Book Talk: The 'Parables' Duology by Octavia E. Butler - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Book Talk: The 'Parables' Duology by Octavia E. Butler

Alexander Wallace talks books...

Imagine, for a moment, a gigantic ball of twine, not unlike that found in Darwin, Minnesota, and immortalized by Weird Al Yankovic. It’s gargantuan, complex, and baffling on a conceptual level.

Then, imagine that some enterprising person were to come along to tug at the gigantic ball of twine at just the right place, undoing that which kept it together, leaving the whole enterprise just a massive disorganized mess. You begin to wonder how the ball of twine remained in a ball shape for so long in the first place.

The ball of twine is American society, and the enterprising trickster who unwinds the whole confusing enterprise is Octavia E. Butler in her duology that consists of Parable of the Sower and its sequel Parable of the Talents.

The duology concerns first and foremost a society bursting apart at the seams. Butler talked of how America might become a ‘third-world country,’ and used this duology to explore how that might come about. Ultimately, she charges short-sighted thinking, in all realms, as what may doom the United States. There’s ecological breakdown and social disintegration, and the loss of the capability of the federal government to enforce its will in any meaningful sense in large swathes of the country. And, even more disturbingly current, there are pandemics and massive civil unrest. Reading this in these times, as a virus strangles my homeland and unrest in many cities, makes me feel like we are about halfway to the vision of an unraveled society that Butler had in the nineties.

These books center around Lauren Oya Olamina and her family who start out living in a Los Angeles that seems straight out of the predictions of urban warfare specialists (I can’t help but be reminded in the afterword to Thomas Ricks’ Making the Corps where he talks about how future wars - writing in the nineties - that the United States Marine Corps may be involved in could be on American soil - fortunately we haven’t fallen that far yet). Roving bands rule the land and life is nasty, brutish, and short. In this chaos, Lauren writes in her notebook the beginnings of a new religion, Earthseed, that seems almost the balm for the injury of this awful status quo.

These books are in no small part about imagining the new, and about casting off dated, harmful ways of living. Most obviously this is seen in Earthseed, based upon the notion that “God is change.” As a religion, Earthseed seems like something made for the post-industrial era, where it is commonly accepted that the world will be radically different between a person’s birth and their death. It’s a religion that feels hard hitting in this moment; none of us were expecting a massive pandemic to shut the world down even a year ago (from writing in late November 2020). Perhaps more of us should take what Earthseed says into account more.

Likewise, much of the books is about Acorn, the community in northern California that Lauren and her ilk found on the principle of Earthseed. Acorn is a place that is constantly under threat from the wider society that seems to be looking backward in all the wrong ways. There are multiple mentions of how the American space program is being cut, and in the second book the country elects a right-wing populist that uses the slogan ‘Make American Great Again’ verbatim (quite prescient for something written in the nineties). These are books, ultimately, about what needs to be kept and what needs to be discarded in a rapidly changing world.

We should remember Octavia E. Butler’s message as we as a species move forward, both out of this pandemic and into the twenty-first century. It’s a message that’ll never tarry by virtue that change is omnipresent. No matter who says otherwise, we cannot declare war on entropy and win.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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