When Siberia is a refuge

2033 is a brutal year for Acorn and Earthseed.  The end of the section was really hard to read.

As the year opens, our narrator, who we later learn is named Larkin Beryl Ife Olamina Bankole says that her mother should have left Acorn and gone to Halstead like Bankole asked.  It makes it seem as though perhaps Bankole went without her, but he did not.

“Larkin” is a derivative of Lauren and from the Greek Laurel ,  “Beryl” was his mother–emerald is type of beryl.  “Ife” is the Yoruba word for “Love”

Olamina dna Bankole had actually stayed in Halstead for a short time.  A family was moving from Halstead to Siberia (!) for a better life.  The election of Jarret was the last straw for them.  Bankole is amazed:

If [when I was a boy] anyone had said that Americans would be giving up thier homes and their citizenship and going to make new lives in Siberia, the rest of us would have looked around for a straightjacket for him (130).

Olamina and Bankole stayed in the family’s house while Bankole was trying to decide if he should move there.  Well, he knew he should, he was trying to convince his wife.  She doesn’t want to move but says it was a good trip for her.  Living in a modern house with plumbing.  Being so close to the Ocean.  She could see the appeal.

Bankole had told people that they were leaving.  Or, more specifically, Marc was telling people they were leaving and the faithful were understandably freaked out.  But she convinced them, and herself, that she wasn’t leaving.

When I started this year I was taking notes on things that interested me, but after having finished it and reading all the horrors, it seems bizarre to include little observations about things that made me smile.  But I get to throw this one in because I am a cataloger for a library.

Olimani and Channa have been sorting and cataloging books for their library and Olamina hated to be interrupted, but not too much: “Still, cataloging is tedious” (137).

The first bad news comes from Marc.  After he had been rescued by Olimani and taken in by  Acorn, he decided that he wanted to preach his own Christian beliefs to the people.  He was going to do it without asking his suiter, but Olamina found out and told him to preach at their next Gatehring.  She warned him that he would be questioned about what he said and he was cocksure enough to go on with it.

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What if Butler Were White?

I have not read Harold Bloom,, but I understand loosely that his notion of the anxiety of influence describes the proposition that authors are sort of tied to their predecessors and can never really escape their influence. So, Wallace is frequently compared to Pynchon and Gaddis and is in turn cited as an inescapable influence on Levin. Jemisin may have some difficulty escaping the influence of Butler in the reception of her work. I wonder if there’s a name, though, for the phenomenon wherein something (the history or personal traits, say) of a book’s author influences how the book is received by the reader.

I think of David Mitchell, for example. I read all of his early novels and found Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet especially virtuosic. When I got to The Bone Clocks, I expected more of the same and was disappointed to find it a much less accomplished work. Like, it was bad within the broader context of Mitchell’s capabilities. My expectations based on what I knew of Mitchell’s prior work made it hard for me to read The Bone Clocks on its own terms.

In these books of Butler’s, I have so far kept right in the very front of my mind the fact that she is a widely read and respected Black woman author of speculative fiction. So of course her books will include a lot about racial injustice, right? Since this real heavy stuff seems sort of a given, I find myself picking other nits rather than spending much time thinking about and applauding the obvious.

And there are nits to pick. I like my fiction to hew pretty closely to the reality it presents. It’s ok if that reality is wacky as long as it’s fairly consistent. There are a fair few things that’ve stuck out to me in Parable of the Talents that do not seem consistent with the reality Butler is presenting. Paul mentioned a few of these in his post from week one: Would systems like taxation and copyright really be upheld in this lawless country? Compulsory voting seemed far-fetched to me too, given that there are so many squatters scattered around the country in settlements lacking real infrastructure. Butler’s description of the housetruck is of a very formidable military-grade weapon, to my mind. Such a thing would cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars — likely more given the inflated value of money in this world — and it beggars belief that the Noyer family could really have afforded such a thing. Maintenance on such a vehicle would require specialized knowledge and materials unlikely to be available to the Acorn community and yet they manage to keep the housetruck in fairly good shape. Later we learn of the maggot vehicles, which seem like souped up versions of housetrucks. Who is manufacturing and distributing these? And how can Dreamasks and slave collars possibly be widely available in an impoverished society? Who is mass producing such things in these times? And how does Bankole keep medical supplies in stock? There are carefully guarded shops out there, sure, but are they really likely to carry more than the basics in terms of medical supplies? Have they suddenly stopped requiring prescriptions for the more potent medications? In other medical marvels, Bankole seems to be able to determine that his child will be a girl long before she’s born and without the benefit (presumably) of any sonogram machine. There’s a lot of this sort of fracturing of the reality Butler presents, and it’s been very distracting to me.

I wonder if I’m being fair, though. If, for example, a white man had written this book, might I find myself focusing on the themes of racism and feminism in the book instead, and thinking the author pretty woke for bringing them up, and excusing a little more freely these nits? Is it fair that Butler, by virtue of the marginalizations she cannot escape, should have to do the work both of highlighting these marginalizations and of writing an air-tight speculative fiction narrative?

I think the very best work manages to do both of these things. Le Guin wrote great speculative fiction (at least the bits I’ve read) and also wrote about gender. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy both presents a marvelous, consistent world and pokes at the cruel use of Black bodies to serve the populace.

Still, I wonder if my expectations here have been fair. Am I holding Butler to a higher standard than I might a white writer because, in a way, she gets the anti-racist stuff for “free” or as a given? Hold that thought for a moment while I provide a less fraught example. Say a former professional baseball player who lived a long baseball life took up novel writing and indeed wrote a baseball novel. I think I would expect that the baseball parts of the novel would be flawless and also less effortful for him, given that he lived them. So I would really want the other parts of the novel to shine. That’s what I’m getting at when I say that Butler gets the race and feminism stuff for “free.”

Only of course she doesn’t get it for “free.” In fact it’s a greater burden to exist as a Black person in America and perhaps a hardship or an annoyance to feel that one must write about it as well.

So that’s what I’m chewing on as we head into the last half of the book and the final in this series. If I’m finding some of Butler’s work to be less to my liking than work that maintains a consistent (even if wacky) reality, is that fair? Would I feel the same if Butler had been white?

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.

Who should I trust?

