Wednesday, April 17, 2013

O is for Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler (1947-2006) was an acclaimed fantasy and science fiction author and MacArthur genius grant recipient.  I'm slightly embarrassed to say that, so far, I've only read one piece of hers -- 1984's short story Speech Sounds -- but its quality was so high, and the other writings that I'll be discussing below are so unique, that her work is very high on my list of "gotta read more!"

Perhaps her most famous novels were the Parable series, 1993's Parable of the Sower and 1998's Parable of the Talents.  Like Speech Sounds, they depict a grim dystopian future in which American society has broken down.  Normally that's not really my thing, but Speech Sounds contained a white-hot shard of hope at its core -- tiny and meek, but strong enough to burn through all the surrounding sadness.

From what I've learned, the Parable books contain a similar core of hope.  In the post-apocalyptic future depicted therein, a new religion called Earthseed is slowly growing.  Various chapters of the book are headed with snippets of the writings of Earthseed, and they're quite sublime...
We are Earthseed. We are flesh -- self-aware,
questing, problem-solving flesh. We are that
aspect of Earthlife best able to shape God
knowingly. We are Earthlife maturing, Earthlife
preparing to fall away from the parent world.
We are Earthlife preparing to take root in
new ground, Earthlife fulfilling its purpose,
its promise, its Destiny.
All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
Is Change.
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.
I don't know if space travel is featured in the plots of the Parable novels.  From what I've seen, in those stories it sounds like humanity is far from recovering to the point of these dreams being realistic.  All the more awe-inspiring for that to be the birthing ground of a religion so optimistic and upward-looking.

Similarly to the invented religion from Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, Octavia Butler's Earthseed has spawned a real-life movement... now called SolSeed.  A look at their web page shows that they're evolving in new and interesting ways -- certainly not a mere fan club.

Butler planned four additional books in the Parable series... The Parables of the Trickster, Teacher, Chaos, and Clay.  She took root among the stars, far too soon, at age 58.


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks for stopping by, Tim. I admit that I don't know much about Butler -- even most of the stuff about Earthseed, above, I learned from enthusiastic fans on the web...

  2. Maybe I've seen the words 'dystopian future' too many times in a row this morning but PUKE!

    My apologies to the excellent Ms. Butler.

    Cyg, as always, this was an extremely thoughtful post, taking into intellectual consideration many angles. I realize that the brightest stars shine in the blackness but I am filled to spewing with the visions of our future that have steadily grown in our technological milieu. It's like, with all these cautionary tales, why haven't we used our *considerable* thought power to dream up something different. No, we just keep hammering the same god-awful, despairing drum. At least when Butler was penning these narratives, they were iconoclastic. In the present day, all I feel is the need to fight within myself against the rage that rises at our seeming incapacity to 'see' anything else.

    1. Agreed. I was inspired a bit by some of Squid's earlier posts this month -- i.e., dare to share some stuff that I may not be totally on board with, since different readers will take away different things.

      In fiction, grim futures often do have a useful purpose: To actively PREVENT that future from coming about by calling attention to little signs that we may be starting down that path.

      No worries, though. My "Z" won't be for the Zombie Apocalypse. :-)

  3. I read her omnibus novel Xenogenesis some time ago. It was dark and arresting and lyrical in places.

    Dystopias are easier to imagine than utopias for many of us. This is unfortunate but probably reflective of human nature.

    1. It's easier to knock down the row of stacked dominos than it is to stack them up in the first place, I guess. I still appreciate the flashing-warning-sign aspect of a dystopia (though some can be short sighted, esp. if focused on hot-button topics of the day), but I can't get behind ones that are just grimdark for grimdark's sake.

    2. To clarify: I don't think Butler was gratuitously grimdark -- she always seemed to have quite "arresting and lyrical" messages to convey.