from knitting doyenne Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Knitter’s Almanac, coined as a way of acknowledging that surely someone, somewhere had already invented the thing she just did—but she had never seen it before.)

Thinking about it, though, I have some dim, more theoretically defensible reasons for that distinction, and they come down to questions of the intended audience. A letter is (almost) always from one person to another person. In my other book group, for example, we just read and discussed Les Liaisons dangereuses, and one of the big factors in that novel’s spectacular effectiveness is that quality of intimacy. A specific reader is addressed in a letter, by a specific writer, and therefore the totality of that letter’s meaning encompasses both the personalities of both parties and the relationship between them.

That’s not the case with those other kinds of documents. Take Parable of the Sower, which is formatted as diary entries. (Or actually, as a mix of diary entries and Earthseed scriptures.) Diary entries are great for giving a sense of the diarist as an observer and an analyst. (Bearing in mind that the cultural presumption of more unguarded honesty in a diary is rebuttable on sufficient demonstration.) But they’re essentially one-person shows. The only mind we see in action is the diarist’s, and the only interactions we see them having are the ones they reconstruct in their “private” writing.

(There is a whole other question—which some epistolary novels confront and some duck, and which documentary novels seem more likely to have to deal with—of how this manuscript came into the reader’s hands. We know how we got Lauren’s/Olamina’s journals: she saved them for the posterity of Earthseed, even going so far as to produce copies that could be safeguarded separately. They’re practically a midrash, and are essentially written to everyone/anyone. In Gene Wolfe’s work, these mechanics of transmission are often foregrounded, probably influenced by his engineering training; in the dramatis personae at the beginning of his On Blue’s Waters is a delightfully enigmatic pair of listings: Horn, “the protagonist,” and on the next page, the Rajan of Gaon, “the narrator.”)

Now in Parable of the Talents we’re getting a further complication of that documentary structure, as Daryl wrestles with. It’s a sufficiently significant break in narrative approach that it makes Paul ask whether Butler was revising her original concept. What I think it’s doing is introducing evidentiality to the “record” of Earthseed. That’s one of the things that disparate documents bring to a text, right? (If you were reading me back during the original Infinite Summer, you may recognize that this is a recurring interest for me.) By bringing in voices and documents and texts that aren’t Olamina’s, this book is giving us a more stereoscopic view, requiring us to do precisely the work Daryl describes of judging each piece of evidence ourselves in relation to the others. (It doesn’t look like we’re getting such a thing here, but I note that a common kind of interpolated document is a newspaper article, which will unavoidably activate questions of objectivity and truth and factuality.) With Olamina’s daughter assembling this text for us now, juxtaposing her mother’s journals with writings by her father and uncle and especially superseding each chapter’s material with her own commentary on the people and ideas it contains, we’re getting a very opinionated context for Olamina’s beliefs and actions. It’s not an unalloyed first-person view anymore.

On its own, I appreciate that as a narrative complexification and as a whole extra layer of nuance. But I also think there’s another thing going on that’s particularly intriguing. A couple weeks ago I mentioned one of the Earthseed scriptural passages as evidence of the community-building of the early “church” of Earthseed. I take the analogy here from studies of the early Christian church, and the kinds of documentary evidence that scholars use to reconstruct the lived practices of the people and communities who were converting the words of their prophet into a way of existence. That growth of faith communities starts with the doctrine, the words of the founder. But then the faith grows beyond the range of its founder; converts join and merge their own ideas with the doctrine they adopt, and offshoots spring up in other places and inevitably evolve their own slightly different variations. I think that’s what Butler’s giving us in this book. The first book was ultimately about Lauren’s distillation of her philosophy, and about that philosophy itself. Now here in the second book what we’re seeing is that philosophy being grown out into a religion instead, which means adherents and practices, no longer just ideas. It means other people. Olamina’s daughter, writing to us from some unspecified (right?) period far enough in the future that Olamina is dead in her past, may well be the first church historian of Earthseed. This is her critical record of how her mother’s ideas became a religion in the world around it.

