To Get Ready for Climate Change, Read Octavia Butler

Stephanie LeMenager

November 2017

Octavia Butler’s novels Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998), the first two of an unfinished series, have been widely hailed as “realist” science fiction that predicts the convergent twenty-first century crises of capitalism, climate, and humanism.

Butler’s Parable novels might also be described as stories of the Anthropocene, the “age of man” in which humans affect global climate and recognize the socioeconomic project of modernity as producing unanticipated collateral damages. The literary historian Shelley Streeby recognizes the Parable novels as “critical dystopias,” a term coined by Tom Moylan to describe dystopian fictions which maintain some hope for change, or at least pockets of resistance, within worlds that have become unbearable.[1] As news reports hailing Butler’s prediction of the campaign slogan of the U.S. president Donald J. Trump (e.g. “make America great again”) in the Parable series suggest, Butler envisioned twenty-first century economic and ecological scarcity giving rise to a new age of American demagoguery and populism. And as the outpouring of countercultural fan fiction, performance, and activism in response to the Parable novels attests, Butler offers compelling strategies for shaping pockets of anti-racist, sustainable community.

Butler envisioned twenty-first century economic and ecological scarcity giving rise to a new age of American demagoguery and populism.

Early in Parable of the Sower, the novel’s teenaged heroine, Lauren Olamina, offers her best friend Joanne a lesson in how to live on, into a world of unprecedented “tornadoes … blizzard … epidemic” that will be governed in the U.S. by a white supremacist president intent on “setting the country back a hundred years” by implementing widespread debt slavery and Biblical law.[2] Lauren’s lesson suggests a process of self-education that has been called “skilling up” amongst countercultural proponents of Anthropocene survival, for instance Transition Town creators who recommend the practice of permaculture as a counter to water- and fossil-fuel-intensive modernity. The topic of “skilling up” is introduced in Butler’s novel as a conversation between the two young women.

“….We’re fifteen! What can we do?”

“We can get ready. That’s what we’ve got to do now. Get ready for what’s going to happen, get ready to survive it, get ready to make a life afterward. Get focused on arranging to survive so that we can do more than just get batted around by crazy people, desperate people, thugs, and leaders who don’t know what they’re doing!” (55)

The fact that two fifteen year olds hold this momentous discussion puts Parable of the Sower in line with other YA Anthropocene novels that recognize the question of the future as one which both affects young people most consequentially and in essence turns adults into virtual adolescents, given how unprepared many of us in the wealthier world are, at least, for climate change and its collateral damage. Parable of the Sower isn’t exactly a YA novel, as some of Butler’s novels are, but it intends to help the reader grow up into a realization of the need for socio-ecological change, beginning with self-education. Lauren’s starchy response to her friend’s despairing “What can we do?” initiates a bildungsroman in which we might all participate.

Not surprisingly, the infectious repetition of Lauren’s “get ready” features prominently in musician-activist Toshi Reagon’s opera version of Parable of the Sower.  It also can be said to lay a foundation for the New Orleans-based African American women’s “emergent strategy” collective Wild Seeds, which promotes social transition and resilience through diverse practices, from sci-fi future-envisioning to the honing of skills like sewing. In Parable of the Sower, skilling up includes future-envisioning, although that gift primarily belongs to Lauren, and basic literacy—which some readers have noted is foregrounded here as a means of survival as much as it was in the nineteenth-century slave narratives that Butler touches upon throughout her extensive oeuvre.[3]

Musician-activist Toshi Reagon on Parable of the Sower.

But skilling up in Parable also includes learning botany, marksmanship, basic medicine and agriculture, a full set of tools for actual, material world-building that will be put to use in the fictional world-building of the novel. Whereas a vague survivalism indicated by foraging and gardening flickers at the margins of the collapsing global finance system in Nathaniel Rich’s Odds against Tomorrow, as it does, too, in Cormac McCarthy’s bleak Anthropocene/nuclear fallout novel The Road (2007) and Marcel Thoreux’s cli-fi novel Far North (2010), Butler offers explicit ideas about persistence into the future through indigenous ethnobotany, through knowledge of guns and how to care for them, and through techniques for bringing others into an aspiring intentional community. There is a commitment to the material details of remaking the social here that suggests the dense textures of nineteenth-century social realism, including naturalism. Butler’s social vision is not the libertarian frontierism that frames so much cli-fi, nor the wide-open sociality of Occupy-era authors like Lerner. Drawing from Sixties Black Power and Black Feminist notions of collectivity, dignity, and self-protection, Butler forecasts a multi-racial social movement growing out of desperation and rage due to widespread debt peonage, climate collapse, and the privatization and corruption of state services.

