Mount Chicago

Hey, friends. It’s been a while! I’m not here to announce a new group read (I just don’t have time or energy for it these days), but I did want to share the word about Bubblegum author Adam Levin’s new book, Mount Chicago. I picked up a copy this weekend from my local bookstore and am eager to dip into it after finishing up one or two of the books I’ve currently got going.

As some readers of this blog played along during our group read of Bubblegum, I wanted to share the news of Levin’s new book as a probable read-of-interest.

Consider listening to Levin’s interview for Concavity Show too.

More Group Reads

I’ve been pretty quiet here since we wrapped up the Butler reads. I’m back now because an IJ guy I follow on Twitter (disclosure: I pay only occasional, brief attention to Twitter) shared a link to a YouTube video about 2021 reads and upcoming plans for doing some group reads in 2022. I’m a sucker for reading lists and for group reads, so my interest was piqued. Here’s the video:

If you read the notes on the video, you’ll see that this reader (who goes by the name @nr_wayne on Twitter) is considering some interesting pairings of novels with shorter things like stories or poetry. And some of the pairings are pretty interesting — Gaddis’s J R paired with stories by Lovecraft? Yes, please! Alan Moore’s Jerusalem paired with poems by Mary Oliver? I’m listening!

I’m not entirely sure what the format will look like here. I’m thinking about whether I can fit any of these monthly reads into what’s likely to be a very busy year for me. I figured I’d mention the opportunity to the sort of folks who pay attention to this site, as it’s the sort of thing we all seem to like.

So, give it a look if you’re itching for more shared reading experiences, and reach out to @nr_wayne on Twitter or Instagram if you’d like to learn more. The list of pairings is given in the notes beneath the YouTube video at the link above.

I’m not planning any group reads here any time soon. I’m just a combination of too busy and focused on other things right now. I will share that I’m reading Jim Gauer’s Novel Explosives, and hooboy is it a good one so far (about halfway in). Gauer is his own distinct self with his own distinct writing, but I think that if you’re into Gaddis (especially J R) and Pynchon, there’s a good chance this weird, smart book will be a treat. I’d love to group read it one day.

We May Be Done with Butler…

…but not everybody is! (And to be fair, we’re done with Butler in the sense that our scheduled reading of three of her novels ended some weeks ago—speaking for myself, I don’t see ever being done with her and her work.)

I was doing a little idle searching the other day and found a couple podcasts that are right in line with our most recent go-round here. The first is the audio record of a conference called Octavia E. Butler Studies: Convergence of an Expanding Field. I listened to it a few days ago, coincidentally right on the conference’s fourth anniversary. It was held at the Huntington Library, which Butler bequeathed her papers to on her death. (In the introduction to the conference, you get to hear that story in brief.) All the talks/papers relied to one degree or another on research the authors had conducted in the Octavia E. Butler Collection there.

This was really my first encounter with archivally informed criticism like this. I suppose I was cognizant of the historical value of archives, but since the whole point of them (or at least ones like the Butler Collection) is to collect material that wasn’t published, they’ve seemed to me more like curiosities than sources that can do much to enrich the analysis of published work. (If you like, you can compare it to some of the US Supreme Court justices’ objection to using what’s called “legislative history” to interpret a law; you can’t be certain enough of the relationship between a text and comments made during its drafting but not incorporated into it to know what kind of weight those comments deserve in your interpretation.)

This was a silly opinion. For the most part, I thought this was a fabulously interesting conference. Probably the talk that was most directly relevant to the project we did here at Infinite Zombies was by Gerry Canavan, who spoke on the (apparently numerous) drafts of the third Earthseed volume that Butler intended to write, Parable of the Trickster, and the kinds of questions that a survey of these drafts suggests she wanted to grapple with in it. There were a number of fascinating interdisciplinary approaches to Butler’s work—which especially makes sense given the conference’s goal of heralding the coalescing field of Octavia Butler studies. (I was tickled to hear one speaker say, “I wrote about Kindred in my thesis, so I’ve read very nearly all the criticism there is on it.”) There was also an extraordinary story from an attendee about when the women’s sf book club she’s a member of read Kindred and Butler attended the meeting where they talked about it.