Parable of the Torso?

Paul asks a great question: How would you read Parable of the Sower if you didn’t know there was a sequel? And I hate to have to say it, but I think I would read it as incomplete.

On the level of just plot (what Paul describes in a comment as the day-to-day stuff)—well, let’s say incident—I think the story’s actually pretty neatly laid out. This is Lauren; this is Lauren’s family; this is Lauren’s home; family and home are taken from Lauren and she has to find new ones; Lauren makes a new family and a new home. Ta-da. On those terms, I don’t need a sequel!

But everywhere along the way, this book is striving toward a farther future than 2027. Paul’s had his eye on that Mars mission we heard so tantalizingly little about, and Lauren’s explicitly trying to found a religion (which is a legacy kind of project, obviously), and the group she gathers does found a community (another legacy kind of project). Lauren’s been planning for a significant portion of her life for how to live after her neighborhood inevitably falls, not just how to get to someplace else that’s safe.

I’m not saying that I don’t want a book to have a sense of in some way continuing past the back cover (I’d have a biiiiiig problem with Infinite Jest if that were the case). It’s good when the characters and situations live vibrantly enough in me that I can imagine what I’m not shown! But I want that feeling to come from the coherence and vividness of the characterization and writing, not from an obligation to pick up a bunch of dropped threads. That’s where I don’t think Parable of the Sower stands alone very well.

I asked a couple weeks ago whether this is messianic fiction, and I still do think that it casts Lauren as a messiah—she sets out to become one on purpose. Frankly, I was surprised when Gray and Doe joined her band; with Emery and Tori, they were up to a count of Lauren plus eleven, so I fully expected just a single follower, to total them up to an even dozen disciples. (Then Jill died, and I was all, “A-ha! Here’s our twelve, and clearly Grayson will be the Judas.”) That’s a me problem, not a Butler problem, of course, but it’s a sign of how loudly I felt that bell was being rung—and then they find a place to settle and the book’s over. Lauren has her intentions, but not a sect yet. For any reasonable exposition of how Earthseed develops, after she’s spent so much energy consolidating it, there had to be another book.

It sure seems like some of that development needs to happen on Mars, doesn’t it? There’s a Mars mission! (I don’t mean to keep poking you about this, Paul; I’m genuinely tickled that it put a burr under your saddle and I forgot all about it except for your curiosity. I guess this is what my gratitude looks like?) And Earthseed’s Destiny—with a capital D, even—is “to take root among the stars,” explicitly to spread Earthlife to other worlds. That’s a great big Chekhov’s Spaceship…that never launches.

Now’s the time when I want to reiterate that I’m talking about how I would read this book, in the counterfactual case that I didn’t know it has a sequel. Because it sure sounds like I’m dumping on it, when I actually enjoyed reading it. It’s just that I’m reading it as “book one.” And as book one, it’s got me excited for book two!

A High-Five for Travis

I was so gratified to see Travis testing Lauren’s Earthseed philosophy. (Religion? I mean, yes, but is it yet?) I’d had some similar questions myself, and it was pretty clear that Lauren wasn’t going to just engage them in her journal. She’s got better things to do with her time. But it should have occurred to me that someone she met would do the asking for me. Plato gave Butler the dialogic tools for it a couple thousand years ago.

That conversation between Lauren and Travis got me thinking more about Earthseed itself, though, and what we know of it. Principally, that’s the epigraphs—which we’ve talked a little about already. But looking back on the disappointment we expressed there, I see that mine is pretty firmly rooted in reading them as literature. That’s certainly a legitimate way to read parts of a novel! (He says, understating the case.) But they’re not part of the narrative here, they’re sort of in-world apparatus to the text. So they’re susceptible to a reading for that function too, their Watsonian value as scripture. So I guess I’m doing exegesis this week! Or at the very least, taxonomy.

