The Bleak Futures of Octavia Butler

Books discussed in this essay: Parable of the Sower (1993); Parable of the Talents (1998); Lilith’s Brood (2000); Fledgling (2005); Seed to Harvest (2007). Some spoilers.

Octavia Butler had a bleak outlook on the future of humanity, judging by her forward-looking science fiction novels. The dystopias portrayed in Parable of the Sower, Parable of the Talents, and Clay’s Ark (part of the Patternist series) depict a complete regression of civilization and are marked by senseless violence and brutality. In the Xenogenesis series, humanity has been all but wiped out in a global nuclear war.

When Butler looked ahead, she seemed to see only one thing that could save us: a transcendence beyond our brutal human natures. What we would become in these visions may no longer resemble human beings–and Butler seemed ambivalent about this–but it might offer the only hope for our salvation.

1415945710943494543Each of these series posits such a transformation. In the Xenogenesis series (collected in the omnibus edition Lilith’s Brood), aliens arrive to save us. The story starts 250 years after a devastating nuclear war almost wipes out all human life. The few survivors have been picked up by an alien spacecraft and kept in stasis while the aliens, the Oankali, study them. Lilith is one of the first be awakened and integrated into an Oankali family. The Oankali train her to awaken others, introduce them to their new reality and their alien hosts, and reveal the Oankali’s plan: to produce Oankali-human offspring, a brand-new hybrid species.

The Oankali are genetic engineers and reproduce by genetic manipulation. They survive by traveling through space and finding species with promising genetic traits to mate with, such as humans. However, this means humans can no longer reproduces with one another; the Oankalis have disabled their fertility. Of course, there is rebellion.

Through the series, the humans–living in primitive conditions on Earth–are portrayed as without hope, a species that, if allowed to reproduce, would attempt to destroy itself again within a few generations. Humans are hierarchical and competitive, unlike the Oankali. As individuals, they can be intelligent and compassionate. But as a group, they are violent, destructive, and territorial. Even when the aliens allow some humans to start a new colony on Mars and have children, the Oankali hold out no hope for their future. The only hope seems to be that a greater power from the outside will find us and transform us into a better people than we can ever hope to be on our own. We are unable to cure ourselves, doomed by our own biology to always be fighting and murdering one another.0_8874b_aebc23c8_orig

In the Patternist series (collected in the omnibus edition Seed to Harvest), some characters are immortals who can transfer from body to body to avoid death. They eventually evolve into a network of telepaths. Other people are infected by alien lifeforms. Thus, humans take two distinct evolutionary paths. In the last book, both groups have evolved into a nearly unrecognizable state; humans, as we think of ourselves, have ceased to exist.

18a9vudhjqugzjpgIn the Parable series, the protagonist, Lauren Olamina, is an empath. Despite the grim and harrowing dystopia depicted in these two novels, this is probably the most hopeful of Butler’s series. The character of Lauren embodies the potential of humanity to employ the previously unlocked powers of the mind and emotions to become something better than what we are. She foresees moving out into space and sowing humanity like seeds on other planets as the way to survive, and she has the leadership qualities to realize that dream. Lauren preaches that “God is change,” but instead of fighting change or surrendering to it, she advocates recognizing it and using change to make these far-reaching goals a reality. Here, Butler is proposing that we can evolve out of our tendency to kill, brutalize, and enslave one another–if we can survive long enough.

Even in Fledgling, Butler’s last novel (which is set in present day), she posits an evolved type of human living among us. In this case, they are vampires, but unlike any other vampires in fiction. They form symbiotic relationships with humans, positing an entirely new way of living together.

