This past August I posted about Octavia E. Butler, a highly regarded science fiction author I finally got around to exploring. Now that I’ve read all her work (but for one novel), I’ve gone from being very impressed to being slightly in awe. Her reputation is very well deserved.
Recently I finished her two-book Parable series, Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998). It’s the story of a woman’s lifelong journey building what she names Earthseed, a modern religion with a concrete goal.
What blew my mind, though, was how eerily prescient her President Jarret was of our POTUS45. Nailed it — including the infamous slogan.
Unlike most of her other work, this story has no aliens or meta-humans. The science fiction element is that the story begins in 2024 and involves an almost horrifically realistic hemi-apocalypse.
Relevant Tangent: The prefixes semi- (Latin), hemi- (Greek), and demi- (French), all mean ‘half of something’ but with different connotations. Something semi-hard is only somewhat hard. A hemicylinder is a half-cylinder (but only split lengthwise). A demigod is virtually, but not fully, a god. To my eye, only the Greek version retains the pure notion of half. The other two have more smeared meanings.
So a hemi-apocalypse is one that affects half the world. In this case, the poorer half. And, per the famous T.S. Elliot poem, “This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.”
Butler’s near-future dystopia comes from climate change, economic short-sightedness, and social inequalities, all of which combine to cause the breakdown and failure of the services we take for granted. Modern civilization is built on an interlinked system that provides our power, water, gas, sewage, police, fire, road maintenance, and emergency medical. Not to mention the more ordinary network of retail outlets that provide our necessities and extras.
It becomes the proverbial ‘dog eat dog’ world.
As we saw with COVID19, the network is fragile and desperately dependent on ‘business as usual.’ When that assumption fails, the snowball starts rolling down the mountain. Positive feedback turns it to an apocalypse avalanche.
Which is all to say that Butler’s vision is probably what’s going to happen if we don’t change course. Our children, or perhaps theirs, may inherit that broken world. At times it makes the books hard to read; they’re a little too real.
That’s especially so with her Andrew Jarret character, first a Senator, then President. We never meet him; the story’s characters only hear about him. They meet his followers, though.
The “Pox” — “the Apocalypse” — nominally from 2015 to 2030, but with roots going much further back. (Butler wrote these in the 1990s.) While the ostensible cause was coinciding climatic, economic, and social crises, the reality is that it was ignoring those problems until they became too big to handle that did it:
Amid all this, somehow, the United States of America suffered a major nonmilitary defeat. It lost no important war, yet it did not survive the Pox. Perhaps it simply lost sight of what it once intended to be, then blundered aimlessly until it exhausted itself.
Our divisiveness and polarization both paralyzed and corrupted us.
In the growing chaos and panic Texas Senator Andrew Steele Jarret (and his crazy fundamentalist supporters) offer a simple answer:
Join us! Our doors are open to every nationality, every race! Leave your sinful past behind and become one of us. Help us to make America great again.
The rising movement Butler describes closely parallels the real life one that began with the Tea Party and evolved into MAGA. The reasons are identical: A feeling of religious and social disenfranchisement due to secularization and globalization.
Jarret, a former Baptist minister, forms the “Christian America” denomination, and it grows quickly. Skilled at inciteful rhetoric, Jarret also looks great on camera and projects strength and confidence:
It seems 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 they 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. And no doubt the new picture ballots on the nets will give Jarret an even greater advantage.
We haven’t sunk to picture ballots quite yet. On the other hand, Butler never mentions the many covert and overt efforts to disenfranchise legitimate voters. I think we’ve learned pretty well that such efforts aren’t the only way to steal an election. Bald-faced lies work pretty well, too.
We have, it seems, a few people who think Jarret may be just what the country needs — apart from his religious nonsense. The thing is, you can’t separate Jarret from the “religious nonsense.” You take Jarret and you get beatings, burnings, tarrings and featherings. They’re a package. And there may be even nastier things in that package. Jarret’s supporters are more than a little seduced by Jarret’s talk of making America great again.
Again the eerie parallel of people thinking a monster might be what the country needed and willing to completely overlook that the man was a monster. No need to steal ballots when it’s so easy to steal hearts and minds.
Jarret runs for President and gets elected. Amid the chaos and social breakdown, Alaska seceded from the USA, and Jarret declares war on it. The number of people who seem fine with him surprises everyone.
They don’t believe Jarret’s a fascist. They don’t believe that the church burnings, witch burnings, and other abuses are Jarret’s doing. “Some of his followers are young and excitable,” Ramiro Peralta says, “Jarret will put their asses into uniform. Then they’ll learn some discipline. Jarret hates all this chaos the way I hate it. That’s why I voted for him. Now he’ll start putting things right!”
How many times did we hear people say something similar?
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 — willing to do any damned thing.
Sound familiar? One more:
People elected Jarret because he seemed to know where he was going too. Even rich people like your dad are desperate for someone who seems to know where they’re going.
