Friday, June 22, 2007

Sowing birthday wishes for Octavia Butler

Sixty years ago today, Science Fiction author Octavia Butler was born in Pasadena, CA. Among her award-winning works, the novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents have an especially eerie resonance, taking the trends of our time and extending them into a dark vision of what may lie ahead.

The novels describe a dystopic near-future where American society has collapsed into chaos and repression. The protagonist of the pair, Lauren Olamina, begins her life in a LA surburban community, which has walled itself off from the the violence that surrounds it. It is an enclave with middle class pretentions in a world quickly polarizing into a few wealthy and masses of poor.

As a young woman with an illness that gives her extreme empathy, this daughter of a preacher develops her own theology based on the idea that "God is Change." She is forced out into the hostile world as her fortress town inevitably succumbs to the roving bands of homeless and addicted that beset it. Across the action of the two novels, she begins gathering disciples and building a new community called Earthseed that operates based on her religious principles. Lauren believes that it is mankind's destiny to leave the Earth and colonize outer space, and reaching the stars becomes the ultimate goal of Earthseed. They face many challenges along the way, including persecution at the hands of the federal government, which has been taken over by religious fundamentalists.

I'm a firm believer that we'll get the future we imagine for ourselves, and that's why I find it so unsettling to read such bleak forecasts. I don't fault the authors as it takes a tremendously optimistic and visionary writer to ovrcome the portents of the present. There is hope in Octavia Butler's fiction, but it's not one that will prevail easily. To achieve it, the characters have to overcome tremendous obstacles and persevere through great adversity. We can save ourselves such daunting tasks by trying to address the problems that plague our society sooner rather than later.
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