Octavia Butler’s Bleak Parable

Photo credit: WikiMedia Commons via Nikolas Coukouma
When no influence is strong enough
To unify people
They divide.
They struggle,
One against one,
Group against group,
For survival, position, power.

It doesn’t seem real that Donald J. Trump is the President of the United States of America. It may seem naïve to think so given the fact that the U.S. is a fabrication of absurd laws, policies, and bad decisions, but it is. It’s unreal because Trump’s ineptitude and short fuse can at any moment send us and the rest of the world into a nuclear holocaust.

After the election, David Remnick penned a searing piece titled “An American Tragedy.” In it, he wrote, “Fascism is not our future — it cannot be; we cannot allow it to be so — but this is surely the way fascism can begin.” Asked if the article was just a little hyperventilating, Remnick responded by saying, “I would be delighted if the evidence since election night told me: ‘You know what? It’s going to be OK.” And that’s the thing. There’s been no evidence since November 8, 2016 that indicates that this country will be OK with Trump in the highest office. That Trump will bring a country that was never “great” to begin with into greatness.

How does one cope with this reality?

David Cantwell wrote on The New Yorker’s website that many people have drawn on dystopian fiction to explain our current political predicament. I guess, in a way, that’s why I have turned to Octavia Butler’s novel, Parable of the Sower. Told in diary format by the young empath Lauren Olamina, Parable is a tale about a country fraught with a degrading climate, social chaos, and a corporate culture that begets “debt slavery.” Lauren lives in a small-gated community — the closest thing to what was once modern civilization. Outside the walls lies the beginning of modern civilizations end. As the character Bankole, who we meet while Lauren is traversing north toward Canada, puts it, “This country has slipped back two hundred years.”

Maybe not two hundred years, but there is a similar feeling of slipping backwards in time after Trump won the election last year. That after eight years of President Barack Obama, the first African-American President in the nation’s history, we elected a man that questioned Obama’s legitimacy by claiming he was a Muslim and boasted about grabbing women by the pussy. A man that could've been plucked from the nineteenth century and dropped into the twenty-first.

Those who believe that everything happens for a reason may ask God why he/she would allow such a thing to happen. Surely there must be an underlying reason. Right?

Lauren wouldn’t think so. Her father is a Baptist minister, and although she goes to his church (of course), her faith in his God is a façade. She believes in another religion, one that doesn’t hinge on the “fact” of a higher being. It is a religion steeped in malleability, a “God-is-change belief system” called Earthseed. We are witnessing a religion form in real time, and every chapter of Parable commences with a verse, or poem, that Lauren has recorded in Earthseed: The Books of Living. For instance:

All that you touch
You Change.
All that you Change
Changes you.
The only lasting truth
Is Change.
God
Is Change.

Earthseed forces one to take the world as it is and shape the world into what we want it to be. Trump represents steep change in our political environment. Per Earthseed’s mantra (which echoes Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution), it is how we adapt to change that will prevent us from succumbing to its ills.

After a fire forced Lauren to leave her community, she trudges slowly north, adds members to her three-person party, makes pit stops at water stations and overly-priced stores, fights off the occasional intruder, strips dead bodies of necessities, and sets up camp where several couples get intimate and the group talk about survival, the future, and Earthseed. Butler’s parse prose is rendered beautifully, but the story lacks the excitement one would expect from a sci-fi novel. (I should say that this is the first sci-fi novel I’ve read since Artemis Fowl in fifth grade.) It’s like a zombie-less episode of The Walking Dead.

Excitement, though, isn’t what Butler was going for. Parable is bleak because the world Lauren lives in is bleak. A world where climate change has led to widespread drought. A world where some towns/cities are owned by corporations and pay residents pitiful wages in company scrip. A world where state borders are closed off and government only exist insomuch that it represents stability. A world where water is more expensive than oil and the lost art farming is paramount.

Trump makes the future of the U.S. seem bleak. He is a capitalist among capitalists, and one wonders if he’d be the kind of President to allow a company to buy a state and pay residents in Trump Bucks. We already know Trump doesn’t believe that climate change is a real concern. We also know that, at least to certain groups of people in the United States, police officers are not to be trusted.

Published in 1993, Parable is set in the future and covers the years 2024 to 2027. One only hopes that in seven years, Butler’s parable doesn’t become reality.