Our Most Prescient Sci-Fi Writer?

Octavia Butler


I have been singing the praises of Octavia Butler for a while now (for instance, here and here), so it is gratifying to see this New Yorker article praising the African American sci-fi author, who tragically died way before her time at 58 (she hit her head outside her apartment). Abby Aguirre believes that Butler’s Parable of the Sower wins out over Nineteen Eight-Four and Handmaid’s Tale in “the ongoing contest over which dystopian classic is most applicable to our time.”

Check out the following description to see if you agree:

Butler’s tenth novel, Parable of the Sower, which was published in 1993, opens in Los Angeles in 2024. Global warming has brought drought and rising seawater. The middle class and working poor live in gated neighborhoods, where they fend off the homeless with guns and walls. Fresh water is scarce, as valuable as money. Pharmaceutical companies have created “smart drugs,” which boost mental performance, and “pyro,” a pill that gives those who take sexual pleasure from arson. Fires are common. Police services are expensive, though few people trust the police. Public schools are being privatized, as are whole towns. In this atmosphere, a Presidential candidate named Christopher Donner is elected based on his promises to dismantle government programs and bring back jobs.

The seminal figure in the Afrofuturist movement, Butler believes that social progress is reversible, a view that increasing numbers of people on the left are beginning to entertain. As Butler saw it,

As the public sphere became hollowed out, a fear of change would create an opening for retrograde politics. With collapse, racism would become more overt.

It perhaps takes a writer of color to see how potentially fragile are the hard-won victories of the Civil Rights movement. After all, Butler knew how poorly her mother, a maid and a single mom, was treated even in racially integrated 1950’s Pasadena.

Parable of the Talents is no less prescient than Parable of the Sower. It’s more unsettling now than when I wrote about the novel last August, before Donald Trump had been elected:

The sequel, Parable of the Talents, published in 1998, begins in 2032. By then, various forms of indentured servitude and slavery are common, facilitated by high-tech slave collars. The oppression of women has become extreme; those who express their opinion, “nags,” might have their tongues cut out. People are addicted not only to designer drugs but also to “dream masks,” which generate virtual fantasies as guided dreams, allowing wearers to submerge themselves in simpler, happier lives. News comes in the form of disks or “news bullets,” which “purport to tell us all we need to know in flashy pictures and quick, witty, verbal one-two punches. Twenty-five or thirty words are supposed to be enough in a news bullet to explain either a war or an unusual set of Christmas lights.” The Donner Administration has written off science, but a more immediate threat lurks: a violent movement is being whipped up by a new Presidential candidate, Andrew Steele Jarret, a Texas senator and religious zealot who is running on a platform to “make American great again.”

If goose pimples are breaking out, you may like to know what prospects Butler sees for protesters:

In Butler’s prognosis, humans survive through an intricate logic of interdependence. Soon after leaving her family’s walled neighborhood, Lauren discerns that her natural allies are other people of color, including mixed-race couples, since they are likely to become targets of white violence. 

Are we seeing a comparable coalition beginning to form in resistance to Donald Trump, with people of color, women, LBGTQ and disability rights groups, progressives, and others finding ways to make their voices heard? So far, “the Resistance” has prevented Trump from implementing some of his most extreme proposals.

Science fiction, like fantasy, is able to dramatize social challenges in a way that engages readers who might otherwise turn away. After all, the future offers a safe, imaginary space to grapple with painful issues. As Ursula LeGuin notably said, the future in science fiction is a metaphor for the present, and the future that Butler imagined bears no small resemblance to our own present.

Further thought: A tweet from MSNBC’s Joy Reid reminded me of this quotation from The Parable of the Talents, which I had forgotten about. It should go up on every bulletin board:

Choose your leaders with wisdom and forethought.
To be led by a coward is to be controlled by all that the coward fears.
To be led by a fool is to be led by the opportunists who control the fool.
To be led by a thief is to offer up your most precious treasures to be stolen.
To be led by a liar is to ask to be told lies.
To be led by a tyrant is to sell yourself and those you love into slavery.

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