Chapter 1 starts with actually a pretty strong couple verses: “All that you touch / You Change. / All that you Change / Changes you. / The only lasting truth / Is Change. / God Is Change.” That’s actually just pretty straightforwardly good Buddhist philosophy, and focuses on the interconnectedness of everything. A pretty good summary of Earthseed, I expect. Except then suddenly the word “God” shows up, and I agree with Travis: Why? Lauren’s answer is essentially a matter of durability and social engineering (shades of the Bene Gesserit), but I’m not convinced. I mean, personally I’m not convinced by any argument about God; but the Eightfold Path of Buddhism is good and enduring, and it doesn’t couch its exhortations in terms of a god. Compare the Ten Commandments to the Eightfold Path: one is an authority telling you how to circumscribe your behavior, the other is guidelines for measuring yourself against yourself and striving to improve. It’s not clear to me that the introduction of the concept of God strengthens Earthseed.

It strikes me that for a book named after one of Jesus’s parables, we don’t get any parables from the Book of the Living. We get close a couple times, with Chapter 6 (“Drowning people / Sometimes die / Fighting their rescuers.”) and Chapter 14 (“In order to rise / From its own ashes / A phoenix / First / Must / Burn.”), but notice that neither of them uses a definite article. A parable, as Daryl said, is a simple story, but it’s also a specific story. Take the Chapter 6 epigraph, for instance. In the form of a parable, it would be a simple little story about a person who was drowning and thrashed so hard that their would-be rescuers were unable to hold onto them and pull them back to shore. Not some nebulous drowning people, whom it’s difficult to identify with, but a specific person. (Notice that it’s the Parable of the Sower, not a Sower.) The more elliptical statements in Lauren’s Book of the Living are more distant, more abstractly philosophical. They seem to invite an either/or kind of understanding—”I get it!” or “I don’t”—rather than the experiential sort of process that a parable, with its conscription of narrative, takes devotees through.

More effective, I think, are the more direct verses, by which I mean Chapters 2 (“A gift of God / May sear unready fingers.”), 5 (“Belief / Initiates and guides action— / Or it does nothing.”), 8 (“To get along with God, / Consider the consequences of your behavior.”), and 15 (“Kindness eases Change”). They’re not trying to gussy up any of their meaning, and they’re not meant as koans or contemplative prompts; they’re telling the faithful of Earthseed how to be. Be ready, be active, be thoughtful, be kind. This is the moral philosophy of Earthseed, where the scripture tells readers how to be good according to their beliefs.

Chapter 13 (“There is no end / To what a living world / Will demand of you.”) isn’t quite the same type, to me, but it’s one of my favorites, and there is some relationship. It’s more about a mindset than any specific practice or trait to cultivate, which is also the case with Chapters 3 (“We do not worship God. / We perceive and attend God. / We learn from God. / With forethought and work, / We shape God. / In the end, we yield to God. / We adapt and endure, / For we are Earthseed / And God is Change.”), 4 (“A victim of God may, / Through learning adaptation, / Become a partner of God, / A victim of God may, / Through forethought and planning, / Become a shaper of God. / Or a victim of God may, / Through shortsightedness and fear, / Remain God’s victim, / God’s plaything, / God’s prey.”), and 11 (“Any Change may bear seeds of benefit. / Seek them out. / Any Change may bear seeds of harm. / Beware. / God is infinitely malleable. / God is Change.”). These verses are emphasizing the way to understand the world around you, the wisdom counterpart to the previous category’s praxis.