I had sort of a lightning bolt moment when reading Gulliver’s Travels in high school. I found the book kind of interesting but also tedious at times. And I took everything pretty much at face value. It didn’t occur to me that I might dislike or distrust a character who wasn’t, at face value, a capital-B, capital G Bad Guy. I mean, stories have clear archetypes, right? The Bad Guy wears a black hat and has a sneer, right? I forget whether it was Gulliver himself or one of the haughty houyhnhnms who attracted the lightning bolt, but I remember that my mind was blown when my teacher, in effect, gave me permission to read sort of outside the boundaries of the archetypes. It was ok, she taught me, to countenance ambiguous characters, to perform independent interpretive acts while reading. It sounds simple, but it really was a formative moment for me.

I’ve read a lot since then, and I’m often still pretty dim and literal in my reading, but I’ve learned to read with a little more nuance. Still, the early part of Parable of the Talents has my head spinning a little. We hear from several people:

  • The daughter of Olamina and Bankole
  • Olamina
  • Bankole
  • Olamina’s brother Marcus (or Marc? or Marcos?)

And they all have different points of view. We’re pretty well used to Olamina’s voice by now. Her religion seems reasonably level-headed even if it’s not clear (to us, to Marcus, to Bankole, to Dan Noyer…) why she’s babbling on about change as a god. I haven’t fully understood her, but I’ve felt inclined enough to trust her as an agent for good.

But her daughter calls her a zealot and a weapon. Her daughter’s view of Olamina so far seems lukewarm at very best.

The daughter writes more warmly of Bankole. And I like Bankole. But I have some ambivalent feelings about him too. After all, he hooked up with someone very much his junior (just barely an adult) and didn’t think to feel weird about it until afterward. And he’s putting Olamina in kind of a weird position by pressuring her to move to a settlement when he knows her mind is set on making something of Earthseed at Acorn, though his intentions are positive enough. I can’t really fault him for this, and in fact he’s really probably right about it, if a little old-fashioned (but then, he’s kind of old). I feel a little ambivalent about him is where I’m landing here.

I don’t know yet what to think about Marcus. His niece says that he’s likely a worse zealot than Olamina. He abhors chaos while Olamina embraces change. He’s certainly had a hard few years and has plenty of reason to be complicated.

I sure don’t know yet what to make of the daughter. Does she have an agenda? Is she going to wind up being the voice of Butler who helps us see what’s problematic about too easily trusting a messiah figure, or that figure’s opposite, or a kind but old-fashioned man who is all to ready to run arms open into something that seems a little like a sort of gentrification? Or will the daughter turn out to function essentially like a Greek chorus? Or will she become a key player as we get deeper into the book?

So we’ve got these four viewpoints, each at least a little different from the others, and I haven’t yet figured out whose to weigh the most heavily, or how to consider them all together. And of course there’s no saying I have to. But it’s on my mind as I read, this multiplicity of perspectives, and the commentary on the part of the daughter that brings them all together.

She would have been a wholly admirable person

Parable of the Sower ended on a vaguely optimistic note:  Lauren felt that they were ready to set up Acorn, the home of her Earthseed community.  Bankole thought there was no chance it would work.  But this is Lauren’s story, so we’ll assume that the story is tipped in her favor somewhat.

Plus, there’s a sequel, so things must work out reasonably well, right?

Well, surprise!

Parable of the Talents opens up with the news that Lauren is dead.

She is mostly called Olamina during this book because Bankole “doesn’t like my first name, so he ignores it.  That’s fair.  I didn’t like his first name either. It’s Taylor, by the way and I ignore it” (122).

This book is narrated by Olamina and Bankole’s child–unspecified gender and age in the Prologue, although by the end of this week’s reading we can assume the writer is their daughter [Bankole wants her named Beryl and Olamina wants her named almost anything that isn’t Beryl–“such an old fashioned name” (122).  The narrator later says something about high school, so it must be around 2050.

The child shares Olamina’s diary entries, but her basic attitude is that she hates her mother and thinks well of her father and wishes she knew him.

The book opens with this narrator saying “they’ll make a god of her” and the continues with something surprising about that

I think that would please her, if she could know about it.  In spite of all her protests and denials she’s always needed devoted, obedient follower–disciples–who would listen to her and believe everything she told them.  and she needed large events to manipulate.  All gods seem to need these things.  (7)

I never got the sense that Lauren wanted to be a god.  But maybe Olamina does.

She also tells us that Lauren’s middle name “Oya” is the name of a Nigerian Orisha–goddess f the Yoruba people (goddes of the wind, fire, and death, more bringers of great change (50).

Butler wrote this book five years after the Sower.  As I read Talent, I wondered what the intent of this story was. Had she planned all along to have a follower (child or otherwise) criticize Earthseed?  Had five years of thinking about Earthseed made her question the validity of Lauren’s ideas?  I don’t know anything about Butler, about whether she “agreed” with Lauren’s ideas or not.  I don’t have anything besides textual evidence to know how she felt about religion in general.  So was this book a commentary on her own ideas/ideals from five years earlier?  Or is this just interesting storytelling by having a new protagonist dispute the doctrine of the previous protagonist.  Especially if the bulk of this book is made up of Olamina’s diary entries (just like the first book was).

That’s right, even though the book is set after Olamina has died, the book so far is primarily her own diary entries from 2032, By the end of 2032, she is pregnant with, presumably, the person who is narrating this book and criticizing Olamina’s ideas.

She calls her mother “focused, and yet so misguided, there for all the world, but never there for me” (8).  This sets up a very interesting potential conflict between Olamina nd the outside world.  We soon learn that Earthseed is on the radar of powerful people (the new president) who do not approve of it.  This intro suggests that Earthseed really takes off–just how big does it get?  It’s easy to forget that it must have really grown as you read through 2032 and see the small steps they have taken in the last five years.

The other surprise is that Olamina is not the only one to have writings in this book.  It starts with and excerpt from Memories of Other Worlds written by Taylor Franklin Bankole.  There’s another writer coming up as well in due time.  We learn a little later that Bankole encouraged Olamina to copyright her books [it’s hard to believe that something like copyright is even meaningful in this lawless country], so presumably he has done the same with his.

Things will get back to normal someday…  You should do this in the same way that we go on paying their taxes” (73).

Wait, people are still paying taxes??

Bankole writes that he period from 2015 to 2030 is being called The Apocalypse or “The Pox” [that’s a hilarious comment on the media].  Bankole says it started long before 2015 and has not yet ended.  He says the United States suffered a major nonmilitary defeat–and it did not survive The Pox.

Next is the first journal entry from Olamina on September 26, 2032, Arrival Day–the fifth anniversary of the establishment of Acorn.

