The late Octavia E. Butler is one of those science fiction writers whose work can — and does — stand easily in the company of the very best “mainstream” literature being produced today. She is, I regret to say, another one whose novels I am only just discovering, and at this point I can’t think why I waited so long to investigate her writing: she wrote with power and authority and was one of those writers who brought the formal and stylistic tools of literary fiction into the service of some of the best genre writing available.
The two books of the “Parables” series depict a world that is too much like our own for comfort: those who can live in walled communities to protect themselves from those who can’t, who in turn build their own walls. Religious fanatics are poised to take over the government. The balance of economic power has left the United States and now resides in the North: Canada and Russia have the money and still some semblance of civil order. People begin heading up to Canada — walking, if there’s no other way. Not so many of them make it. Alaska secedes. And those walled communities are subject to attack by random gangs, bands of latter-day storm troopers, or the neighbors.
The story (because it is one story) revolves around the family of Lauren Oya Olamina, the daughter of a Baptist minister, whose relatively stable life is destroyed in a night of violence. Like so many others, Lauren begins walking north. On the way she meets Taylor Franklin Bankole, a doctor who is old enough to be her father, and marries him. She also founds a new religion, Earthseed, and begins to gather a group of followers; they settle in Humboldt County, California, and call their community Acorn.
These are among those novels that are so much more than mere story. It is told as a series of journals and other writings by Lauren, Taylor, and their daughter Larkin, who is abducted when Acorn is destroyed and only discovers who her mother is when Lauren has become the leader of the most powerful force for the renewal of human society. In Butler’s hands, this structure brings the immediacy of a first-person narrative and the distance of a memoir, giving us a dispassionate account while also, through interpolated commentaries, bringing the characters and events to life. “Dispassionate” also describes Butler’s telling of events, which are often horrific: they all happen in retrospect, so that for the characters the emotional cost is muted by the distance of time, while for the reader, who is really experiencing them without much in the way of mediation, they have a tremendous impact.
Butler is one of those writers who shows quite plainly the result of, in Samuel R. Delany’s terms, working from the text. I really got no sense of the author consciously fleshing out her characters or juggling index cards with plot elements on them or any of the other tricks that beginning writers are encouraged to use. The overwhelming sense is that Butler just sat down and wrote a story that needed to be told. It’s seamless, an organic unity of narration that incorporates every element of fiction into something with its own unique and indissoluble identity.
Reading these books, I am reminded of something that the late Colin Turnbull discussed in The Human Condition. He cast it in terms of our lack of discernible rites of passage, and from the viewpoint of an Englishman, but the broader application is obvious: Western culture, and especially that variant found in America, with its somewhat schizophrenic emphasis on individual liberty grafted onto a cultural ideal of Puritanism (which essentially denied the individual), has effectively destroyed the sense of community that is such a basic requirement of human sociality. The picture that Butler paints brings this chillingly home. What she offers in its place, of course, is what we’ve left behind: tight-knit communities with a common guiding principle to offset the aimless and predatory society we have built.
That said, I am not sure that anyone but a Black woman could have written these novels. Almost too many commentators have remarked on the fact that Butler has given a voice (within science fiction, at least) to people of color, but I think her importance is much more fundamental than that. Anyone who is familiar with non-White, non-middle-class subcultures in America is going to recognize in Butler’s portrayal the very elements that are missing from the so-called “mainstream.” And we do miss that context, that sense of community support that in urban, mobile America is something that is too rare where it exists at all: that is why, I think, we are a nation of joiners.
We are also a nation of celebrity worshippers and faddists because, as Butler so vividly underscores, people do need something to believe in. It can be something empty and destructive, such as the alternative offered by President Jarret and his “Christian America” (which is too close to any number of Dominionist theocrats running around the fringes today, and in some cases not on the fringes at all), or it can be a transcendent, redemptive vision of realizing what is best in us, which is the alternative offered by Lauren’s Earthseed.
As you can see, these are thought-provoking books. They are also absorbing, topical, discomforting in the extreme, and emotionally exhausting. I have long maintained that the literature of the fantastic is a prime vehicle for social commentary and satire. In Butler’s hands, this social commentary within the bounds of genre fiction has become high art, with all the emotional and spiritual impact that art should have.
(Aspect [Warner Books], 1993)
(Aspect [Warner Books], 1998)