Throughout her fiction, Butler seems unable to conceptualize human beings as we currently are surviving. Whether it’s intervention from an extraterrestrial species or developing traits that allow us to evolve beyond our humanity, we have to become something unrecognizable in order to survive. Then the question becomes: if that is the requirement, did humans really survive? Or are we fated to self-immolate? When I read the news, I often feel that Butler was sharing a truth with this observation–but I don’t want it to be true. I want humans to be capable of collectively overcoming whatever impulse there is inside us that causes us to want to destroy one another. I want us to save ourselves, as ourselves, not look to some godlike being to save us or have to transcend our humanity to evolve beyond our self-destructive impulses.

Octavia_Butler-02

Advertisements

First Impressions: The Children of Men by P.D. James

These are my first impressions after rereading The Children of Men (P. D. James; 1992) in October 2009. I will be discussing The Children of Men in future essays. Spoilers.

51oVdZbhorL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_P.D. James is well known as a mystery writer, but she took a departure from her usual genre with this apocalyptic story. The Children of Men takes place in a near future 25 years after people have stopped giving birth and are, as a result, facing the end of the species. No explanation is given for the sudden loss of fertility — it is presented as having baffled scientists and doctors — but James seems more interested in its effects on the characters living out the last days.

The story is set in England, which has fallen under dictatorial rule in the name of providing the public with what they most want: security, comfort, and pleasure. Criminals are shipped off to the Isle of Man, where they live in violent anarchy, and young, desperate immigrants are brought in to do the scut work as second-class citizens, only to be deported when they become too old or too useless. The British elderly are taken out to sea and drowned in group “suicides,” called the Quietus, much like unwanted kittens. The tone is bleak, hopeless, and filled with ennui and a sense that God has abandoned mankind.

The book is divided into two parts: Omega and Alpha. Once the reader learns that Omega is the name of the last year in which there was a birth, as well as of the last, spoiled, soul-less generation, it is simple to guess what Alpha represents: the first pregnancy in a quarter-century, a secret that propels forward the action in the second half of the novel.

The story is told from the point of view of Theo Faron, a professor of history at Oxford. Theo is so far removed emotionally from his life and the people in it that he is not even greatly affected when he accidentally kills his own baby daughter. This makes him very hard to like. He begins to change when he meets Julian, a young woman who is a member of a hapless, amateurish revolutionary group called the Five Fishes, formed to protest England’s dictatorial policies. Julian asks Theo to intercede with his cousin Xan, who happens to be the dictator, or Warden, of England. After meeting with her group and then witnessing a Quietus firsthand, Theo realizes that he can no longer be an observer, but must step on stage and become an actor in what’s happening to the human race.

The first half of the book alternates randomly between Theo’s diary entries and third-person narrative. I’m not sure why James felt that the diary sections were necessary, as the third-person chapters are also limited tightly to Theo’s perspective, and the diary itself proves not to be very important to the story. After one last entry, the diary literally disappears soon into the second half of the book.

The action ramps up as Theo joins Julian’s group on the run from Xan’s Grenadiers and discovers that Julian is nine months pregnant. Theo’s growing love for Julian and his awe at her maternal state transform him from a passive, apathetic observer into a passionate actor willing to lay down his own life for the cause. The scene when Julian reveals her pregnancy in an abandoned church and Theo gets down on his knees before her to hear the baby’s heartbeat is the most affecting moment in the novel.

Theo, Julian, and the rest of the group go on the run to find a safe place for Julian to give birth. Everything is stacked against them, of course, and one by one they lose their companions until Theo and Julian are alone, literally, in the wilderness, with Xan and his soldiers bearing down on them. The ending (which I won’t reveal) may seem to be a happy one on the surface, but I think it is much more ambiguous than that, and there remains a real question as to whether this new baby will actually restore hope to the world.

The Children of Men was made into a movie in 2006, but if you have only seen the adaptation, know that it differs greatly from the novel in many respects. While the basic premise and characters remain the same, the future depicted in the novel is not as brutal or chaotic as in the movie, but it is perhaps more quietly bleak and hopeless, a tone that rang truer to me. The ending of the novel is quite different from the movie and would not be spoiled by seeing the film first.