Goodreads had a Facebook post a week or so ago asking readers to “describe the book you’re currently reading in one word.” I’m generally too verbose to succeed with such restrictions, but this time it was easy.
The Earthseed Series by the late African American science fiction writer Octavia Butler is like nothing else out there—and the one-word description is prescient. Did Ms Butler have a time machine?—because her series, written back in the 1990s, describes the 2020s in a way that’s scary accurate.
First a bit of vocabulary for clarity. Many book series have the same characters in stand-alone novels that may be read in any order. But I would call the Earthseed Series a duology. Even though each book may stand alone, they essentially tell one story. So if you pick up the first book, The Parable of the Sower, better be prepared to get a hold of The Parable of The Talents too. You just can’t stop after the first one.
The novels takes place in a California parched by climate change, beset by decades-long droughts and frequent wild fires. No, there’s no pandemic, but apparently future historians describe the ensuing dystopian period as “The Pox.” Weird, huh? Weirder still is the telegenic politician who mounts a presidential campaign with the slogan “Make America Great Again.” Seriously. She wrote this in the 90s!
It’s an engrossing read, but it gets very very dark. Our main character, narrator of the first book, is Lauren Olamina, an African American teenager who dreams of escaping her gated community to discover someplace where people might thrive, rather than merely hide to survive.
In Butler’s Southern California, the people in the few gated residential areas still standing have had to band together to protect each other with armed 24-hour watches. Police and fire departments are underfunded, ineffective, and corrupt. Few people have motor vehicles because they can’t afford the gas. Water is an even scarcer commodity. It’s pretty darn bleak.
But the focus is on Lauren Olamina who has bigger dreams than your typical girl. Though she loves and admires her Baptist minister father, she is developing her own religion, based on the premise that “God is change.”
It may be a truism that change is the only constant, and that’s often what makes religion so popular. God as the one Absolute in a chaotic universe is a comforting notion that many of us cling to, but Lauren asserts that her philosophy is an idea the human race needs. She maintains it’s time we finally accept our status as the grown-ups on this planet. “God is change,” she says over and over again, and, “We shape God.”
When the time comes to leave her gated home, Lauren walks up the freeway as so many desperate people are doing. Like an evangelist she gathers followers along the way. Most are happy to gather together because there is safety in numbers, but many are intrigued by her spiritual teachings. They eventually form a communal farm, a thriving community that supports and protects each other. But their beliefs earn them a “cult” label, and it simply isn’t safe for them in Trump’s America—oh, I mean Donner’s America. The name of Butler’s dog-whistling, violence-inciting, Bible-thumping president is Donner, not Trump. Easy mistake.
I read in an intriguing New Yorker article published in 2017, that Butler had planned her Earthseed series to be a tetralogy—four novels—but the books proved to be rather depressing so she ended the story after two. (check out the article here) That explains why I felt the ending was rather abrupt and unsatisfying. Both books were engrossing, yet I found the ending to be sad for Lauren Olamina. On the surface, it seems she achieved what she had wanted most: a growing Earthseed movement. But there were unresolved family ruptures that hurt my heart. Admittedly this ending was very realistic. In life things are seldom tied up as neatly as we might wish. But the reader is left wondering: Lauren was an inspiring leader of Earthseed. But was she capable of intimacy on a smaller scale? Or was she denied that opportunity to form certain intimate connections by those who felt threatened by her personal power? I wish Butler had extended the story to give Lauren that chance.
Well, you just have to read it to see what I’m talking about. Butler is an amazing writer, but as a Black woman, her work was somewhat marginalized in the sci fi world of the 70s and 80s. Now, fourteen years after her death, her work is enjoying a well-deserved renaissance with the admiration of Feminists, African Americans, and the science fiction community.
Earthseed is available in both print and e-book forms, and just this year, the two stories have also been released as graphic novels. I read the traditional novels myself, but the illustrations of the graphic version look stunning, for those who prefer that.
Nonetheless, if you are new to Butler’s work, I recommend you begin with her most popular novel “Kindred,” a compelling story of a modern-day Black woman pulled back in time to confront and save her white ancestor. An amazing, always-topical book. Check it out.
Post script: It was announced yesterday that this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature would be awarded to American poet Louise Glück. I feel compelled to mention that my favorite of her poems has to do with whether God is change (as Lauren Olamina says in Earthseed) or whether God is an Absolute, our one constant. Allow me to share this lovely piece with you; it appears in her 1992 book, The Wild Iris, and may be seen and heard here.