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.


First Impressions: Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

These are my first impressions after reading Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (Kate Wilhelm; 1976) in August 2008. I will be discussing Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang in future essays. Spoilers.

51Pl9Fv9U8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In this post-apocalyptic novel, civilization has been destroyed by some unspecified means involving environmental degradation, pandemics, and famine. But one extended family, seeing the end coming, has used their wealth to isolate themselves in a well-protected valley and has constructed the hospital, labs, and mill they will need to survive. Short on food, they develop cloning techniques to produce more livestock. When they find that most of them have become infertile, they start cloning themselves as well, with unforeseen consequences.

The story is told in three parts, each following a similar arc, each ending in a main character leaving the family’s compound. In the first section, a brilliant doctor helps develop the cloning process but is ousted by his own younger clones, who are already exhibiting disturbing behaviors, such as losing their individual identities. In the second part, a clone is separated from her sister clones when she goes on an expedition to look for supplies in the ruined cities. As a result, she develops an individual personality and an artistic vision that the other clones interpret as madness when she returns to the compound. She must flee to keep from living a life as a drugged-up “breeder.” In the final section, her son is being raised by the clones but clearly doesn’t belong among them. Only he has the ingenuity and creativity necessary for continued survival as the machines and systems set up by the original survivalists begin to break down.

What I thought about as I read this book was recent news stories about children so micro-managed by their “helicopter” parents that they have no ability to cope with the real world and break down as soon as they get to college. The young clones in the story reminded me of younger generations so coddled that they cannot make a decision on their own. How can we survive and advance as a species when we lose our individuality and cannot think for ourselves? is the question.

This is exactly the dilemma faced by the clones. They become so used to a life where they never have to think for themselves that they lose all of their creativity and problem-solving abilities. They become dependent on machines they don’t understand, and when those break down, they cannot come up with creative ways to fix them. So they are doomed. Only those who can establish an individual identity through isolation from the main group are able to learn how to survive.

It may seem on the surface that this novel is a somewhat dated horror story about cloning. But look deeper–the story brings up issues that are very relevant today. Wilhelm is raising a warning flag that we should safeguard our individuality and nurture our creativity if we want to survive.