Olamina more or less gives us the reason behind the titles of these books.  She says that her father loved parables–stories that made pictures in people’s minds. And she summarizes the parable of the talents.  Talents were a currency during the Bible and I am, of course, curious if there’s an etymological connection between the money and how we use the word today [I’ll let Daryl investigate that for us].

Basically, a lord gives his servants money.  Two of them invest wisely and return with more.  The third buried his money and returned with exactly what he was given and his lord punished him and took away what little he had.

It turns out I had read an excerpt of this chapter in a collection of science-fiction stories last year.  And that let me get the elephant in the room out of the way.  Holy CRAP this book sounds a lot like what happened here in the 2016 & 2020 elections.  Rebecca Romney (no relation to Mitt, I assume) editor of the collection introduced the excerpt like this:

I’ve ended this collection with a meteor.  An African-America woman born with “hyperempathy” must navigate the 2020as and 2030s in a hellscape formed by climate change disasters…  The reader is introduced to a rising demagogue whose slogan in “make America great again.”  Did that send chills down your spine?

At the time she was writing, however, it’s more likely she was inspired by the past than by the future.  When Ronald Reagan accepted the presidential nomination from the 1980 Republican National Committee, he gave a speech in which he promised, “For those who’ve abandoned hope, we’ll restore hope and we’ll welcome them into a great national crusade to make America great again.”  Butler perceived the problems behind that phrase and used science fiction to explore how such a mindset could lead to history repeating itself, resulting in story that is even more powerful today than when she first wrote it.

When I wrote about the excerpt (it was just before the 2020 election), I was clearly freaking out about everything that was going on and the fact that people actually wanted to re-elect the buffoon who shall not be named.   So, I’m posting some of what I summarized in the excerpt (which covers most of chapter 1):

Dovetree is the community next to Acorn.  It was doing reasonably well, until it was burned down–attacked by men wearing black tunics with large crosses on the chest.  This was no gang of thugs or bunch of looters, this was an organized group–and one the narrator is unfamiliar with.

Was this group of people from my current least favorite presidential candidate, Texas Senator Andrew Steele Jarret?  It sounds like the sort of thing his people might do–a revival of something nasty out of the past.  … Jarret insists on being a throwback to some earlier “simpler” time.  Now does not suit him.  … The current state of the county does not suit him.  He wants to take us all back to some magical time when everyone believed in the same God, [and they could stomp] anyone who was different.  There was never such a time in this country.  But in these days when more than half the people in the country can’t read at all, history is just one more vast unknown to them. (23)

And then this take on the electoral process.

It seem inevitable that people who can’t read are going to lean more toward judging candidates on the way they look and sound than on what they claim to stand for.  Even people who can read and are educated are apt to pay more attention to good looks and seductive lies than they should.

That sure sounds like 2020–aside from the good looks part.

At the time that I read this excerpt, I had no context about the role of religion in the story.  I see why religion is such a focus now.  Although last year it went with the election cycle pretty easily: just replace the religious aspect of this text with skin color and “cultist” with “antifa” and you could read this in any paper today.

“cultist” is a great catchall term for anyone who fits into no other large category and yet doesn’t quiet match Jarret’s version of Christianity.  …  Jarret supporters have been known, now and then, to form mobs and burn people at the stake for being witches.  Jarret condemns the burning, but does so in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear. (24)

I imagine that there will be more horrifying parallels going forward, but I’m going to try to minimize my mentions of them (maybe an asterisk as needed).  Especially since our Jarret didn’t win in 2020.  I can’t imagine what Butler would have said were she alive.

Actually, one more, from the next chapter.  It sounds like Jarret’s competitor is portrayed as dull (or perhaps “sleepy” if you’re too lazy to think of a better word).  And Olamina marvels that so many people

fear Edward Jay Smith’s supposed incompetence more than they fear Jarret’s obvious tyranny. (31)

Scary.

In Chapter 2, the narrator gives us more context for 2032–every member of Earthseed was taught to read and write (English and Spanish).

Education was no longer free, but it was still mandatory according to the law.  The problem was, no one was enforcing such laws, just as no one was protecting child laborers. (28)

When we get to some details later about what’s happening to children–wearing remote controlled shock collars–labor laws are the least of the problems.

Bankole’s concern about Acorn seems like a general anxiety about being a Black man during The Pox.  But he was one of the lucky ones–a well-educated, professional Black man was rare–and treated with suspicion in the mountains.  But once the locals realized that he was a good doctor, people began to appreciate him.

In more exciting news, Olamina and three others went to a nearby farm to collect some supplies.  They were ambushed by a house truck. [I’m unclear about the provenance of this name–is it like a house boat?, a truck that you can live in].  Trucks like this were armor plated and fully automated with weapons.  After a few hours of hiding out, Olamina hears a child and goes to investigate.  It turns out that the truck was being monitored by two little girls–the rest of their family had been shot and was on death’s door.

They manager to rescue the two girls and the oldest boy (Dan).  The parents are dead and the older girls were taken–presumably to become prostitutes.  Obviously Dan is very upset that he didn’t save his family.  But he was shot and could barely move.

The good news is that Acorn now has an armored truck.  This is great for all of their expeditions and will also allow them to expand their small businesses–bringing food to market and making deals with neighboring communities.

Bankole is furious that Olamina risked her life for a crying child or even for a truck–his concern for her is quite touching.  Olamina, however, tells him to realize who he’s talking to–she’s no dummy.   But still, he thinks that they (maybe just the two of them) should move to one of the small towns where he can set up as the local doctor.  She outwardly says that she’s happy at Acorn–on Bankole’s property.  But inwardly, you knows she’s all “this is where Earthseed is dude, wtf.”

In Bankole’s writings he says that he was always a doubter when it came to religion, how crazy is it that he fell for a zealot.  The narrator is similarly puzzled by the appeal of Earthseed.

In Earthseed there is no promised afterlife. Earthseed’s heave is literal, physical–other world circling other stars.  It promises its people immortality only through their children, their work and their memories…  Its promise if of hard work and brand-new possibilities, problems, challenges and changes.  Apparently that can be surprisingly seductive to some people.  My mother was a surprisingly seductive person.  (49)

She continues later

She worked hard at seducing people. She did it first by adopting vulnerable and needy people, then by finding ways to make those people want to be part of Earthseed, no matter how ridiculous it seemed with its starry Destiny.