There’s a sort of cosmological/sociological strain too, which seems to me the weakest of all of the epigraphs: Chapters 7 (“We are all Godseed, but no more or less so than any other aspect of the universe, Godseed is all there is—all that Changes. Earthseed is all that spreads Earthlife to new earths. The universe is Godseed. Only we are Earthseed. And the Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.”), 9 (“All struggles / Are essentially / power struggles. / Who will rule, / Who will lead, / Who will define, / refine, / confine, / design, / Who will dominate. / All struggles / Are essentially power struggles, / And most are no more intellectual / than two rams / knocking their heads together.”), 10 (“When apparent stability disintegrates, / As it must— / God is Change— / People tend to give in / To fear and depression, / To need and greed. / When no influence is strong enough / To unify people / They divide. / They struggle, / One against one, / Group against group, / For survival, position, power. / They remember old hates and generate new ones, / They create chaos and nurture it. / They kill and kill and kill, / Until they are exhausted and destroyed, / Until they are conquered by outside forces, / Or until one of them becomes / A leader / Most will follow, / Or a tyrant / Most fear.”), and 17 (“Embrace diversity. / Unite— / Or be divided, / robbed, / ruled, / killed / By those who see you as prey. / Embrace diversity / Or be destroyed.”). These are the ones, honestly, where I wish we had parables instead. They’re just so…diagnostic. “This is the way the world is.” Well that’s a lot of cases to try to cover. They would be rhetorically stronger, I think, and more scripturally effective, if they were told as stories that exemplified the themes but showed the counterexamples as well, for followers to identify with. It’s easy enough to think of how it could be done; hell, off the top of my head, Chapter 17 could be about two farmers, one practicing monoculture and one crop diversification, or two villages, one insular and disproportionately affected by a genetic disease and another constantly welcoming newcomers and making the whole genetic pool more robust. Better than “Embrace diversity or be destroyed.”

Lauren’s building a mindfulness component into her doctrine, too. Chapters 12 (“We are Earthseed / The life that perceives itself / Changing.”) and 16 (“Earthseed / Cast on new ground / Must first perceive / That it knows nothing”) both have a real humility and depth to them in terms of rooting the practice of Earthseed—whatever it is—in the center of your being. Who you are, what you’re experiencing, what you know, what you don’t. It keeps you in communication with yourself and challenges you to be connected and honest. Clearly Earthseed is going to be cast on new ground—there’s a Destiny—and so some of this is about preparing those travelers for success. But all of life is a journey, it says; anywhere is new ground.

And then there’s the one that truly made me scoff when I read it: Chapter 18 (“Once or twice / each week / A Gathering of Earthseed / is a good and necessary thing. / It vents emotion, then / quiets the mind. / It focuses attention, / strengthens purpose, and / unifies people.”). (It is, of course, also the chapter in which Lauren gets her first convert. This is not a coincidence.) It seems so…paltry. It’s not “here’s how to be a good person,” it’s not “here’s how societies are structured but shouldn’t be,” it’s not “know thyself”—it’s “have church a couple times a week, for these specific reasons.” But then I realized something that I think is actually really neat about this one, more than any of the others. This particular set of verses is about how to establish an Earthseed community. It’s the rules of the early church, not doctrine but management. More than any of the other epigraphs, it gives a vision into the process of Earthseed turning from one girl’s ideas into a community and presumably then a movement and a religion. There are things like this in the Christian New Testament too, what seem like finicky little details on how to run services or to operate a church. They’re not really instructions on how to worship; “once or twice” is entertainingly vague for scripture. But what Lauren needs if Earthseed is going to grow is for it to spread. She needs Earthseed communities to sprout in more places than just wherever she is, and for them to have a shared identity. Now that I’m reading this epigraph as community consolidation rather than scheduling, I can’t help feeling like it would be such an interesting one for future historians of Earthseed to use in re-creating the early communities of their faith, and that just tickles me.

The Benefit of the Doubt

Seems like we’re sort of all in the same boat responding to this first chunk of reading in The Parable of the Sower: It’s only Act I, so we’ve got both too much and too little to work with. But I’m also about to give y’all whiplash, going from my rah-rah explorations with Kindred to holding my nose on the way into this book (but looking forward to it anyway, because Butler is a great read). And yet.

Here’s my question, underlain by my personal tastes, but it’s an honest question: What is the purpose of apocalypse fiction?

I’m specifically making a distinction between apocalypse fiction and postapocalyptic fiction, because I totally get the point—and the appeal (which is a different thing)—of the conjectures and experiments that postapocalyptic fiction allows. How might human societies be reorganized after a sea change in certain structures or resources or conditions? Good question, with so many knobs and parameters to fiddle with! It’s one of the versions of the question “What if?” that I mentioned at the beginning of this IZ go-round, which sf as a literary approach is made for answering.

