books, People of Color, Reading, Science Fiction, Women Writers

“Parable of the Sower” by Octavia Butler

“Strange how normal it’s become for us to lie on the ground and listen while nearby, people try to kill each other.”

Octavia E. Butler, one of the foremothers of Afrofuturism, wrote with power and force and a vision of a future for people of color long before the movement which she helped forge had many followers and fewer models. Her brand of speculative fiction, generally one in which select humans have developed or acquired superhuman abilities of intellect and empathy – ESP, telekinesis, time travel, and hyperempathy – is the type I am more apt to enjoy than those that focus more on technology, aliens, and the like.

9780446675505In one of her most famous works, “Parable of the Sower”, Butler once again creates a dystopian, not-so-distant future in which war, famine, and disease have left few survivors in a volatile and violent world. Teenaged Lauren Olamina lives with her father, stepmother, and brothers in Robledo, a barricaded community outside of Los Angeles. Here people don’t leave the neighborhood’s walls alone or unarmed. Theirs is an alliance of proximity, of familiarity, and of necessity.

“‘Robledo’s too big, too poor, too black, and too Hispanic to be of interest to anyone — and it has no coastline. What it does have is street poor, body dumps, and a memory of once being well-off — of shade trees, big houses, hills, and canyons. Most of those things are still here, but no company will want us.'”

But as the wider chaos and brutality of the surrounding world come crashing through their gates, Lauren finds she must flee for her life, making her way by night and by foot along abandoned highways in the hope of finding safety farther north, somewhere where she will can live in peace. Along the way, Lauren attracts other misfits, forming a rag-tag band that begins to learn Lauren’s philosophy of life and to trust her talent to stay alive.

Lauren is extraordinarily strong, extremely well-educated given her life circumstances, and impossibly level-headed. She is also burdened with an unusual “gift”, a side effect of her mother’s drug use while pregnant. Though she must keep it a secret from everyone, Lauren has hyperempathy syndrome, something that forces her to feel the pleasure and, what’s worse, the pain of those around her. In a world of mortal combat, every blow struck by or near Lauren does equal damage to her, a pain she must endure in secret in order to survive.

Butler’s invention of hyperempathy syndrome is a delightful extension of an age-old moral dilemma. How might humans act if they felt one another’s pain more directly, more acutely? As Lauren herself suggests,

“If hyperempathy syndrome were a more common complaint, people couldn’t do such things. They could kill if they had to, and bear the pain of it or be destroyed by it. But if everyone could feel everyone else’s pain, who would torture? Who would cause anyone unnecessary pain? I’ve never thought of my problem as something that might do some good before, but the way things are, I think it would help. I wish I could give it to people. Failing that, I wish I could find other people who have it, and live among them. A biological conscience is better than no conscience at all.”

“Parable of the Sower” is a deeply political and philosophical book. Like all good dystopian fiction, it forces the reader to see how seemingly simple, conceivable, meaningless actions can quickly lead to catastrophic events. Written in the 1990s its doom and gloom – climate change, economic ravages, isolationist politics – are eerily prescient, its characters are ever-fresh, and its prose is incendiary. Octavia E. Butler was an absolute master, and she deserves kudos and credit for the wild success of speculative fiction and world-wide sensation of Afrofuturism today.

“Cities were always a relief as far as prices went. But cities were also dangerous. More gangs, more cops, more suspicious, nervous people with guns. You tiptoe through cities. You keep up a steady pace, keep your eyes open, and try to look both too intimidating to bother and invisible. Neat trick. Bankole says cities have been like that for a long time.”

Black history, books, Historical Fiction, People of Color, Reading, Science Fiction, Women Writers

“Kindred” by Octavia E. Butler

Octavia Butler was one of the mothers of Science Fiction. The rare black woman in a kindred-octavia-e-butler-124291_408_600predominantly white male world, she forged a sacred place for herself in the genre that remains a decade after her death.

“Kindred” is the story of Dana, a young black woman, and her husband, Kevin. As these two writers and newlyweds are settling into their first home in 1970s California, their tranquility is abruptly turned on its end. While shelving books in their new living room, Dana suddenly vanishes, finding herself riverside where a boy is drowning. Momentarily stunned, Dana springs into action, saves the boy, and finds herself facing the barrel of a rifle, held by the boy’s angry father. A moment of nausea and dizziness, and Dana is back in her living room, soaking wet and terrified. Shaken and disbelieving, Kevin and Dana try to understand what has happened.

Dana, it becomes clear, is traveling through space and time to a plantation in 1800s Maryland, “[n]ot only to insure the survival of one accident-prone small boy, but to insure my family’s survival,  my own birth.” Rufus Weylin, the boy from the river, appears to be Dana’s ancestor who is somehow able to summon her when he is imperiled.

“‘I was home; then suddenly, I was here helping you. I don’t know how it happens – how I move that way – or when it’s going to happen. I can’t control it.'”

Rufus, at first a hapless young boy, grows to become a troubled and brutal man, heir to his father’s plantation and bigotry. Upon each return, Dana must not only save Rufus’ life, but she must also navigate the constant dangers and degradations of slavery until she is “called” home.

By employing a modern, educated black woman who is married to a white man, Butler is able to probe deeply the chasms of our country’s racial divide and the ‘progress’ we’ve made. Dana stands out in the antebellum South; she is eyed with suspicion by blacks and whites alike – for her mannerisms, her dress, and her speech. Many of the Weylin plantation’s slaves distrust her, believing that she is ‘acting white’ or betraying her race. This lack of confidence makes her ‘trips’ to Maryland that much harder, for she has few allies or confidantes.

         “Carrie made quick waving-aside gestures, her expression annoyed. She came over to me and wiped one side of my face with her fingers – wiped hard. I drew back, and she held her fingers in front of me, showed me both sides. But for once, I didn’t understand.
        Frustrated, she took me by the hand and led me out to where Nigel was chopping firewood. There, before him, she repeated the face-rubbing gesture, and he nodded.
         She means it doesn’t come off, Dana,’ he said quietly. ‘The black. She means the devil with people who say you’re anything but what you are.'”

No futuristic, dystopian tale, “Kindred” employs our own barbaric past to impart wisdom and critique. It is, like many stories of time-travel, a morality tale; but unlike many of its kinsmen, “Kindred” has historical import. It seems to me that Butler is celebrating how far we have come as a nation, while forcing the reader to acknowledge how intertwined our past is with our present and how near that past lies. Our history as a nation is a complicated one. Our inheritance and our accomplishments have not come without great costs, nor have they come without disparate privilege.

“Kindred” is full of language that is plain spoken, sometimes even pedestrian, a feature particularly striking in a narrative built around two writers. Though the prosaic language  can be moderately disappointing and even off-putting, the book is exceptional for its concept and execution. The twists and turns of Butler’s narrative are expert and irresistible.

Originally published in 1979, “Kindred” was Butler’s big break and it is easy to see why. This story doesn’t bind Butler to the challenges of world building that so often limit Science Fiction’s audience. By employing history and a well-known narrative, Butler’s “other” is not at all alien. The horrors of our not so distant past are enough to frighten and engage us; the result is pure literature that transcends genre.