The other podcast I found, I haven’t had time to listen to yet, but I’m eager to dive in. It’s called Octavia’s Parables, and it’s a deep-dive approach to the Earthseed novels (at least at first) that goes at an even more deliberate pace than we did here: pretty much a chapter a week. It’s made by Toshi Reagon and adrienne maree brown, who have engaged quite a bit with Butler’s work before—Reagon cocreated the opera version of Parable of the Sower, and brown is a coeditor of Octavia’s Brood, which is an anthology of visionary fiction taking up the mantle of Butler’s methods of using sf to imagine social possibilities and social change. Like I said, I haven’t listened yet, but by the look of things the podcast was originally intended to cover the Earthseed books only, but may have expanded to larger plans to eventually discuss all of Butler’s novels. This is…pretty much exactly my jam. I can’t wait to listen.

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.

Yada yada

If you know Seinfeld, you’ll likely know of the episode in which much is made of the practice of yada-yada-ing over important details of a set of circumstances. Parable of the Talents feels like a very big yada-yada to me. In Parable of the Sower and at times in Talents, we get lots of details. But then we jump ahead suddenly to Olamina dead at 81 after a brief, tepid meeting with Larkin some 25 years earlier. Add this to all the sort of inconsistencies in the world building that I mentioned in a recent post, and this book really just did not do it for me.

This bugs me because I figure the book must be good and I must just be blind to it. It won the Nebula award, after all, which I take to be sort of the Pulitzer of speculative fiction. Other books nominated for the Nebula? Gravity’s Rainbow. Slaughterhouse-Five. Various and sundry books by Le Guin, including one of the marvelous Earthsea books. Gene Wolf’s The Urth of the New Sun (I didn’t love this whole set of books all around, but the world is certainly well imagined). Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Dhalgren. Dune (which I happen to be rereading right now and enjoying a lot). Several of George R. R. Martin’s books, which aren’t perfect but which hold up much better as fully-realized stories and worlds than Butler’s parables. Gaiman’s lovely The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Cloud Atlas. VanderMeer’s Annihilation (the follow-ups are weak, but I thought this one was really good). And then of course several of Jemisin’s books, which in my view are all stronger than Talents. Few of the ones I’ve listed here won the Nebula, but still, they show the sort of company the winners keep.

In the reader’s guide in my edition of Talents, Butler says in an interview that she really struggled to write the book and in fact rewrote and rewrote the first 150 pages without feeling satisfied. The death of her mother, she said, was the spark that changed her perspective and led her to make the story less about Olamina than about a relationship between a mother and a daughter. I like what Jeff said a little while ago about the story being sort of a set of gospels about Olamina, and I think that format makes sense and is even pretty compelling filtered through an estranged daughter’s perspective. But the book really just didn’t live up to that potential for me.

Putting aside my disappointment for a moment, I’ll note a couple of things that stood out to me as I read this last portion of the book.

I wondered if Marc and Olamina represented sort of a Cain and Abel story. Certainly there is enmity between them. Olamina is a sort of a farmer while Marc is sort of a shepherd (of his Christian America flock). I hadn’t really thought of it until, on page 307 of my edition (early in chapter 18), Larkin says that Marc’s time as a slave had marked him. God marked Cain to protect him when throwing him out of the Garden of Eden. The parallels aren’t entirely parallel, and it may be a stretch, but this is where my brain went.

