Friday, June 22, 2018

Happy 25th and 20th Anniversary "Parable of the Sower" and "Parable of the Talents" by Octavia E. Butler (and Happy 71st Birthday Octavia!)

(c) Patti Perret/The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens
Today, in celebration of Octavia E. Butler's birthday, I would like to talk about Earthseed. 2018 marks the 25th and 20th anniversary, respectively, of Octavia E. Butler's landmark duology, Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) and not a moment too soon. The Earthseed Cycle, named for the fictional (but all too real) religion that forms the core of the story, is perhaps the most relevant work of fiction to the social and political landscape of 2018. The dystopian future that Butler extrapolates here is so realistic as to almost feel prophetic. At the very least, the Earthseed Cycle, set almost entirely between the years 2024 and 2035, is a cautionary tale of a future that does not seem very far off from being realized--indeed, in many ways, it feels a little too close for comfort. Which is even more staggering when you consider the words of best-selling, award-winning author of "The Fifth Season," N.K. Jemisin, who first read Earthseed when it first came out and thought it "seemed far-fetched."



Photo courtesy of SplinterNews.com
In this dystopian future, the climate crisis has escalated to pandemic levels. Food and water are scarce. Economic crises have left most of the country a lawless wasteland with pockets of highly concentrated wealth sprinkled throughout. Roving bands of impoverished vagabonds are a constant threat to anyone not living in highly secure gated communities like the one our main character, Lauren, begins our story in. And we soon see that even those communities have their own vulnerabilities. The events that led up to and precipitated this America-in-state-of-emergency are commonly referred to as The Pox, which one character chillingly describes as being "caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems" that led to "accidentally coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crises."

The President of the United States is a paleoconservative described as belonging to a "two-and-a-half-century-long line of American Presidents [who] make people feel that the country, the culture that they grew up with is still here--that we'll get through these bad times and back to normal." He wants to put people back to work by suspending environmental laws and labor laws for employers who hire homeless people and give them adequate room and board.

The police and the fire department have been privatized and it's even noted that the police "never helped when people called for help" and "came later, and more often than not, made a bad situation worse"--already a reality today for many poor/Black/Hispanic communities). The president also wants to privatize the space program, which has become very unpopular as it is seen as a luxury the country can't afford with things being the way they are (Lauren, on the other hand, believes that space exploration is our only hope and even our salvation). Cities are also becoming privatized and governed by private companies and states are "shutting themselves off from one another, treating state lines as national borders." Alaska has even seceded from the union.

Debt slavery has been re-legalized and chattel slavery is rampant. As one character further elaborates: "Indenturing indigents, young and old, is much in fashion now. The Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments--the ones abolishing slavery and guaranteeing citizenship rights--still exist, but they've been so weakened by custom, by Congress and the various state legislatures, and by recent Supreme Court decisions that they don't much matter. Indenturing indigents is supposed to keep them employed, teach them a trade, feed them, house them, and keep them out of trouble. In fact, it's just one more way of getting people to work for nothing or almost nothing." There are, additionally, vagrancy laws being put in place that are very much reminiscent of the Jim Crow south.

As potent and resonant as the political, economic, and environmental climates of the Earthseed cycle are, the social climate is perhaps even more so. The descriptions of the sociological state of many Americans in this universe are chillingly incisive an entire generation later. People are "frustrated, angry, hopeless." They are "desperate for solutions, for order and stability....they're afraid and ashamed of their fear, ashamed of their powerlessness." In Parable of the Sower there is an epidemic of people setting fires--in part because of the dissemination of a new drug that gives the user a high from seeing fire. But it also has much to do with people's anger, frustration, and hopelessness. "They have no power to improve their lives," one character says, "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."

Ultimately, the social climate of post-Pox America brings about the rise of perhaps the most horribly relevant piece of the entire series: presidential candidate, Senator Andrew Steele Jarret of Texas. Jarret is a fascist Christian demagogue (and head of the "Church of Christian America") who "insists on being a throwback to some earlier, 'simpler' time. The current state of the country does not suit him. He wants to take us all back to some magical time when everyone believed in the same God, worshipped him in the same way, and understood that their safety in the universe depended on completing the same religious rituals and stomping anyone who was different." He preaches sermons about how non-Christians are "rapists...drug sellers...thieves, and murderers!" His campaign speeches are less inflammatory and he has to "distance himself from the worst of his followers" but he still is able to "reach out to poor people, and sic then on other poor people" and speaks of "patriotism, law [and] order."

And here's where it gets really interesting--Jarret's supporters. I can't say it any better than Butler does here: "Jarret supporters have been known, now and then, to form mobs and burn people at the stake for being witches. Witches! In 2032! A witch, in their view, tends to be a Moslem[sic], a Jew, a Hindu, a Buddhist, or, in some parts of the country, a Mormon, a Jehovah's Witness, or even a Catholic....Jarret's people have been known to beat or drive out Unitarians, for goodness' sake."

Oh, it gets better: "Jarret condemns the burnings, but does so in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear. As for the beatings, the tarring and feathering, and the destruction of 'heathen houses of devil-worship,' he has 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.'" (emphasis added) Yes, that is literally a direct quote from a book written twenty goddamn years ago.

Photo courtesy of SplinterNews.com
If that sounds a little too coincidental to be possible, it might just be. Interestingly enough, the phrase "make America great again" is not new. In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan made the phrase a tent-pole of his campaign. It's highly likely that much of Butler's allegory in the Earthseed books was as much a criticism of Reagan's paleoconservatism. Still, it's hard to dispute how prophetic the portrayal of Jarret and his followers seems in the age of Trumpism.

Amazingly (though less amazing than it would have been two years ago), there are many "who think Jarret may be just what the country needs--apart from his religious nonsense," much like what many believe of our current president--apart from his racist, sexist, bigoted demagoguery. "The thing is," Lauren reminds us, "you can't separate Jarret from the 'religious nonsense.' You take Jarret and you get beatings, burnings, tarrings and featherings." And yet, still so many "fear [Vice President and presidential candidate] Edward Jay Smith's supposed incompetence more than they fear Jarret's obvious tyranny," again, much in the same way that so many were more skeptical of Hillary Clinton's supposed "corruption" than of our current president's obvious fascism. If that weren't enough, there are still other people who, much like many highly privileged Americans would say in November of 2016, remain insistent after Jarret's election that "[t]his country is over 250 years old....It's had bad leaders before. It survived them."

Perhaps the most damning social analysis in the series cuts right to the core of how bigots and demagogues rise to power in the first place: "We human beings seem always to have found it comforting to have someone to look down on--a bottom level of fellow creatures who are very vulnerable, but who can somehow be blamed and punished for all or any troubles. We need this lowest class as much as we need equals to team with and to compete against and superiors to look to for direction and help."

The Earthseed cycle is more than just prophetic. It is a mirror reflection of all the darkest parts of human nature. The incredible dangers of our proclivity for succumbing to our arrogance. The deleterious consequences of our aversion to conflict. The horrors we unleash when we allow our fear to control us. Fear of artificial scarcity. Fear of a vengeful God, shaped and misrepresented by those with a vested interest in controlling people and consolidating power. Fear of the other. Earthseed is sacred text. Earthseed is a revelation. Earthseed is us.

Photo courtesy of GodIsChange.org

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