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.


Imagining a World Without Men: A Survey of Feminist Utopias


Books discussed in this essay: Herland (Charlotte Perkins Gilman; 1915), The Female Man (Joanna Russ; 1975), The Gates to Women’s Country (Sheri S. Tepper; 1988), Woman on the Edge of Time (Marge Piercy; 1976), and Always Coming Home (Ursula K. Le Guin; 1985). Some spoilers.

What does a world look like where women are equal to men?

Women writers have tried to imagine such a utopia. Perhaps not surprisingly, for many of them it was a world without men at all.

herlandCharlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland may be the earliest example of a feminist utopia. In Herland, three male explorers discover an isolated country in the South American jungle populated only by women. It is a perfect place, where women live in harmony with one another, spontaneously reproduce, and have advanced their society due to lack of conflict. The only fly in the ointment is their male visitors, who can’t help their innate sexism, but these confident women mostly just laugh them off. At first blush, Herland seems fairly ideal.

But there are problems with the all-female utopia that Gilman fails to address. For instance, the women all seem asexual, which ignores a fundamental aspect of our nature in favor of combatting the sexual objectification of women. Also, it is difficult to imagine any group of human beings living together without conflict, no matter what their gender. Still, I’d recommend Herland, a quick read, just for its historical value as an early work of feminism, even if does avoid some of the more difficult questions that are raised.

joanna-russ-the-female-manIn 1975, Joanna Russ imagined a similar utopia in The Female Man, this time an alternate world called Whileaway. However, her utopia is not so perfect. Reproduction is handled more realistically, and the women do fight among themselves, often violently. This is one of four alternate worlds Russ presents in the novel. Another, most definitely not a utopia, depicts men and women living separately in a perpetual state of war. Just as in Herland, The Female Man cannot imagine a world where men and women can live together in equality and harmony.

While I admit that I too have spent a happy hour or so imagining a world without men, it’s not practical. We must envision ways women can achieve equality while still keeping men around, if only for the very basic reason that we are one species who are all in this together–or at least, we should be. Also, many women happen to enjoy the company of men.

51I7jyZitGL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Sheri S. Tepper moderates this vision of a feminist utopia somewhat in The Gates to Women’s Country. In her post-apocalyptic far future, women and men mostly live separately, the women inside a beautiful walled city that hearkens back to the civilization of the ancient Greeks, the men outside the walls in barracks, constantly training for war. Only a few men are allowed inside to serve the women, carefully selected for their submissive traits.

As in the previous two novels, Tepper’s world is one in which men and women cannot live together naturally, due to the innate characteristics of men. The soldiers are basically overgrown children who perceive women as helpless objects requiring protection and impregnation with sons. The servitors are the flip side of the coin: wise, calm, strong, always in control of themselves—the “perfect men” in this women’s fantasy. However, they are not perfect by nature, but by design, and therefore they are not real.

urlA utopian vision where men and women do co-exist can be found in Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy. A present-day woman time-travels to the future and is shown what an egalitarian society might be like. Although men and women live together in this utopia, there is virtually no distinction between them. The time traveler sometimes cannot even tell what gender her guide is. The language has changed, as well, so that gender pronouns are no longer used. While at first glance this seems like a desirable way of achieving a perfect communal society, erasing the differences between us again defies human nature. Although our differences often inspire oppression, they are also what make us interesting, and quite possibly what enable us to innovate and adapt so well.

The utopia presented in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home imagines a future of communal living where gender differences have been preserved. This utopia is similar to the one in Woman on the Edge of Time: people live cooperatively in villages, eschewing technology and the trappings of our present-day consumerist society, pursuing their passions and strengths, moving fluidly between relationships, and governing and raising children as a group. Yet even Le Guin has a hard time envisioning such a utopia without rejecting almost all the achievements of the modern day. To be our better selves, we have to return to a more primitive version of ourselves. There is a certain attraction to this simpler life, but is it realistic? Once knowledge has been gained, once technologies have been developed, we don’t let that go. We have to build on what came before, not tear it down.

I have yet to read a utopian vision that posits equality for all and yet society continues to progress along a forward trajectory (the only thing that seems to come close may be the Star Trek universe). I would like to. For forward-thinking writers, though, it is easier–and certainly more interesting–to imagine the dystopias that might be. But that is the subject of another essay.


Second Impressions: Beggars in Spain

These are my second impressions after rereading Beggars in Spain (Nancy Kress; 1991) in February 2014. This review is based on the novella only. Some spoilers.

5115d9ajLwL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In the near future, Leisha is one of the first generation of children genetically engineered not to need sleep, and finds herself hated and feared because of the advantages that gives her.

I first read this novel long ago, and I just reread the novella it was based on to refresh my memory, so this review will focus on the novella, which is the opening section of the longer novel. I have seen this book listed on many libertarian book lists, but it is my opinion that it considers but ultimately refutes libertarian ideals, at least those ideals that we often associate with Ayn Rand.

Like most of the Sleepers, Leisha subscribes to a philosophy popularized by Kenzo Yagai, who also invented the cheap energy source that is transforming the world. In that philosophy, a person’s greatest dignity comes from being able to do what they do well, freely and without coercion, and to trade that skill with others. This is symbolized by the contract. If a person is not allowed to achieve or must operate under coercion, then that robs them of their spiritual dignity.

However, there is the problem of the so-called beggars in Spain, who have nothing to give and want what you have–and may be willing to do violence to get it. They cannot live on their own merits, and they aren’t willing to abide by the rules of civilizations. What does the world owe them? The libertarians, or Yagaiists, would argue, the world owes them nothing. Leisha feels there is something wrong with this, but it takes her a while to realize what.

The Sleepless are superior in nearly every way to the Sleepers, and that is why they come to be hated and feared. They cannot engage with the rest of the world in equal trade because they are not born equal. They come to the conclusion that their only recourse is to withdraw from society into an isolated refuge called Sanctuary. Again, Leisha does not think this is the right move.

Finally, as she and her twin sister Alice (who is not a Sleepless) rescue a sleepless child from an abusive home–and Alice basically saves everybody, much to Leisha’s surprise–she realizes the truth. This is where the refutation happens. Trade is not linear. It is more like a web. A “beggar in Spain” is not fated to permanently be a beggar; they may have something of value to give that only becomes apparent later, like Alice. Human society is an ecology, so you give what you can when you can, not knowing whether you will receive something in return now or later, or even if the person you benefit will go on to benefit someone else. However, by giving when it is needed, and not expecting something in return immediately, the whole ecology benefits–including the so-called elite.

This is where we get stuck when we consider libertarianism in the political arena today. There is often the attitude of “what’s in it for me?” The benefit may not be immediately apparent, but there is a benefit to us all. We are not individuals free-floating out there, tethered to no one, reliant only on ourselves. We are part of an ecology, and all of us are necessary parts of that ecology. Even the beggars.