On 366 and 377 (early in chapter 21), Larkin reflects on what she has learned about Earthseed over the years. It has grown rich and powerful, expects its members to teach and serve, and embraces a sort of self-will (“shape change”). It is a cult with charismatic (or “seductive”) leadership. It doesn’t have an actual god. And, of particular note to me:

I found that Earthseed was a wealthy sect that welcomed everyone and was willing to make use of everyone. It owned land, schools, farms, factories, stores, banks, several whole towns. And it seemed to own a lot of well-known people — lawyers, physicians, journalists, scientists, politicians, even members of Congress.

page 377

This sounds like at least an echo of what Scientology represents, and I wondered whether and what Butler would’ve thought of L. Ron Hubbard and his Dianetics. He was, after all, a science fiction author too (he was not ever nominated for a Nebula award).

There’s more, but I’ve run out of steam. I guess I’ll yada-yada over it and say that I really wanted to like these books. I did like Parable of the Sower well enough. There was so much that Butler could have done with Talents — including, oh, writing actual science fictiony stuff about the technologies she mentions and the Mars mission that’s just getting ready to occur as the book ends — and I found the book disappointing. I’m really puzzled that the book won the big science fiction prize, and honestly I don’t know whether my puzzlement is a result of my being a bad reader of this book, my misunderstanding of the prestige of the award, or something else altogether.

These days projecting blame is an art form

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?

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.

It’s hard to believe that kind of thing happened here, in the United Stated in the twenty-first century, but it did

When this book started I thought that it was an interesting idea to have Lauren’s child go wholly against her.  I even wondered if it was Butler’s rethinking about Earthseed.   Larkin’s attitude about her mother doesn’t exactly change over these chapters, but it does morph a bit.  So much so that by the time chapter seventeen rolls around, Larkin comes across as a bit more of a petulant, jealous person than a critical thinker.

I wonder what my life would have been life if my mother had found me.  I don’t doubt that she would have stolen me from the Alexanders–or died trying.  But then what?  How long would it have been before she put me aside for Earthseed, her other kid?  I was her weakness.  Earthseed was her strength.  No wonder it was her favoirte. (265)

2033 was a terrible time and, frankly, a painful read.  The chapter of 2035 tells us that all of Olamina’s diaries from 2034 are lost.  Which is just as well for me since 2034 was a year of the same torture and hellishness and I’m just as happy to not have to read it.

Larkin writes that she met some people who were at Camp Christian (we don’t know how yet) and spoke to a woman named Cody Smith who told her about the attempted uprising by Day Turner and his people–an uprising that failed and that caused a massive increase in suffering for everyone there.

Larkin tells us that everything that was done at Camp Christian was illegal–despite what Jarret tried to make legal. The one thing that seems to have been made legal was the removal of children from their families at the Mexican border because of vagrancy laws.

Vagrant adults with children could lose custody of the children unless they were able to establish homes for them within a specified period of time… Not surprisingly children were “rescued” this way much more often from vagrants who were considered heathen than from those who were seen as acceptable Christians.  And “heathens” who were poor… might find themselves reclassified as vagrants so that their children could be placed in good Christian American homes. (219)

And a quote that seem more true every day:

It’s hard to believe that kind of thing happened here, in the United Stated in the twenrty-first century, but it did. (220)

Despite the laws, though, it was Jarret’s fanatical followers that were the greater danger.

During Jarret’s first year in office the worst of his followers ran amok.  Filled with righteous superiority and popular among the many frightened ordinary citizens who only wanted order and stability, the fanatics set up the camps.

Butler and her narrators don’t talk much about war, but I suspect this is her attitude:

Meanwhile Jarret himself was busy with the obscene Al-Can war.  The already weakened country all but collapsed.  Much blood was shed but little was accomplished. … The war just petered out… gradually over 2034 a terrible bitter weariness seemed to creep over people.  Poor families saw their sons drafted and killed, as they said, “for nothing.” (220)

After the war, Alaska seceded and people said Texas would be next.  [Had Texas threatened to secede back in 2005 or did she predict that as well].