I suspect that’s where we’re going with these Earthseed books, but it’s not where we are. Right now we’re in the slow-motion apocalypse itself. And sure, the details may differ from example to example, but this story always goes the same way, right? It’s an inevitable descent, at one speed or another, into a Hobbesian nightmare of warring clans under the law of the jungle.

So: Why? Given the formula, and the straight-up misery and panic that always accompany the apocalypse, I’m skeptical of an argument for aesthetic pleasure. (Although I’m open to hearing one!) Does it have an instrumental function, then? Is it a pessimistic prediction? An Old Testament–style prophecy? Or is there even truly such a thing as apocalypse fiction as distinct from just the incipit of a postapocalyptic story? Is it just an extended buildup to the postapocalyptic part, giving us time with the characters on their way to the real meat of the story?

The End of All Our Exploring

The other posts here, and an exchange I’ve been having with another friend who’s also just read Kindred for the first time, have had me ruminating on a few things that I think I’ve figured out how to solidify together. There are two parts to this, really: the description of what I see happening in the text, and the interpretive metaphor. Let’s go with the metaphor first, since it’s more overarching and I’ve already broached the subject in a comment on Daryl’s recent post.

Butler is giving us a way to reconceive the psychic force of our shared history of slavery as not primarily a horror, but a wound. (Dana’s lost arm, Kevin’s PTSD…) That’s not to say there’s no horror—Paul reminds us of an especially hideous moment that branded itself on Kevin’s memory. But it’s important, I think, that we get that incident at some remove: Kevin’s telling Dana about a thing he saw years earlier (in his subjective time frame). The move here is to locate another category we can assign to the gravamen of slavery and its legacy, not deny any of it, and then to look at what that new framing means for the possibilities of our relationship to it.

Throughout the book, Butler shows us that the system of slavery is destructive to everyone. Obviously I’m not saying what we really need to think about in terms of slavery is how it hurt White people; what I’m saying is that Butler is very clearly showing us that it also hurt White people. This is one of the reasons for the move from horror to wound, because it’s hard to feel a moral demand to care about the effects on a monster of their monstrousness. You don’t sympathize with Dracula—but you can with Renfield, because he’s been damaged too. It’s empathy, not absolution.

We’ve talked some about Tom and his code of honor, and in this last week’s reading Rufus became an especially complex character. The reason it’s so uncomfortable to engage with them is that Butler gives us enough to see who they could have been if they hadn’t been warped by the world they live in. As my friend said to me, slaveowners were humans too, after all, with all the psychological and emotional needs that entails. They developed their own moral and ethical code to contain their lives in the system they lived in—and vastly benefited from—and justify the inversions of human feeling that it demanded. It’s no sure thing, but we get enough flashes of the man Rufus could have grown up to be, I think, to feel the loss of the comparison with who he ended up as. (Especially when the man he ends up as is a man who will drive the woman he believes he loves to kill herself because it’s so plausible that he would punish her—for resenting being serially raped—by selling their children.) It’s nothing like Alice’s losses, or Isaac’s, or Sarah’s, but it’s still a loss.

There’s a purpose here for Margaret Weylin too; remember that Dana illustrates Margaret’s neuroticism in terms of her micromanagement of the house. Her function is supposed to be running the household, but in the system of slavery, that’s accomplished by means of a community in her home that she’s not a part of—people she needs but won’t love, and can’t trust. No wonder competence in a Black woman is a threat to her. She’s forbidden to have any herself, or to complain about that.