My biggest take away about the daughter’s attitude is “If she had created Acorn, but not Earthseed, then I think she would have been a wholly admirable person” (63).  [Wow, what happened??]

But indeed, Olamina says that she foresees a time

when most or all of our neighbors have joined us.  Even if they don’t like every aspect of Earthseed, I hope they’ll like enough of it to recognize they’re better off with s than without is.  I want them as allies and as members, not as just “friends.”  (69)

A new horror that’s introduced in this book is women with their tongues cut out.  There is a woman at Acorn–May–who had her tongue cut out, but she cannot tell them what happened.  Olamina says

in some of the more religious towns, repression of women has become more and more extreme.  a woman who expresses her opinions, “nags,” disobeys her husbands or otherwise “tramples her womanhood” and “acts like a man” may have her head shaved, her forehead branded, her tongue cut out, or worse case, she might be stoned to death or burned. (51)

Plus scientists in Australia brought a human infant to term in an artificial womb–reporters are already calling the womb containers ‘eggs.’ (82).  Eggs combined with cloning technology would give men the ability to have a child withou the genetioc or gestational help of a woman (83).

As new people get folded in to Earthseed, they often hasve questions.  Dan the teenager made a pretty complete recovery thanks to Bankole but he has serious questions about Earthseed.  When Olamina explains that change is God, he wonders

But what can you do with a God like that?  I mean.. it isn’t even a person.  It doesn’t love or protect you. It doesn’t know anything.  What’s the point? (73)

Her answer is, to me, unsatisfying

The point is, it’s the truth.

Although her point about prayer is pretty good.  “Flattering or begging God isn’t useful” but praying is because

it is an effective way of talking to yourself, talking yourself into things.  It can give you a feeling of control and help you to stretch yourself beyond what you thought were your limits. (74)

So Earthseed as self-help.

I have wondered before about the outside world in this series.

She talks about Alaska.  It was the dream for so many.  But even if people managed to get across the US-Canada border and then back across the Canada-US border to Alaska, things are not so great.  Plus, last year Alaska seceded and the Alaskan president and President Donner are rattling sabers at each other.  Alaska also seems to be getting chummy with Canada and Russia.

Three years ago, there was a nuclear exchange between Iran and Iraq which scared the heck out of everyone.  It caused peace all over the world for a little while, but soon people got annoyed and things flared up again.  “It’s always been much easier to make war than to make peace” (79).

I also wondered about Mars, which was sadly neglected at the end of Sower.  Well, there is a mention of it now because living multicellular organisms have been discovered there.  They look like slugs and are not exactly animal.  They are living Martians.  Although President Donner is looking to privatize the space program: “‘If it’s worth doing at all it should be done for profit and not as a burden on the taxpayers'”–as though profit could be counted only as immediate financial gain. (81)

So anything we learn about these creatures will no longer belong to America.  She cynically but correctly asserts that if they can be used they’ll be protected, cultivated and bred.  If they’re not useful, they’ll be seen as an impediment to progress. And if they’re bad for business they’ll be lucky to survive at all.

Then the worst news of all–Jarret won the lection.  Of course (most of) Earthseed voted for Edward Jay Smith.

Even a man without an idea in his head is better than a man who means to lash us back to his particular God. (84)

And then there’s this*

[Jarret has] had to distance himself form the worst of his followers.  But he still knows how to rouse his rabble, how to reach out to poor people, and sic them on other poor people. How much of this nonsense does he believe? I wonder, and how much does he say just because he knows the value of dividing in order to conquer and to rule? (85)

Two weeks later Olamina found out she was pregnant.

And then three months later she found her brother Marcus!  (This is what was spoiled in the Foreword to Sower–not a huge reveal, but still it ruined the jaw-dropping moment).

They had put put feelers to see if they could find Dan’s sisters who had been taken.  Someone-pimp named Cougar-said he had one of the sisters.  But when they went to meet with him the girl was not Dan’s sister (but she looked similar).  However, one of the boys was MarcusI  Olamina played it cool and eventually bought him back–the parallels to the salve trade are obvious.

Marcus’ story is horrifying (unsurprisingly).  He fills in the gaps for Olamina about what happened the night she fled.  He watched his family get killed and was nearly killed himself.  He was taken in by a family who happened to have the same last name as his mother–Duran.

Chapter Seven opens with an excerpt from Warrior by Marcos Duran.  That’s what the family who adopted him called him and that’s what he feels like now–“Call me Marcos.”  He’s been Marcos Duran for five years and doesn’t know how to be Marcus Olamina anymore.

While Marcus was healing, Dan ran away leaving a note that he was off to find his other sisters.  Olamina doubts they’ll see him again.

The narrator confirms that Marc was the handsomest man she’s ever seen (even after all the shit he’s been through).  But unlike his sister, he hated chaos–it was unnatural, demonic.  His gods were order, stability, safety control.  Uncle Marc wanted to make the earth a better place.  He knew that the stars could take care of themselves. (103)

As the year and the week’s reading come to an end Bankole says the doctor is Halstead is dead and the town wants him to move there to be their doctor.  He wants to do it and he’s more insistent on the two of them moving because he has an actual job offer.  He knows she won’t agree because of

[her] immaturity, [her] irrational unrealistic faith in Earthseed, [her] selfishness, [her] shortsightedness.

That’s a dramatic place to leave off.  I’m really quite hooked–with so many questions.

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!

Unjustified optimism?

The end of the book provides something of a skeptical feeling of hope for our travelers.   I read in the Foreword that Earthseed was meant to be a trilogy; however, Butler only finished a sequel (and an unrelated novel) before she died.  The Foreword (by N.K. Jemisin also gives a spoiler to Parable of the Talents–uncool!  Even if the books are over twenty years old. 

By the way, Jemisin sounds pretty interesting.  Anyone read her?

To me, it is astonishing how many big questions go unanswered in the book.

I had mentioned wondering about the Mars mission and there’s no mention of that again.  We never find out anything about any state east of Central California and we never find out What Happened.  Obviously that information is irrelevant for the characters–they just have to move on–but it’s frustrating not to have even a hint.  [I accept that it wasn’t relevant to Butler, but I’m still curious].  We never hear anything about the community that the corporation bought, either–although there is a kind of follow up with someone from a similar community telling about how badly it turned out for the people living there.  

This section starts off with an earthquake.  Earthquakes are bad news in general but in this situation they are much worse because earthquakes tend to cause fires.  And we know who fires attract.  Zahra thinks that they might be able to scavenge for something they can use, but Lauren suspects, rightly, that it would be a dangerous thing to do–druggies and people more violent than they are would be there.  And this proves to be true.