In less than year Jarret went from being our savior, almost the Second Coming in some people’s minds, to being an incomptent son a bitch who was wasting our substance  on things that didn’t matter.  I don’t mean that everyone changed their feelings toward him.  Many people never did. (220)

Then it’s back to Olamina’s journals.  The first one February 25, 2035

Every Sunday they Camp Christian had six hours of sermons.  This one was about “the wickedness of bestiality, incest, pedophilia, homosexuality etc.  but here was nothing at all said about rape.” (223).

The sermons are exhausting, but they are warm and offer a chance to rest –the “teachers” don’t want to be cold, after all.  It was during this particular Sunday session that Beth and Jessica Faircloth–18 and 19 year old sisters who look younger–told on Mary Sullivan and Allie for their romantic dalliances.  The teachers dragged the two “sinners” up an shocked them both.  They shocked Mary until she died (while her father, Alfred, watched) and shocked Allie until she was a gibbering mess.  Alfred had a mental breakdown and was soon no longer seen either.

That was the last straw.  Olamina gathered the remaining Earthseeders and planned to break free. They found out where he main power source of the collars was and they decided they were willing to sacrifice some of them to disable it.

But that night there was a storm and huge mudslide–it’s nice poetic justice that the removal of trees loosened up the soil enough to cause a landslide.  It collapsed the cabin where the command center was and destroyed the shock collar machine.  A few women were killed but more importantly, many of the slavers were killed.  And most importantly the collars were ineffectual now.  The prisoners of the camp went berserk, killing all the slavers and taking whatever they could.

They removed their collars and the Earthseed contingent calmly gathered the caches of supplies and made a plan for the future.

That was really cathartic.

The people of Earthseed gathered for one last time trying to come to terms with what they’d been through and what they could do from here.  They decided to split up into smaller groups–no more than 5 or 6–and to go separate ways.  They would have a special location for communicating with each other, but otherwise they would not know where the others went–it was safer that way.  It was the only way that Earthseed could continue.

And then an interesting admission from Olamina:

In order to rise
from its own ashes
a phoenix

It was an Earthseed verse , but not a comforting one.  The problem with Earthseed has always been that it isn’t a very comforting belief system.  (235)

Larkin informs us that the crusaders deliberately split up siblings when they took children. It did not have the desired effect.  Among the Faircloth boys, one became a CA minister the other rejected CA completely.

Christian America was, at first. much more of a refuge for the ignorant and the intolerant than it should have been.  Even people who would never beat, or burn another person could treat suddenly orphaned or abducted children with cold self-righteous cruelty.  (238)

Larkin talks about her own upbringing with the Alexander family.  It was pretty miserable. They would not stop talking about their beloved deceased child Kamaria–comparing her to Larkin (Larkin always coming out worse of course).  They felt that quiet was good and questioning was bad.

People believed that they needed to break and rear child in the CA way.  Of course, breaking people is much easier than putting them together again. (238)

There was a mindless rigidity about some CA.  They were so certain that they were right that they’d kill you to save your soul.

She talks about a time when she found a doll in their yard (clearly a Barbie).  She had no idea what it was since such images were sinful.  Her mother saw her with it and snatched it away.  Then she dug a hole and burned it.  She make Larkin take out that hot melting plastic and said “If you think that hurts you just wait until you get to hell.”  (251)

Pictures of any kind were frowned upon, except for the Dreammasks.  Those were permitted because they mostly showed CA-approved videos.   But older kids would pass around secular masks that offered stories of adventure and sex.  She had one labelled The Story of Moses that was the story of a girl who had wild sex with her pastor.

Despite what Larkin had said about people calling Jarret a son of a bitch, she seems to be right that people hadn’t given up supporting him.  This sounds familiar from oh say 2017, -18 and -19

They say he has to be given plenty of time and a free hand so he can put things right again.

But those dedicated to other religions, and those who are not religious at all sneer at Jarret and call him a hypocrite.  They see him for the tyrant that he is.  And the thugs see him as one of them.  The working poor who love Jarret want to be fooled, need to be fooled.