Yep. It doesn’t end well for Jarret. People got tired of his incompetence and lies. Ultimately:
The rumors were that Jarret, after his single term as President, drank himself to death.
The IRL version seems only into cheeseburgers and Cokes, but the many close parallels really raised my eyebrows.
The story, through diary entries that amount to first personal narration, follows the path of a young Black woman, Lauren Oya Olamina, whose family, home, and neighborhood, are destroyed by marauders. She sets off, alone at first, later joining with others, to find safety and sanity.
From an early age she has (secretly) rejected the religion of her successful Baptist minister father. It wasn’t for her. Instead she begins creating her own religion, Earthseed, which asserts simply this: God is Change.
Such a god is not personal, not listening; prayer is just a form of meditation. Change shapes us, and we can, with effort, shape change. Note that change here is both entropic change (chaos, death) as well as evolutionary change (growth, complexity). These are Yin-Yang forces creating a rich dynamic in their tension.
Earthseed asserts that the destiny of humanity is to reach the stars. That is the task that should unite us all.
Butler uses a device familiar to readers of the Foundation series or Dune — chapters begin with quotes from in-universe texts. In this case, quotes from books Olamina wrote about Earthseed — the bibles of that religion.
One of the bits caught my eye:
Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought. To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears. To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool. To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen. To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies. To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.
Written at the end of the last century, but so relevant today.
One bit of background is that there was a Mars mission, but it was sold to a Euro-Japanese private company. Yet another parallel to modern times, the privatization and commercialization of space combined with a withdrawal from research.
On the planet Mars, living, multicellular organisms have been discovered… sort of. They’re very small and very strange inside, although outside they look like tiny slugs… some of the time. They live at least four meters down in certain polar rock formations, and they’re not exactly animals. They’re a little like Terrestrial slime molds.
Olamina is glad the mission wasn’t entirely abandoned, but regrets that, unless the “slime mold” has commercial value — a possible assist to mining, for instance — they’ll probably be ignored or even destroyed in the name of progress.
Consider, though: a brand-new form of life has been discovered on Mars, and it got less time on the news disk than the runaway Texas boy. We’re becoming more and more isolated as a people. We’re sliding into undirected negative change, and what’s worse, we’re getting used to it. All too often, we shape ourselves and our futures in such stupid ways.
Ouch. So true, but ouch. The prescience is stunning. I really like the phrase, “undirected negative change” — double ouch.
At one point, almost everything Olamina has built is lost when the worst of Jarret’s followers destroy their community and enslave them — supposedly to save their souls from this tree-worshiping heathen cult they’ve joined.
The remotely controlled slaver collar technology allows a new form of ancient slavery and soul destruction. Butler raises an important point:
My brother said a collar makes you envy the dead. As bad as that sounds, it didn’t, couldn’t convey to me, how a collar makes you hate. It teaches you whole new magnitudes of utter hatred. I knew almost nothing about hate until this thing was put around my neck.
Try to imagine being a slave, being property. The contained rage and hate of a caged human far exceeds that of any beast. A caged human is fully aware of the injustice. The outrage is moral.
This bit caught my eye on two counts:
The truth is, preparing for interstellar travel and then sending out ships filled with colonists is bound to be a job so long, thankless, expensive, and difficult that I suspect that only a religion could do it.
Firstly, that’s a very good point. I’ve often wondered how the human race, as fractious, divided, and easily distracted as it is, could ever invest in the commitment of time and resources necessary for interstellar exploration.
Secondly, she anticipated the Mormons in The Expanse. Until the easy ride of the protomolecule’s gate, only the Mormons had their sights set on being Earthseed. So the bit made me grin.
I’m not going to describe the plot more than what little I have. Butler’s writing and plotting should be experienced first-hand, I think. I will offer a general overall spoiler; skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to know.
Spoiler: The parallels to the Christ story are clear, and until fairly late in the story it’s easy to think it must end with the same tragedy. It seems headed that way at points. The spoiler is that it ends joyfully. I mean tears in your eyes joyfully. I was very glad.
One obvious connection is that both book titles refer to biblical parables: the parable of the sower and the parable of the talents. I have a long attachment to the former because I have an abiding sense of being a seed that didn’t reach its potential, and I’ve never be able to figure out how much is weakness and how much is circumstance.
I’m struck by how transparent and affectless Butler’s writing is. She has identifiable modes, though. Her stories often contain the themes of genetic alteration, strange plagues, body change, alien sex, and race.
Lastly, Butler, both in an essay about writing and in this series, highlights the phrase “positive obsession” — a necessity for writers and someone trying to start a new modern religion. For writers, she feels it’s even more important than talent, and I’ve seen other writers express something similar: Keep writing. And writing. And writing.
Stay obsessed (positively), my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.