In fact, it proves to be very smart to move on because they wind up putting some distance between themselves and the violent crowds that scavenged the burnt out houses.

Then they see a man pushing his belongings in twin saddlebags [I can’t actually picture this].  He’s about Lauren’s father’s age and looks in decent shape (and has all his teeth).  He says to her that the whole world’s gone crazy.  She replies that she’s heard that every three or four decades the world goes crazy.  He agrees: “The nineteen-nineties were crazy…but they were rich. Nothing like this bad.  I don’t think it’s ever been this bad” (229).

The man’s names is Taylor Franklin Bankole (call him Bankole).  Lauren likes him immediately. 

[Obviously Bankole’s name has significance as we shall see in a moment, but I wonder how much thought Butler put into names.  For a community that’s falling apart all around them, it’s interesting how much she specifies peoples names–first, middle, last nicknames etc.]

Lauren says

Our last names were an instant bond between us.  We’re both descended from men who assumed African surnames back during the 1960s.  His father and my grandfather had had their names legally changed and both had chosen Yoruba replacement names.
“Most people chose Swahili names in the ’60s,” Bankole told me.  “My father had to do something different.  All his life he had to be different” (230).

[So yes, he is one year older than her father would have been].

He joins their group, a bit warily at first, but is soon accepted.  And soon after, they get two more members. They hear two women screaming.  Normally one would ignore this sort of thing, but they felt safer in their big group.  The women were in an abandoned house when the earthquake collapsed it on them.  They were mostly okay, just a bit shaken up an bloody.

The two women are Jillian (Jill) and Allison (Allie) Gilchrist.  They are in their twenties and their father was their pimp.  They set fire to his house when he was really drunk–they don’t know if he survived.  Lauren hopes he didn’t.

Unfortunately, when the group helped the women, it made them an instant target.  A man grabbed Zahra and another grabbed Lauren.  Lauren stabbed the man up to the hilt of her knife–and the pain she felt was unimaginable.  Soon the pain died–which mean the man died.  Everyone was fine, but Zahra encouraged her to change clothes–she was bloody, which was an invitation to trouble.

By the end of the day they had made it to Salinas.  [Depending on where they started that’s roughly 300 miles]. It was untouched by scavengers but had a “stay on the road” look to it.  But people left them alone to shop and get supplies:

We were women and a baby as well as men, and three of us were white.  I don’t think any of that harmed us in their eyes. (240)

They got clean, bought water, food and ammunition.  “By the way,” Lauren bought “condoms for her own future”–I love the way she tucked that in with a “by the way” (241).

They also stopped at a kind of flea market and bought pots (Bankole’s cart could carry them) because they were 9 people now and needed more general supplies.  They also bought an old fashioned Winchester shotgun.

There’s also the first sign of the world outside of their immediate area.  Lauren managed to get a radio earpiece.  It doesn’t tell them much of the outside world, but it does tell them of trouble in the Bay Area.

[So there’s obviously someone broadcasting news.  This has to suggest some kind of basic infrastructure, right?  Similarly, the National Guard was called out–again, fascinating insight into the state of the country that there is still a National Guard but we let California (and more) get like this.]

They leave the 101 for a side highway, the I-5 which proves to be smart–fewer walkers and less trouble.

I’m fascinated by tis observation:

In some places, the rich are escaping by flying out in helicopters [where are they going?] The bridges that are still in tact–and most of them are–are guarded either by the police or by gangs.  Both groups are there to rob desperate fleeing people of their weapons, money food and water–at the least.  (246)

They made it to a safe spot and were able to rest, but soon enough they were woken in the night by gunfire.  Fortunately it wasn’t aimed at them.  Even though they were now a big group, they were able to keep themselves hidden and protected during the night.  But Lauren noticed that Bankole wasn’t in his spot.  She didn’t know if he’d run off or if he’d been shot while going to the bathroom.  But, in fact, he was trying to quiet an orphaned child–the boy’s mothers had been killed in the gunfire, and a noisy child is a giveaway they couldn’t afford.

Now their group was ten. The orphaned child, Justin Rohr, got attached to Allie–the more negative of the two sisters, so that seemed like a surprise.  Jill said it maid sense though because Allie had had a child of her own–a child who was killed by their father [graphically] because it cried too much.

Then they got to Hollister.  [I don’t know much of anything about California, so I don’t know if these town names are meant to signify anything to 1990s readers.  But Hollister seems to be a decent place to be].  The earthquake had done damage but the people there “seemed to be helping one another with repairs and looking after their own destitute.  Imagine that.” (257)

Things between Lauren and Bankole move pretty quickly, at least in her mind.

The nice thing about sitting and working alongside someone you don’t know very well, some one you’d like to know much better is that you can talk with him or be quiet with him.  You can get comfortable with him and with the awareness that you’ll soon be making love to him. (260)

But first she explains a bit of Earthseed o him.  He doesn’t exactly embrace it

It sounds like some combination of Buddhism, existentialism, Sufism and I don’t know what else (261).

But he’s not dismissive either:

She has fine tuned her ideas somewhat

The essentials are to lean to shape God with forethought, care, and work to educate and benefit their community, their families and themselves, and to contribute to the fulfillment of the Destiny. (261)

Bankole’s concern is that Earthseed is too straightforward. 

If you get people to accept it they’ll make it more complicated, more open to interpretation more mystical and more comforting (262). [I’m curious to see if this happens in the sequel].  But during the discussions, some of the others begin answering questions or chiming in with their ideas.  Earthseed is taking root among her flock.

Eventually Lauren and Bankole do settle down and make love and the enjoyable side of her hyperempathy is explored.  After they consummate, the reality of the fact that he’s 57 and she’s 18 sinks in.  He’s freaked out, but she is totally cool with it.

By September 9th the have made it all the way to Sacramento (another 185 miles), which is where they first see cannibalism.  Seems that trucks on I-5 are hitting people and not stopping which leaves parts for eating, I guess.

But compared to Southern California, there’s more water, more food, more room, so why were the people eating one another? (272)

But Lauren is more into Bankole than any other thoughts at the moment.  He has asked her to leave the group with him  She demurred and tried to read his intentions.

I didn’t see condescension or that particular kind of disregard that some men reserve for women.  He wasn’t deciding that my ‘no’ was a secret ‘yes.’  (273).