And again, Butler’s careful to make sure we know she’s never just talking about the past. Given the time-travel conceit in this book, Faulkner’s aphorism is more apt than he even knew: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Remember Dana’s uncle, and how angry he was that she married a White man? “The last thing my uncle said to me was that he’d rather will [his apartment buildings] to his church than leave them to me and see them fall into white hands.” The book takes place only 20 years after Brown v. Board—that uncle grew up under Jim Crow, and may well even have gone to segregated schools. The wound was never healed. In the second paragraph of the first proper chapter of the book, Dana mentions that she and Kevin have just moved into “a house of [their] own a few miles away in Altadena.” That’s not just a line about how greater Los Angeles is made of gazillions of separate cities and neighborhoods: Altadena is where Owen Brown eventually settled after he survived his father John’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. (Check out his gravestone here: “Son of John Brown the Liberator.”) And bringing the past into the present, Altadena was also one of the first middle-class Black neighborhoods in the LA area, because it escaped the redlining that prevented Black people from buying land and owning homes in so many places. The wound was never healed. I come back to Dana and Kevin’s “chocolate and vanilla” coworker, too, because miscegenation only even exists as a concept in order to enforce racial categories—the core mandate in the system that we inherited from slavery.

Over and over again, we see that slavery brutalizes Black people specifically but injures everyone. Butler’s not the first person to observe this, of course, and I’m nowhere near the first person to take up medical imagery for the subject; Lincoln’s Peoria speech describes slavery’s euphemistic presence in the Constitution’s as “a wen or a cancer, which [an afflicted man] dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death.” It’s figured there as a potentially fatal wound to the entire country, which indeed it has very nearly been, more than once. But here’s the trick, I think—the whole point of this change in stance: a wound can be healed. There’s a connection here to my previous post, in that considering slavery only as a horror forecloses a lot of constructive responses to it. What can you do with an atrocity? Depends on which side you’re on, of course, You hope that the victims find the grace to forgive you for it. You recoil in shame from complicity in it, or privileges descended from it, and harden the walls of your ego-protective reaction. Or you resent the original sin against you and your people, and you swallow the embers every day from the match that can’t be unstruck. But wounds… Wounds we have a framework for, one that acknowledges both the possibility of healing and the necessity of being an active part of your own healing.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. And it doesn’t mean that some pristine state from before is recoverable. Scars are a part of healing too. But it means there is a kind of wholeness that can be striven toward. I don’t think Butler’s project in this book extends so far as to prescribe; expecting her to reminds me of the breathtaking audacity of the book’s setup, in which the universe kidnaps a Black woman more or less at the existential version of gunpoint and forces her to play guardian angel for a White boy. It’s Daryl’s Hurston quote again, “the mule of the world.” It’s on us White people to do the work of healing the body politic just as assiduously and conspicuously as we (as a group) take self-care measures like therapy and meditation and going to the gym. The only real obstacle is our collective will.

What We Owe to Each Other

At the beginning of last year, I joined a book group run out of my local library. (Got a whole two meetings in before we had to switch to Zoom, heh.) It’s for classics, which in this case means at least fifty years old. The book we discussed in February was A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, the first East African author to publish a novel in English. It takes place in the few days before and the day of Kenya’s official independence, and while I didn’t especially enjoy reading it, it gave me a lot to think about, and it feels like an especially valuable piece of postcolonial literature.

One of the themes my thoughts kept returning to from that book is the idea of justice, and how often pursuing it after the fact is a mug’s game. It feels weird to me even to type that sentence, which suggests that I might have gone for the most inflammatory summary of my thinking, so let’s take the long way to understanding it.

When we’re being socially constructed as citizens, we’re taught that justice is the function of the legal system. We have a whole coequal branch of government dedicated to it, after all. This is fundamentally the purpose of constitutional law, right? (I’m very aware that this is a White fairy tale; as I said, this is how we’re molded into the citizens that society wants us to be, which is White supremacists.) But interestingly, our legal system knows better—and has for something like three quarters of a millennium. The US legal system was originally based on that of Great Britain, particularly English common law (although of course, just like their squirrels and ours evolved differently once the continents separated, so too did our legal systems after independence), and until 1938 maintained a distinction inherited from that common law between law and equity. Simplistically, cases at law involved seeking money (“damages”) and cases in equity involved seeking…basically anything else. That old, old distinction arose in the first place from widespread recognition that the law wasn’t producing equitable outcomes; it was deeply formalist and procedural, and thus largely unconcerned with the justice of the underlying dispute, but also: money is only a substitute for, well, literally everything but other money. Compensating a person is rarely the same as making them whole. There are things you can do to a person, to a group of people, that can’t be taken back or repaired.

