Born 75 years ago, on June 22, 1947, Octavia Butler was one of the most innovative and prescient science fiction writers of the twentieth century. Today, her 1993 Parable of the Sower, which follows Black teenager Lauren Olamina through an apocalyptic near-future California, is one of her most-discussed books. As English literature scholar Marlene D. Allen writes, the novel, as well as its sequel, Parable of the Talents, are deeply grounded in history and, particularly, Black American experience.
Allen writes that setting a story in a devastated United States is a classic science fiction trope. Typically, however, the backstory hinges on a catastrophe like nuclear war or a robot uprising. Butler’s disaster is something different—a logical extension of contemporary problems including economic inequality, racism, and climate change.
In fact, one character, widower and doctor Taylor Bankole, disputes the idea that “the Apocalypse”—commonly known as “the Pox” and which frames the narrative of both novels—consisted of fifteen years of social breakdown.
“The Pox has been a much longer torment,” Bankole argues in Parable of the Talents. “It began well before 2015, perhaps even before the turn of the millennium. It has not ended. I have also read that the Pox was caused by accidentally coinciding climactic, economic, and sociological crises. It would be more honest to say that the Pox was caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems in those arenas.”
Allen sees the future presented in the Parable novels as an echo of Ralph Ellison’s description of the influence of African American experiences and culture on mainstream America: “First something happens to us; and then, just wait, it happens to every other group in America.”
In the novels, the “something” is a cycling of ghettoization and enslavement throughout history. Black and Latino farm workers are held in bondage in the South, while a multinational company offers skilled workers of all races protection from societal breakdown, only to ensnare them in a debt peonage system.
Among the aspects of the novels that have resonated with readers in recent years is the fictional Senator Andrew Steele Jarret, who comes to power as president of the United States on a promise to “make America great again.” Jarret blames the country’s misfortunes on Muslims and other religious minorities, whom he casts as rapists and drug sellers. Allen notes that much about the president and his militant “Crusader” followers is rooted in history, with allusions to the Ku Klux Klan, Nazis, and the original medieval Crusaders. Among the tactics of the fictional Crusaders is the separation of children from their parents to place them with Jarret supporters, who are known as “Christian Americans.”
Allen notes that Jarret’s followers, and even more sympathetic characters such as Lauren’s father, are mired in a wish to return to a more stable past. In contrast, Lauren’s Earthseed philosophy and organization offers a vision for escaping historical patterns and becoming something new, consciously embracing human diversity and spreading the message that “God is Change.”