The big draw, though, is that he owns 300 acres further north (a piece of l can’t even imagine the size of).  His sister and her husband and children live there–and they had been in touch until he left.  Lauren rightly points out that here must be squatters there, but he says it’s hard to access the property from the main road.  

She changes his question into her own and proposes that they use that property for the first Earthseed Community–bring their entire group and set up a new there.

“The world is falling apart.  You could help me begin something purposeful and constructive.”
“Going to fix the world, are you?” he said with quiet amusement.”
“Are you sure you want God as your rival?”  (275-276)

He eventually turns this discussion into an offer of marriage–something his sister would be utterly angry about. [I’m fascinated that (promise of) marriage plays such a large part in this book, given the state of things].

They find a place to settle down for the night and when they wake up there are two more people among their group.  This is no good–clearly a failure of the watch, but they are lucky that the pair are friendly–a woman and her daughter.  They are clearly thieves, but they are not criminals (a nice distinction) and they do not try to steal from them.  Lauren realizes that–Emery Tanaka and her daughter Solis–are the most racially mixed people that she had ever met.  The woman had a Japanese father, a black mother, and a Mexican husband.

They worked for one of those giant agribusinesses.

Wages–surprise!–were never quite enough to pay the bills.  According to new laws that might or might not exist, people were not permitted to leave any employer to whom they owed money.  They were obligated to work off the debt either as quasi indentured people or as convicts.  That is if they refused to work, they could be arrested, jailed and, in the end, handed dover to their employers (288).

A few days later, they had two more companions: Grayson Mora and his daughter Doe.  Solis and Doe hit it off instantly and although Grayson was reluctant to join, he was happy to see his daughter make a friend.

Things seem to be going very smoothly.  Their posse is growing.  There is peace among their group, and they have a destination.

And then Jill is shot and killed.

During this skirmish, Lauren was hit by a bullet but it was a “cowboy wound”–hurt like hell and bled a lot but it was nothing serious (unless strangers saw that she was injured).  Bankole looks after her (he is a doctor!). 

While Lauren is thinking about this whole battle scene she realizes that Emery and Grayson as well as their kids are “sharers” like she is–that’s what they call people with hyeperempathy.  She wondered if the condition was transferred to children.  Some of their children did have it, but not all of them.

Then at last, on September 26, 2027 (56 days later) they reached Bankole’s land in the coastal hills of Humboldt county near Cape Mendocino. (They are still 150 miles form Oregon).  It was a wonderful moment of catharsis until they realized that his sister’s house was burnt to the ground and their bones were amid the ashes.

Bankole goes to the police to inquiry about the murder of his family, but they basically take all of the money he had on him–which wasn’t too much, but wasn’t too little either–they’d take something else if there wasn’t enough money.

Lauren knew it was a mistake from the get go and absolutely did not want the cops to come around.  [Given what’s going on in the country right now, this is a remarkable observation]

I wonder what you have to do to become a cop.  I wonder what a badge is, other than a license to steal.  What did it used to be to make people Bankole’s age want to trust it.  (316)

I also wonder if Octavia Butler hated dogs.  Dogs are sure evil in this book (and in Kindred).  When Bankole suggests getting dogs to protect their property Mora says “I wouldn’t give a dog nothing but a bullet or a rock.  I saw dogs eat a woman once.”

They decide that things will be okay, but Harry still wants to get a job.  In a rather disturbing moment Emery suggests that Harry could be a driver.  When he says he doesn’t know how to drive she says no, a driver of people.

Making them work.  Pushing them to work faster.  Making them do…whatever the owners says
Harry’s expression had dissolved from hopeful to horrified to outraged, “Jesus God, do you think I’ do that!  How could you think I’d do anything like that?”
Emery shrugged. It startled me that she could be indifferent about such a thing but she seemed to be…. “Some people think its a good job.”  (323).

The book ends on a tone of optimism from Lauren but pessimism from Bankole. He says “you’re so young … I wish you could have known this country when it was still salvageable.”

The eternal optimist, Lauren says “It might survive…  Changed, but still itself.”

But Bankole retorts:

No.  Human beings will survive of course.  Some other countries will survive. Maybe they’ll absorb what’s left of us.  Or maybe we’ll just break up into a lot of little states quarrelling and fighting with each other over whatever crumbs are left (327).

[Seeing what we’re witnessing politically these days, this seems scarily predictive.]

Bankole’s last thought in the book is “I don’t think we have a hope in hell of succeeding here.” (328).

And yet, they decide to name the place Acorn, which is certainly a sign of hope.

It would be five years before she would write the follow up.  I’m curious how you would read this if you didn’t know there was a sequel.  Is that an unreasonably optimistic ending?  Does it seem like Lauren’s ability to win people over shows that they have a chance of succeeding?

I’m very curious what the next book will show.

Sculptor and Clay

Having finished Parable of the Sower, I still have no idea how to receive the character and the teachings of Lauren Olamina. Looking back at the foreword by N.K. Jemisin after finishing the book, I was a little heartened to read this:

Lauren Olamina no longer felt anachronistically know-it-all to me, as she had when I’d first sampled the novel. (She always read to me as an older woman’s idea of what a smart teenager should be, rather than a realistic rendering of what smart teenagers are actually like.)

This doesn’t precisely capture my feelings about Lauren, though it comes close to capturing what bugs me about the epigraphs, which is that they feel kind of half-baked or faux-prophetic, so that I don’t know whether to receive them as if they’re a sort of scripture to revere or whether to receive them as if they’re a kid’s attempt to write a scripture to be revered. That is, I’m not clear on whether the crummy writing is Lauren’s or Butler’s. I’ve had similar thoughts about other books before — “is this a case of an unreliable narrator or does the author just not know how to write consistently from the speaker’s point of view?”

Jemisin writes in the foreword about reading Butler’s parable books at different times in her life and getting different things from them at each time. She certainly values Butler’s work, and her foreword makes me want to revisit the books a decade or two in my future. Meanwhile, I think I’ll content myself with putting aside further attempts to puzzle out intent vs. effect of the epigraphs.

I’ll go one step further and identify something positive I gained from the epigraphs. There is a quote from the epigraph at the top of chapter 22 that stood out to me in this week’s reading:

God
Is both creative and destructive,
Demanding and yielding,
Sculptor and clay.