Butler’s Parable novels offer an alternative to the apocalyptic visions of some white cli-fi writers and Anthropocene pundits, positing a Black Anthropocene at the moment of the simultaneous creation of a White “post-nature” in the climate change writer and activist Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989). Whereas McKibben laments the end of Nature because Nature has been a refuge from the inauthentic and conflictual qualities of social life, Butler recognizes the end of the Nature concept, which served to marginalize people of color, as an opportunity to begin genuine social building. Lauren Olamina writes as much in her incantatory verses about creation and change, which figure as an alternate text—a poetic series—within the novel:

All that you touch,
You Change.

All that you Change,
Changes you.

The only lasting truth
Is Change.

God
Is Change (3)

At the center of Parable of the Sower are these verses that Lauren writes to constitute Earthseed, her religion of adaptation and survival.

The verses are meant to be portable and to express the idea of poetry as a medium of “public love” in a manner similar to Ben Lerner’s conception of poetry, which holds such a central place in his cli-fi novel 10:04. Butler adds to civic emotion the context of the sacred, showing Lauren to compare her verses to “the Bible, the Talmud, the Koran, or some other religious book that helps [people] deal with the frightening changes that happen in life” (221). Rather than a distraction from pragmatic world-building, poetry functions as a way to “remember a truth or [as] a comfort or [as] a reminder to action” (221). Poetry serves as the literary sign of agency, while the traditions of the novel, more private and individualized, go unmentioned. But perhaps it goes without saying that, as sci-fi critic Veronica Hollinger has remarked, science fiction functions not as does the novel per se and not even as a “genre”—a contract with a specific public, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson’s definition of “genre”—but as “a method, a way of getting something done.”[4] Earthseed—whose book of verses is subtitled “The Books of the Living,” means to engender a way of life, as does Parable of the Sower. Yet what is most “sci-fi” about the largely realist Parable of the Sower is Lauren’s endorsement of space travel and the colonization of other planets—not ideas helpful to climate activists or environmentalists wishing to get something done.

Lauren calls her vision of eventual space colonization by Earthseed communities “The Destiny,” and she is repeatedly questioned about its significance by other characters in the novel. “Why should people bother about the Destiny, far-fetched as it is?” one Earthseed convert queries Lauren, perhaps anticipating a reader’s complaint. Lauren responds that the Destiny offers “a unifying, purposeful life here on Earth, and the hope of heaven … A real heaven, not mythology or philosophy. A heaven that will be theirs to shape” (261). Presumably Lauren has great faith in science, and in human intelligence, and not much faith in the political or ecological future of the United States. The AfroFuturist tendency of the Parable novels includes an interpretation of technology (understood as a broad continuum from DIY farming to rocket building) as a social good for African Americans and others, as well as a sense—more implicit, opaque—that the U.S. has never been and can never be an anti-colonialist, anti-racist state. America’s violent, extractive history has written itself onto the very geology of the planet.

Readers unwilling to follow Lauren into outer space still might find her insistence upon a material “heaven” more practical than the solution to the troubled future offered by White and wealthy Americans, those whom Ta-Nahesi Coates, after James Baldwin, called “The Dreamers” in his best-selling memoir about race in the USA.[5] The story of the “upper middle class, white, literate” (118) community of Olivar in Parable of the Sower has proven worthy of its own song in Reagon’s operatic version of the novel—and it is meant to serve as a warning to us all about the dangers of corporate governance. Despite its history of wealth and its once-desirable proximity to southern California’s coast, the town of Olivar “can’t protect itself from the encroaching sea, the crumbling earth, the crumbling economy, or the desperate refugees” (119). Frightened residents of Olivar allow a corporation called KSF to buy out the town, turning it into a twenty-first century version of a nineteenth-century plantation or company town, somewhere between securitized, walled suburb and debtor’s prison. Many of the original residents of Olivar sign on to “debt slavery,” perhaps because they have been too accustomed to trust in the corporate world to secure their fortunes. They are denizens of the future described explicitly as “slaves” in Parable of the Sower—and, interestingly, also the persons most inscribed in the successes of the twentieth century (e.g. they are white, well-educated, upper middle class). “In exchange for security,” those who stay in Olivar, or migrate there, give up all else (119). Lauren’s friend Joanne will be one of the migrants. Conservative personalities cannot thrive amidst the rough shocks of the Anthropocene.