Olamina has left with Harry, Nina (Dan’s sister) and Allie.  They have moved into Georgetown, because they know they can trust the woman who runs it–she makes you pay for everything, but she’ll never rat you out.  Olamina sets up a business teaching children and drawing pictures. She had been calling herself Cory Duran (her stepmother’s name) because it was so far from her actual name.

They had hoped to find all of their stolen children.  The first they found was Allie’s boy Justin.  He had run away from his foster home and made his way to Georgetown hoping to find information.  Honestly trying to find the children in other people’ houses seems pretty much impossible.

Justin saw Olamina and ran to her.

When we get back to Olamina’s journals in March, she writes

So much has happened.  No that’s wrong.  Things haven’t just happened, I’ve caused them to happen.   Must get back … to knowing and admitting, at least to myself, when I cause things…  Good things were the acts of our teachers or of God, Bad things wr our fault.  If you hear nonsense like that often enough for long enough you begin to believe it.  (240)

The reunion with Justin is very satisfying.

Harry had gotten a job working with the George brothers–they drive around hauling things.  Harry was a good worker and they liked him which allowed him to travel around and gather information.

The biggest surprise is that Olamina went to the police to ask about Larkin.  She gave them a false story about how her daughters was stolen from her and then paid the “fee for police services” that you have to pay for anything other than an emergency.

Things seem to be going well, but then Harry tells Olamina that he quit his job and is going on his own to find his children.   He heard of a children’s home run by CA and he thinks it’s his best lead.  She tries to talk him out of it but she can’t and he is gone the next day.  So Olamina is alone–Zahra is dead, Harry is gone and Allie has the one she cared about (Justin).  And Nina just wants to get married and settle down.

So Olamina sets out teaching–she teaches verses and aphorism from Earthseed but doesn’t really preach the doctrine.  She also does labor around the house.  She hopes for a place to sleep but will take what she can get.

I don’t know if this was intended for comic effect during a very dark period, but I did enjoy that Olamina stays with a old man who was in a band in the 1970s.

They travelled the world, played raucous music, and had wild sex with hundred, maybe thousand of eager young girls.  Lies, I suppose. (281)

In May, she finally gets the courage to go to one of the Christian America centers. She won’t sleep there but she accepted their food (in exchange for a sermon).  On her third visit, the minister was Marc!

Then there is a quote from Marcos’ Warrior book.

He praised Jarret for creating Christian America and moving from the pulpit to politics.  And then he says a shocking line: “Jarret became his teacher.”

As the week’s reading ends, Olamina tries to meet up with Marc on a later night.  She leaves him a note signed by their (presumed dead) brother.  Olamina dressed like a man and surprised Marc outside of the congregation area.

Marc is freaked out by pretty much everything she says.  Olamina quickly loses her cool and unleashes everything that happened to her on him–how can he stay with CA when CA people did what they did to his sister?  He doesn’t believe her stories, she must have misunderstood what was going on.

The questions he asks in reply are telling:  “How did you get away?  Was your sentence up?”

His questions are also concerning to me: “How did you get free?  There’s no escape from a collar.”  And “You killed people?”

He started to walk away and when Olamina grabbed him, he turned and punched her in the face.

She went back a few nights later, this time dressed as a woman, to see if Marc would at least help her find Larkin. But when she got there she learned that he had left for Portland.

[In light of what we’re learning about the Jan 6 insurrection]
I had heard on one of my earlier visits that the all-male CA Center Security Force was made up of retired and off-duty cops.  That, if it were true, was terrifying.  (286)

As she left, someone handed her a note from Marc.  Her mind was reeling as she walked home–this time dressed like a woman.  Two men snuck up on her.  She couldn’t get to her gun but she got to her knife and was able to fight them both off.  Both men were killed in the fight and after being crippled by that, Olamina knew she couldn’t stay there any longer–not with two dead bodies near where she was staying.  So she up and left the area.

