Thursday, December 19, 2019

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

This was the only still-in-print Octavia Butler novel I hadn’t read before.* I had put this off a bit, because The Parable of the Sower, to which this is a sequel, was probably my least favorite among her books. It is more didactic than anything else she wrote and the ideology overwhelmed the rest of the work for me, even though I didn’t find that ideology objectionable. I’m happy to say that, while Parable of the Talents, is still very interested in the Earth Seed ideology, it is powerful enough of a story and work of art and of sociology that it isn’t wrecked by that focus. It is one of the most prescient science fiction works I’ve ever read. And simultaneously one of the scariest and most hopeful ones.

The most remarked on thing about this book, in the age of Trump, is that in 1998 it posited a religious presidential candidate, named Jarret, in a postapocalyptic America (circa 2030) whose campaign slogan was “Help us make America great again.” He appealed to Christian America (both in the general sense, and in that he named his denomination that). When his more extremist supporters did things like burning nonbelievers alive, taking children away from their parents to be raised by Christians, and starting up reeducation camps (which included raping the inmates even as they tried to turn them away from their sins), he condemned “the burnings, but [did] so in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear.” The world that Butler portrays is much worse than where we actually find ourselves. Also, Trump is in no way a believable Christian, whereas Jarret is in full on televangelist mode. Still the parallels are stunning.

One of the things Butler is so smart about, as an online acquaintance put it in relation to Kindred, is how easy it is to ignore suffering when it is not your own, or that of those close to you. In Parable of the Talents that is extended to the idea that idealogues (in this case Christians but it is true of other groups as well**) are often unwilling to admit the cruelty of the more extremist adherents of their ideology is even happening, let alone in their name.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the possibility of convincing someone to leave an ideology without replacing it with another that functions in the same way. Think of ex-conservative Christians who become secular leftists, or of someone taking the leap from one religion to another. These things happen all the time. I’m skeptical of ideologies, whether religious, political, economic, identity-based, or philosophical, that, explicitly or implicitly, claim to explain everything. Things happen for more than one reason, and I’m wary of anyone who seems too certain. This is not to say that these ideologies can’t give some genuine insight or truths. For instance, while I’m agnostic, I can squint at the Christian doctrine of original sin and say, “There is definitely something deeply broken in humanity.” I’m not a socialist (though I’m much closer to that than I once was), but I can look at discussion of income inequality and say, “If you keep privileging the wealthy, eventually something in the political order will break.” This is as good a place as any to admit that skepticism toward ideology is in itself an ideology, and I’m stuck with that paradox. Still, if, like me, someone was an adherent of an ideology for years, it’s very tempting on exit to move into another that offers similar certainty. Science Fiction is a genre well-suited to this theme. The answer here (and in the last scifi book I read that dealt with this, Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny) seems to be no. Indeed, the Parable books seem to be Butler's attempt to give the world an ideological alternative to religion, particularly in its more fundamentalist forms.

The story of the book is that of the rise of the secular religion Earth Seed, whose main tenets are, “God is change” and “Earth Seed's [humanity’s] destiny is to take root in the stars.” Because God (the only constant) is change, it can be shaped. Rather than Heaven, you have the heavens. There is no personal God here. But Butler recognizes the need for community and a purpose. This isn’t quite existentialism, though it’s pretty close. Shaping God, in Earth Seed’s terms is not too far off from creating meaning. It would be easy to see it as another iteration of the argument between secular humanism and Christianity and other religions. That is quite right either, though it is close to that. By providing a purpose (education and building towards going to space) and community it functions in the way that more traditional religion does.

The book is very much concerned with ideology, but is much more successful than its predecessor at not allowing the book to become a gospel tract of sorts. It is still more didactic than most of Butler’s work, but the structure of the novel works to counter that somewhat. The story is that of the experiences of Lauren Oya Olamina, the founder of Earth Seed, her brother Mark, a preacher in the Christian America Church founded by President Jarret,  her daughter Asha Vere who was taken from Olamina as a baby by Christian America and raised by strangers and the rise of the Earth Seed religion. The structure of the book consists of the journals of Olamina, narration decades later by her daughter who has discovered her identity, her brother Mark, and a few chapters of a book written by her husband. Olamina and Mark were driven from their home as children and both have been through a lot of trauma. Mark turned to the church. Olamina created an Earth Seed community that puts a lot of her ideology into practice, Acorn. That community is smashed and turned into a reeducation camp by Christian America and some truly horrific things happen to the inhabitants. There is enough of a story as the three main narrators eventually meet again, and Earth Seed becomes a major social force and the extremist president and his more radical followers fall out of favor. Asha Vere is somewhere on the atheist/agnostic spectrum and is bitter towards her mother and toward Earth Seed. Vere’s skepticism and the rotating narration helps counteract the tendency to turn the novel into a sermon.

Like all Butler’s work there is beauty and brutality. Despite the didacticism, I am very sad to have not gotten a third book, which I might not have predicted after the first volume. It is worth reading for its prescience and insight into the current political climate. It is a blunt repudiation of religious fundamentalism. But it’s also a fascinating study of ideology, and an argument that we need better education and should be trying to get to space. Earth Seed is an interesting take on a secular religion. The closest I can get to explaining my own ideology is to triangulate between an Existentialism tempered by the understanding that people’s range of choice and freedom is limited and variable, whatever Wendell Berry, Robinson Jeffers, and Annie Dillard are on about and a heavy dose of skepticism or at least lack of certainty. Earth Seed is not that, but not too far off on the first two counts. It is very certain, though. It does a good job of offering hope, both in the continued existence of humanity in the stars and in the fact that Jarret’s time ended. It was horrible while it lasted, but it was not the end point of history.

Butler remains among my favorites, and while I am more likely to return to her other works than this one, it is an excellent and thought provoking book.

Highly Recommended

*I have a .pdf of her out of print Survivor and the two posthumous stories left to read to be a completist with her.

**See the American leftists of the mid 20th Century who supported the Soviet Union under Stalin long after that was a tenable position.

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