“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.
In 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.”