Then she read Marc’s note.  He couldn’t help her.  He said that the people who destroyed Acorn were splinter group–not Jarret’s own group [“see I was right”].  They call themselves Jarret’s crusaders but Jarrett has disclaimed all connection with them.  He called them very great people misguided but courageous.

He says that in order to find Larkin, Olamina should join CA:

Your cult has failed.  Your god of change couldn’t save you.  Why not come back to where you belong?  If Mom and Dad were alive, they would join. (291)

As if that weren’t a twist of the knife he continues:

I have to warn you though, the movement won’t let you preach.  They agree with Saint Paul in that: Let the women learn in silence with all subjection.  But I suffer not a woman to teach nor to usurp authority over the man but to be in silence.  But don’t worry there’s plenty of other, more suitable work for women to do to serve the movement.  (291)

At this point she probably wished she hadn’t even rescued him.

I’m ending with this last prescient quote because I can’t help myself.

What doe Jarrett really think about the crusaders?  Does he control them?   If he doesn’t like what they’re doing he should make some effort to stop them.  He shouldn’t want them to make their insanity part of his politic image.
On the other hand, one way to make people afraid of you is to have a crazy side–a side of yourself or your organization that’s dangerous and unpredictable. (292)

This book is really messing with my head but I am very glad I didn’t read the whole thing before the election or I would have been apoplectic trying to make everyone else read it.


Early in chapter 18 from this week’s reading (page 307 in my edition of the book), Larkin writes about her uncle Marc, saying, among other things, “What Uncle Marc had been through as a slave marked him.” Had Butler not shortened his name to “Marc,” this might not have stood out to me, but she did, and it did. Marc is marked. Marc is also jealous of his sibling. The Cain and Abel story isn’t a direct template for this relationship, but there are echoes, as God marked Cain before sending him wandering.

Thinking about that wandering put me in mind too of another Biblical story. Moses, you may recall, had an adoptive mother, saw a burning bush, revealed the word of God by writing down the ten commandments, and eventually led the Israelites out of slavery, sending them out to wander the land for 40 years.

Lauren also has an adoptive mother. Early in Parable of the Sower, she has dreams (visions?) of fire, and of course fire is in no short supply throughout that book (people worship it, even). She says again and again that she’s merely writing down, in her Earthseed verses, the truth she’s discovering, not a religion she’s making up. And in this week’s reading, she leads her people out of slavery. If one wants to stretch things a bit, one might even liken the saving mudslide to the parting of the Red Sea. Finally, she breaks her rescued people into smaller groups that wander off in different directions. There’s at least a slant rhyme here with the Moses story, no?

Harriet Tubman too came to be called the Moses of her people. And though Butler’s story doesn’t limit enslavement to African Americans, it’s hard not to think at least a little bit about Tubman when reading the group of Butler’s books we’ve read this year.

I have no stunning point or incisive literary criticism to offer here. I’m just noting an association that came to mind while I read. I’ll offer two further associations in the form of worthwhile books by living authors. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad gives a sort of embodiment to the historical underground railroad. Ta-Nehesi Coates is well known for his nonfiction, but his first novel, The Water Dancer, is well worth a read too. Set in 19th-century America, the book confronts slavery directly. Its magical realism elements didn’t always work for me, but I liked the book on the whole, and it was neat to see Coates writing lyrical prose fiction; I’d gladly read any straight-up realist fiction he published.

OT: Jemisin and marginalization

I was in Barnes & Noble the other day and thought I’d look at the N.K. Jemisin books. So I went to the sci fi section and saw the half dozen or so titles by Octavia Butler and then I followed the alphabet to find ONE book by N.K. Jemisin.

Now, I admit that I had not heard of her before reading her introduction to Sower, but then I’m not a huge sci-fi reader.

But given her accolades

Four Hugos and one Nebula not to mention what I think Jeff pointed out about being the first author in the Hugos’ 65-year history to win back-to-back awards for every book in a trilogy.

How can they only have had one of her books on the shelf? I realize that space is limited and people don’t buy books anymore and blah blah blah, but is something more going on here?