This is where Daryl’s double bind comes in: On levels from micro to macro, from interpersonal to global, there are affronts that can only be healed through the grace of the victim. In A Grain of Wheat, that’s refracted through colonial oppression (and war crimes) and the inevitable accompanying issues of collaboration/survival and post-independence retribution. In this section of Kindred, it’s focused pretty sharply through Dana and what she has to forgive Rufus in order to keep to her mission of saving his life (and thus her own) and maybe hopefully if she’s lucky changing his heart some too. It’s not bad enough to have to endure the aggression and insults and humiliations and enslavement; she also has to just eat it all and find a way to keep trying even though she knows there’s more coming. Even worse, he forces her to be complicit in his rape and abuse of Alice, which it hurts her to have to try to reconcile. Thus the double violation: first the injury, then the demand to bear all the burden of healing it.

But of course even with that focus on the interpersonal level, Butler makes sure our eyes are on the bigger picture too. The book takes place in 1976, after all—the Bicentennial. What kind of celebration must that have been for Black Americans, though? The country it was celebrating was the country Rufus summons Dana to: a country explicitly founded on racism and enslavement. Over those 200 years of independence, multiracial democracy on a national level had only existed for 11. (Even when Butler was writing, the Voting Rights Act hadn’t yet turned 15.) We see from Dana and Kevin’s families, and their odious “chocolate and vanilla porn” coworker, that injustice and group trauma live on beyond the time that the aggressor deigns to desist (and remember Frederick Douglass’s admonition: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will”—a third burden on the violated). And the costs they impose can’t be recouped.

That’s not to say that healing and change aren’t possible. It’s to say that I’ve come to see the idea of justice as forward-looking, because it can’t change the past. On a personal level, that means we have an inherent obligation to strive not to do these harms in the first place—although the danger there is that the force of that injunction comes from the idea that it’s unjust to impose the costs of my behavior on others, and for some people that asymmetry is called permission. Look at Rufus, and Dana’s understanding of his hideous plan to claim Alice. There’s nothing but Dana’s disapproval and opposition to keep him from it, and that only matters for as long as he lets her opinion hail him and chooses not to exercise his power over her. But in a larger sense, it goes along with Dana’s ruminations about Rufus that Daryl highlights. As he says, her goal is “to make things better for those who … follow her.” That’s where ideas of restorative justice (in the criminal system specifically) and transitional justice (in the context of regimes of human-rights abuse) come into play instead. I’ve already been going on more than long enough, so I’m not going to run through all that, but I do encourage y’all to look them up. The primary point is that rather than look to undo what can’t be undone or limit the repair to settling a dollar amount on the harm inflicted, these approaches understand justice as a transformation of the set of circumstances that produced the injustice. In a meaningful way, they’re about fixing the world rather than settling a score. To put it in terms I learned from Melissa McEwan at Shakesville: Justice for Trayvon Martin wouldn’t have meant George Zimmerman in prison and weregild paid to Trayvon’s family. It would have meant Michael Brown being alive. And so on and so on and so on and on and on and on.

And really that’s what I mean too, when I say that pursuing justice after the fact is a mug’s game. What we have to do is seek it in advance, so that things like what Dana and Alice and Isaac and Sarah and so very many others—and more importantly, real people—go through aren’t done to them in the first place. This is the onus Butler is showing us.

Pragmatics

There’s been some discussion already of Butler’s style, which I want to investigate a little in terms of how it functions to help create some interesting effects in the first sections of this book. (I agree with Paul that this book seems to demand less playfulness than I’d usually strive for in titling posts. For this post in particular, I know enough to know that I’m referring to an area of linguistics that relates to the points I want to make, but not enough to know how to lay out those connections myself! If anybody who does know more about pragmatics in the linguistic/semiotic sense wants to spell it out, I’d love to learn.)