Olivar’s fate represents one instance within a larger civilizational collapse. Butler anticipates the end of a civilization—explicitly the White settler civilization of the USA—as do Anthropocene pundits like Roy Scranton, author of Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (2015). Yet unlike Scranton, and in keeping with Black/Native Anthropocene visions, Butler emphasizes continuation. How living on arises from civilizational collapse defines, again, the primary trajectory of the novel. “Civilization is to groups what intelligence is to individuals,” writes Lauren, in her Earthseed verses. She goes on to reflect that, “when civilization fails to serve, it must disintegrate unless it is acted upon by unifying internal and external forces” (100). Such forces only come into play on the smaller scale in Parable of the Sower, as in the intentional community of Acorn dedicated at novel’s end. A potentially larger possibility for civilizational renewal exists in the second most “sci-fi” characteristic of the novel, Lauren’s “hyperempathy syndrome,” which causes her to experience others’ sensations of pleasure and pain as if they were her own. The story of how Lauren became a “sharer,” the colloquial term for hyperempathy sufferers, involves her mother’s addiction to a drug that triggers it in the child in utero—a scientific and thus sci-fi explanation. More interesting is what hyperempathy implies for the social rebuilding that Lauren initiates. “I wish I could give it to people,” Lauren admits. “Failing that, I wish I could find other people who have it, and live among them. A biological conscience is better than no conscience at all” (115).  As Parable progresses, Lauren in fact gathers more sharers into her nascent community, most of whom have been slaves—as it turns out, hyperempathy has been exploited as a form of social energy.

 

Octavia E. Butler at a book signing in 2005.

Photo by Nikolas Coukouma

Butler thus proposes a whole new basis for humanism—hyperempathy—as the foundational, biological solution to unregulated capitalism as a culture of injury and exploitation, going all the way back to the first colonial encounters of Europeans and indigenous Americans. (And of course one set of scientists have insisted that the start date for the Anthropocene be calibrated to the die-out of indigenous peoples in the Americas due to microbial genocide as a result of European arrival). Butler’s new humanism, based in a biological capacity for deep empathy rather than abstract notions of instrumental rationality, both makes possible her explicit social vision and sets her apart from some contemporary Anthropocene writers and philosophers who emphasize a post-human aspiration in which the human species itself can only be understood as deeply enmeshed or even dissolving within other forms of life.[6] Unlike other works by Butler, for instance the brilliant Xenogenesis trilogy, Parable of the Sower is an anthropocentric work. Yet its notion of the anthropos as an historically diverse, multi-racial, intelligent and potentially empathic maker of culture, offers a rich context for productively rethinking the Anthropocene idea, and how to live on.

NOTES

[1] Shelley Streeby, “Speculative Archives: Histories of the Future of Education,” Pacific Coast Philology 49 (1): 25-40. See also Shelley Streeby, Imagining the Future of Climate Change (Berkeley: University of California, 2017).

[2] Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1993) 54. Internal citations hereafter from this edition.

[3] For more discussion of the Parable novels as neo-slave narrative or commentary on slave narrative, see Madhu Dubey, “Octavia Butler’s Narratives of Enslavement,” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 46:3 (2013) 345-363; Sylvia Mayer, “Genre and Environmentalism: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, Speculative Fiction, and African American Slave Narrative,” Restoring the Connection to the Natural World: Essays on the African American Environmental Imagination, Ed. Sylvia Mayer (New York: Transaction Publishers, 2003); Hee-Jung Serenity Joo, “Old and New Slavery, Old and New Racisms: Strategies of Science Fiction in Octavia Butler’s Parables Series,” Extrapolation 52:3 (2011) 279-299. An extensive catalog of readings on this topic can be found in the MLA bibliography database.

[4] Veronica Hollinger is paraphrasing a review of William Gibson by John Clute, in Hollinger “Genre v. Mode,” The Oxford Handbook of Science Fiction, ed. Rob Latham (New York: Oxford U. Press, 2014) 140.

[5] Ta-Nahesi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Speigel and Grau, 2015). Coates’ memoir ends with a discussion of climate change as essentially a referendum on whiteness.

[6] For an example of novelistic rendering of posthumanism, see Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy; for a theoretical approach, see Stacy Alaimo, “Your Shell on Acid: Material Immersion, Anthropocene Dissolves,” Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures in Posthuman Times (Minneapolis: U. Minnesota, 2016) 143-168.

Stephanie LeMenager is the Barbara and Carlisle Moore Distinguished Professor in English and American Literature and Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon. She is the author of Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (Oxford University Press, 2014) and is currently at work on a book project that focuses on the ecological significance of the Humanities in the era of global climate change. Her essay on “The American Novel and Anthropocene Experience” will appear in the forthcoming eighth volume of the Oxford History of the Novel in English on US Fiction after 1940, edited by Deborah Lindsay Williams and Cyrus R. K. Patell. 

FURTHER READING

LITERATURE AND
CREATIVE WRITING

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