Reading this was sort of a record-scratch moment for me, as it brought to mind two lines of poetry I’ve tumbled around together in my mind in association with one another for twenty-some years. The first is the closing line of Yeats’s “Among School Children“:

O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

The other is a line from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám:

Who is the potter, pray, and who the pot?

This notion of art and artist inseparable, articulated beautifully in these rhythmic questions, has always stuck with me, and I must’ve repeated these lines to myself a few hundred times over the years if only for the comfort of pronouncing the syllables.

I have no great revelation to share about these quotes. Butler’s phrase just stood out to me and made satisfying connections to some other things I had read.

As for the book as a whole? I liked it. It’s grim, but I like grim. And there’s hope, but I don’t think it’s wide-eyed, unbridled hope. There’s also a lot left on the table. What more might we learn about sharers in Parable of the Talents? Will Acorn turn into an oasis and counterpoint to Olivar or will it be scavenged and burned again? Will more be made of Olivar? Will Earthseed take hold? Will Lauren wind up among the stars? I haven’t read Parable of the Talents and am eager to begin.

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.

A Germ of Hope?

(Apologies for not getting this up sooner, Spring Break has put me off my game!).

I have not read Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and I don’t intend to.  But I feel like this book acts as a precursor to that one.  And that is something I did not in any way expect.

2026 opens in June, almost seven months after the previous entry.  I’m curious about the distance between entries.  It’s possible that Lauren has dozens and dozens of pages that just said, “today sucked” and we don’t need to see that.  But I am curious about the time jumps.

Is it a way for Butler to move us ahead quickly so that something that needed to take a few years to happen is given the time to do so?  I’m thinking about Mars a bit.  In two years a lot can happen with the space program.  Of course, the President was supposed to cancel the program.  So who knows what’s going on there.  Aside from basic passage of time, did we need to wait six months to see what came next?  I’m not sure.

In June Keith is back–bigger and more confident.  He’s not yet 14, but he’s very successful, bringing home money and gifts (but none for his father).  He has ingratiated himself into a gang by being the only literate one in the group:

They’re all older than me, but not one of them can read or write anything.  They stole all this great stuff and they couldn’t even use it.  Before I got there they even broke some of it because they couldn’t read the instructions. (105)

Lauren and Keith have a heart-to-heart–really their first ever.  He learns a bit about her and while he gains a little more respect he also tells her that she’d never survive out there–she doesn’t know enough.  He also tells her about these new crazies called Paints who paint their skin green or blue or yellow and eat fire and kill rich people.

Keith comes back on her birthday and gives her a present.  A month later he is dead–killed in a horrific and gruesome way.  He was clearly tortured and left to be found.  His death was a message for someone–a rival gang, probably.

But they don’t call the police:

cops liked to solve cases by “discovering” evidence against whomever they decided must be guilty.  Best to give them nothing.  They never helped when people called for help.  They came later and more often than not, made a bad situation worse. (114)

In October, a new component to the story crops up. 

Kagimoto, Stamm, Frampton and Company (KSF) has taken over a nearby town called Olivar.  It is small and well to do.  The citizens voted to let their town be taken over–privatized.  They intend to set up energy resources in the community–solar, wind, desalinization.  They mean to own great industries in an area that people have given up on.

Kagimoto, Stamm Frampton: Japanese, German, Canadian.  When I was young, people said it would come to this. Well why shouldn’t other countries buy what’s left of us if we put it up for sale. (121)

This is another aspect of the story that confuses me.  Is it basically that Los Angeles has exploded and the rest of the country is okay?  There’s talk about work up north, but why?  What happened to the country that they/we would let L.A. collapse but nothing else.  Or maybe it’s the entire South West?  Nobody knows anything about the East Coast, apparently.   I’m hoping that they will get explained a bit later on.

Olivar was accepting applications to live there.  They were looking for educated people.  And here we learn that both of Lauren’s parents have PhDs [a commentary on the invisibility of Black scholars?].  Her stepmother thinks it’s a great idea to go to Olivar.  They would be guaranteed safety and security.  But her father is against it, calling it “half antebellum revival and half science fiction” (122).

Anyone KSF hired would have a hard time living on the salary offered. In not very much time, I think the new hires would be in debt to the company.  That’s an old company-town trick–get people into debt, hang on to them and work them harder.  Debt slavery. That might work in Christopher Bonner’s America. Labor laws, state and federal are not what they once were. (121)

Come November, the Garfields have been accepted at Olivar.  The Garfieds include Joanne, Lauren’s one time best friend (who misplaced Lauren’s trust by tattling to her father).  Joanne has been serious with Harry Balter.  But Harry is staying in Rebledo.  Lauren suggests they get married and then Harry can move in with them, but she says that Harry wants to get married and travel north.  He thinks they way Lauren’s father does about Olivar.

But the Garfields are still going: “conservative and sensible and mature and wrong” (128).

In November, Lauren’s father did not come home one night.  They spend days looking for him with no luck.  The search parties uncover all kinds of remains, some of which they think might be her father’s but which turn out not to be.

The search also reveals an aspect of Lauren’s hyperempathy that we didn’t know–sound doesn’t trigger it (she hears a man screaming), only sight does. 

Five days alter they have a Sunday survive that turns more or less into a memorial.  Lauren speaks at he service and proves to be powerful preacher.  She speaks of God but presumably she means her own god–the earthseed god.  By mid-December they have a formal funeral–they accept that he would have found his way home by now.

Later, when KSF came for the Garfields, it was in an armored truck

The two movers were a black and a white, and I could see that Cory considered that hopeful.  Maybe Olivar wouldn’t be the white enclave that Dad had expected. (139)

All along Lauren has been romantically involved with Curtis.  People anticipated that she would get married an have a baby with him–something she strongly resisted.  Indeed, her plan all along was to leave Rebledo without him.  But now with Lauren’s father gone (he was the reason she hadn’t left yet–she didn’t want to hurt him), Curtis suggests that they both go.  He’s upset that she wanted to go without him, but she explains that she didn’t want to force him to make that choice.

Two days later, someone burned down the Payne/Parrish house; while that was going on. they robbed three of the other houses including Lauren’s.   

I’ve been frightened at the phrases that Butler says that prove eerily prophetic to the last few years:

People are setting fires because they’re frustrated, angry, hopeless. They have no power to improve their lives, but they have the power to make others even more miserable.  And the only way to prove to yourself that you have power is to use it.  (143)

Interestingly, the drug that gave Lauren her hyperempathy–Paracetco–was initially a legitimate drug intended to help victims of Alzheimer’s disease.  Pyro was an accident–a homebrew on the East coast it made it was away across the country.