I’ll start with a disclaimer: I’m going to do a bit of generalizing about Butler’s style, based not just on the first third of Kindred but also on the seven other books of hers I’ve read (the Patternist and Xenogenesis series). It’s been a couple years since I read those, so I’m working from memory; but that memory tells me that her style is largely consistent across books, with the possible exception of Wild Seed, which I remember as being somewhat more consciously beautiful.

So. In thinking about this little investigation, a rough dichotomy of styles occurred to me. On the one hand is a kind of writing that seems to show the author’s intellect visibly at work, or on the move. I’m thinking of Wallace, of course (and that sense so many readers describe of his writing being the voice in their brain), and Nabokov, and maybe Austen—and, frankly, myself: One of the things I value so much about these group reads is the opportunity to write about the books, because that’s how I find out what I think about them. Sometimes this style shows the writer themselves on a journey, or sometimes it shows them leading the reader on a journey that feels more planned. On the other hand is a kind of writing that’s trickier to pin down, but the best way I’ve come up with to describe the feeling that characterizes it is that the author has already made the journey, whatever kind of journey it is, and is sort of reporting from the place where they’ve settled. I’m thinking here of O’Connor, a lot of Morrison, Hemingway, and, relevantly, Butler. The characters still have places to go and things to learn (or not), but there’s a kind of density of conviction that underlies the writing, a feeling of experience rather than experiencing, if that distinction makes sense. (This is all sort of a provisional structure. If you have any refinements or additions or objections, speak up! For one thing, don’t think the gender skew of my examples has escaped me…)

There’s an incredible economy in the way Butler structures the first parts of this book. It’s clear that the structural logic and the narrative logic are largely aligned—Dana’s called to Rufus when he’s in mortal danger from something: a river, a fire in his bedroom, a fall from a tree. So we get a section for each of those: “The River,” “The Fire,” “The Fall,” and so on. (The flashbacks and present-time moments of Dana in 1976 are important, but in my reading that importance is narrative rather than structural.) The Prologue is two pages, beginning with “I lost an arm” and ending with two characters saying they don’t know what truly happened. Then comes “The River,” which introduces us to this pattern. Dana’s called away for just barely over a page, and there aren’t even six whole pages in the section. We’re moving fast, from event to event, and it’s deliberately bewildering. Butler’s giving us nothing that she isn’t also giving Dana, and what she’s giving Dana is a damn lot in a big hurry. “The Fire” is then about four times as long as everything combined that went before it, and then “The Fall” is another 20ish pages longer still.

I’m talking about page spans here because it’s quite literally a learning curve:

And that’s an important part of what we see: Dana learning. Learning what’s happening, especially, but also learning about living in the antebellum South as a Black woman, and learning as much as she can of what the Black people on and near the Weylin estate have grown up knowing. But also we see her taking action, and that’s some of where I come back to where I place Butler in that dichotomy I mentioned. We don’t watch Kevin decide to assemble a go bag for Dana; we skip right to her awaking with it already beside her. And then she iterates on its contents, trying to zero in on the optimal combination of supplies to bring with her. The thinking, here and throughout, is fully reconstructable (and indeed, not always withheld), but it’s kind of taken for granted that the thinking is indeed happening.

Even when we get more explicit cogitation, it reveals that there’s already a fully formed intellect underneath that’s doing the thinking: On page 28, when Dana’s putting together her tie to Rufus, she thinks, “Alice Greenwood. How would she marry this boy? Or would it be marriage?” (The italics are mine; Butler doesn’t do a lot of that kind of cuing.) From Dana’s 1976 perspective, that’s a reasonable question. But of course its real import isn’t whether Alice and Rufus solemnized their relationship—it’s whether Alice was given the power to consent at all. There’s no further elaboration on that point in Dana’s train of thought, though. On the Watsonian level, Dana already knows why she’s wondering, so there’s no need for her to rehearse it. And on the Doylist level, this is part of how Butler operates. It’s up to us as readers to be alert to the mass of the iceberg under the water. Whether that technique lands for you is more or less a personal question, but I’m finding it quite powerful.