Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower

I'm returning Parable of the Sower to the library today (DC Public)

but I don't want to do so without acknowledging just how effectively Butler is able to tell an optimistic story, while framing it within a dystopian future that seems only a degree or two off from the world we live in now. In a postscript to Parable of the Sower, Butler said she based her dystopic view of the future on what the United States seemed to be at the time (Sower was first published in 1993):
"It is to look at where we are now, and to consider where some of our current behaviors and unattended problems might take us. I considered drugs and the effects of drugs on the children of drug addicts. I looked at the growing rich/poor gap, at throwaway labor, at our willingness to build and fill prisons, our reluctance to build and repair schools and libraries, and at our assault on the environment. In particular, I looked at global warming and the ways in which it's likely to change things for us...I considered spreading hunger as a reason for increased vulnerability to disease. And there would be less money for inoculations or treatment. Also, thanks to rising temperatures, tropical diseases like malaria and dengue would move north. I considered loss of coastline as the level of the sea rises. I imagined the United States becoming, slowly, through the combined effects of lack of foresight and short-term unenlightened self-interest, a third world country."
But Butler's world, however crushing and grinding, is only background to her story of Lauren Olamina, a precocious, empathic, visionary teenager who leads a small group of fellow travelers out of harm's way and to a shared vision of the future that is motivating and optimistic. Just prior to a calamitous incident that will destroy the community in which she lives and scatter its survivors, Lauren begins a journal that will become the foundation document for Earthseed: The Books of the Living.

Essentially, Earthseed is a new holy book for a faith that has no supreme being, only a profound and Buddhalike understanding of the world that humans must embrace, sharp points and sharp edges, notwithstanding. "All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change." In other words, there is nothing for it but to live in the world, and to see oneself as both responsible for what the world becomes and subject to its conditions at any given time. People are most present in the world when they are growing and changing.

I assume that Butler was partly motivated to tell this particular story by a perception that the religious faiths and traditions people use to interpret the world and hold it at bay are part of the problem, one of the reasons why we do not effectively address problems like climate change, poverty and the gap between rich and poor. There are, after all, a great number of ways in which prevailing cultural beliefs and attitudes seem to hamper our ability to solve critical problems. The monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), in particular, seem to have created a mania in the West, and certain other parts of the world, for interpreting the modern world based on the experience of others, mostly men, mostly white and long dead, who would be even more baffled by modernity than we are; a riot of such folks, ranging from Moses, the prophets, Jesus and Mohammed, all the way to the Founding Fathers, whose inability to address and resolve the question of slavery would lead to a fratricidal war that would nearly destroy the United States less than 100 years after the country's founding.

In an ironic end to her story, Butler quotes a verse from the bible: "A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell by the wayside;and it was trodden down and the fowls of the air devoured it. And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it, and choked it. And others fell on the good ground, and sprang up, and bore fruit an hundredfold. (The Bible, Authorized King James Version, St. Luke 8:5-8)"

I've wanted to write a book something like Sower, myself, and have even outlined one (but not pursued it to completion); so when I read Butler's very effective go at the same problem, I feel a little bit awed and very aware of my weaknesses. All the more surprising then to discover that Butler's diagnosis of her own character bears some resemblance to my self-diagnosis: [I'm] an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty and drive."

Well, so what? Butler's combination seems to include a little bit more drive than mine, which turns out to reward me well.

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