People on the fire drug get off on watching things burn.  Blaze, fuego, flash, sunfire.  The most popular name is pyro short for pyromania [I’m fascinated that she needed to spell that out as I feel that in 2021 (and much earlier) it was a common abbreviation].

As the year ends, the families try to make due with what they have left.

Then we enter 2027.  Once again it’s six months into the year.  And this is when things change dramatically.   Thieves drove a truck through their wall and set everything on fire.  Nearly everyone in the community was killed.  [I did wonder if it was worthwhile learning anyone’s names, and it was two people I didn’t think twice about who survived].  The description is a violent orgy of death, rape, fire and who knows what else.  It is brutally described.  Lauren escaped.  She had the forethought to run back in and put on clothe and shoes and grab her bug out bag.  No one else in her family had done so. She saw them n bare feet and pajamas and then she didn’t see them any more.  She managed to get outside and to hide until the next day,

She crept back into her community and went to her house which was being looted and stripped. She knew where there were some hiding places and she managed to get clothes for her family as well as money that was hidden in the ground.  She grabbed a gun and got out, looking like all the other miserable looters.

Lauren was sure she was alone.  Then out of the rubble came Harry Balter and Zahra Moss–the youngest wife of Richard Moss the polygamist.  Zahra’s baby was killed (brutally) and an attacker was about to (or had begun to) rape her when Harry saved her (and got beaten for his help).  Neither one had planned for anything like this and they are pretty hopeless.  Lauren decides that three is safer than one and invites them to go North with her.

Zahra’s backstory is interesting.  Richard bought her from her mother who was a drug addict and a prostitute.  Zahra has lived on the streets and she knows what’s what.  She takes them to Hanning Joss, the biggest secure store complex.  I’m fascinated to learn that there are are still megastores and that they have security allowing people to shop safely there–commerce always wins.

Then they do what everybody else does–they head North.  Lauren has decided to pass as a man.  She’s tall and muscular and can do so, so she cuts her hair short.  They encounter much danger and violence but manage to get relatively far north.  Harry is a trusting guy, trying to avoid violence in any way possible.  But Lauren (and Zahra) knows the reality of the situation–kill or be killed; steal or be stolen from.  And with Lauren’s hyperempathy, she can’t afford to let people around her suffer.  She winds up cutting a man’s throat to stop the hurting that he (and she) are feeling.  Harry is appalled at her.  So she finally admits to her hyperempathy assuming they’ll abandon her.  But they do not–three is better than two.

Zahra and Harry become a couple and have unprotected sex (what harm could come from that?) 

Then the trio meet another family who seems to be tagging along after them.  Everyone is out for themselves, but Lauren takes pity on this mixed race couple with a baby.  She helps them out at the second Hanning Joss and a few days later, when Lauren saves their baby from a feral dog, they agree that five (or six) is better than three and two (or three).

The new people are Travis Charles Douglas, Gloria Natividad Douglas and six month old Dominic. They are going to Seattle where Travis’ aunt lives.  Travis is quite taken aback when he learns that Lauren is a woman–especially since she saved them, but he’s going to have to get over it.

All of this time, Earthseed has been running around in Lauren’s head, but it hasn’t really shown up. 

Then in chapter 18, Lauren starts talking to them about Earthseed.  Travis is a (surprisingly) intelligent man–he knows about entropy.

Travis’s mother was a live in cook for a rich man.  But before that she had written for newspapers and magazines.  She taught Travis to read. The man she worked for had a library and she would sneak out one book at a  time–he didn’t want Travis touching his stuff.

Of course. Slaves did that two hundred years ago.  They sneaked around and educated themselves as best they could sometimes suffering whipping, sale or mutilation for their efforts. (218)

Natividad was a maid and the rich man let them marry:  The son of the cook marrying one of the maids. That was like something out of another era too.

They discuss her poems–Earthseed.  Travis pushes back against her ideas, although never in an aggressive way.

She argues that here is no pore pervasive power than change.  Travis says that nobody is going to worship change.  Lauren says she hopes not

This excerpt from God is Change summarizes this discussion nicely:

“I was looking for God. I didn’t know whether there was a god to find, but I wanted to know. God would have to be a power that could not be defied by anyone or anything.”
“Change.”
“Change, yes.”
“But it’s not a god. It’s not a person or an intelligence or even a thing. It’s just … I don’t know. An idea.”
“It’s a truth. Change is ongoing. Everything changes in some way— size, position, composition, frequency, velocity, thinking, whatever. Every living thing, every bit of matter, all the energy in the universe changes in some way.”
“Sort of like saying God is the second law of thermodynamics?”
“That’s an aspect of God. There are all kinds of changes in the universe.”
“But why personify change by calling it God? Since change is just an idea, why not call it that? Just say change is important.”
“Because after a while, it won’t be important. People forget ideas. They’re more likely to remember God— especially when they’re scared or desperate.”
“Your stuff isn’t very comforting.”
“It is after a while. I’m still growing into it myself. God isn’t good or evil, doesn’t favor you or hate you, and yet God is better partnered than fought.”
“Your God doesn’t care about you at all.”
“All the more reason to care about myself and others. All the more reason to create Earthseed communities and shape God together. ‘God is Trickster, Teacher, Chaos, Clay.’ We decide which aspect we embrace— and how to deal with the others.”
“But nobody’s going to worship change.”
“I hope not.  Earthseed deals with ongoing reality, not with supernatural authority figures. Worship is no good without action. With action, it’s only useful if it steadies you, focuses your efforts, eases your mind.”
“Praying makes people feel better even when there’s no action they can take. I used to think that was all God was good for.”
“That isn’t what God is for, but there are times when that’s what prayer is for. And there are times when that’s what these verses are for. God is Change, and in the end, God prevails. But there’s hope in understanding the nature of God— not punishing or jealous, but infinitely malleable. There’s comfort in realizing that everyone and everything yields to God. There’s power in knowing that God can be focused, diverted, shaped by anyone at all. But there’s no power in having strength and brains, and yet waiting for God to fix things for you. Best to understand that and return the effort: Shape God.”

Lauren thinks he might join her movement.  Zahra is already on board. 

She imagines finding and isolated place on the coast and making a deal with the owners–if there were more of them and they were better armed, they could provide security as well as education.

This fantasy, this plan gives the first sign of hope in this bleak world of Lauren’s.  It seems impossible.