1.1: The ’80s are back.
Dystopia is big business at the moment. Sales of 1984 skyrocketed some 9,500 percent since Kellyanne Conway coined “alternative facts” and Sean Spicer started turning the fake news hose on the real news during every press briefing. The New York Times is debating the relative merits of 1984 and Brave New World. As Simon and Schuster makes a keen business decision to back out on Milo, Penguin is getting behind Orwell, with a new print run of 75,000 books.
If you’re like many of us, you’re busy trying to become a citizen again. Between rallies, calling your representatives (if you’ve got ’em), packing townhalls (if they’re holding ’em), reading the news in a calming setting with candles, divesting from your DAPL-funding big bank, taking in the best new political satire, and working full time plus overtime to pay for your healthcare/childcare/news subscriptions/donations to planned parenthood under Mike Pence’s name, you’ve got some decisions to make. Namely which dystopian novel do you read first? Feminist dystopia with evil fundamentalist patriarchy? Totalitarian dystopia with control of language and historical memory? Pop dystopia with book destruction? Happiness dystopia with synthetic feelings? Maybe you’re sneaking in some Kafka for a little old-school bureaucracy dystopia, or maybe you’re just watching Brazil to save time.
There’s one book, though, that’s been left out of these grim parades of prescience. It’s weird, too, because Octavia E. Butler’s Earthseed series, especially its second and last installment, Parable of the Talents, is probably the most precise precognition to-date of what has in fact come to pass—or I guess, it’s weird like Lemonade not getting album of the year is weird. So never mind.
Anyway, if we were to mix what America is actually becoming with what Trump says it has become, Earthseed is what we’d get. The novels begin in 2024, the waning days of a period known to later generations as “The Pox.” Here the U.S. really is a landscape of “American carnage,” as Bannon might cheerfully proclaim, wherein global warming and corporate malfeasance have depleted America’s food and water, and Canada and Alaska are the safest and most prosperous parts of the continent. In this America, cities and neighborhoods build walls to keep out murderers and rapists in the form not of menacing imaginary immigrants this time, but of rich kids blitzed out on drugs who murder, rape and set fire to people’s homes just to watch them burn. Only corporate towns are really safe, but to get their protection you have to sell your freedom and become a literal slave, collar and everything.
If that all sounds a little more like the landscape of Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times” than the actual times we’re living in, turn to the series’ second novel. It’s Parable of the Talents that makes Earthseed feel prophetic. I read it in early 2016 and I remember the pit welling in my stomach as I recognized my own America here. That’s also where Nnedi Okorafor landed when she discussed Earthseed and Parable of the Talents as part of a group discussion on dystopia for Al Jazeera just last week. You can view the video below—Okorafor starts the long road to the mic drop at about minute twenty-five—and you can check out her Nebula, Clarke, and Hugo award-winning books here. She, too, suggests that Talents far surpasses 1984 as the novel for our dystopian moment.
Why? Well, what if I told you that at the start of this book, America elects a blustering demagogue for president? “Andrew Steele Jarret” rides to high office on a wave of desperate populism, using Americans’ rage and perceptions of unsafety to institute an evangelical Christian, klepto-capitalist, public-education gutting, climate change denying, scientific-programs-slashing US administration. What if I told you Jarret tells his followers in the book that he wants to “Make America Great Again?”
Really. He does. The book just gets more queasily on point from there. It imagines the reasonable outcome of such an election as an incompetent, disorganized, blatantly lying president who cannot control the violent thugs who elected him when they begin terrorizing the American populace. They start labeling dissenting voices as terrorists or “cultists” and therefore make them (even more) vulnerable to arrest and enslavement, while the administration’s response to the violence against its own people by thugs it inspired is simply to deny and ignore what’s going on.
The novel is full of lines and passages that make you think Butler might actually be a time traveler like Dana in her most famous novel, Kindred. Take this exchange about the demagogue Jarret just before he’s elected:
“’Jarret is down in the polls!’ Jorge said. ‘His people are scaring everyone to death with their burning churches, burning people, he might not win.’
‘Who the hell do they poll these days?’ Michael asked, shaking his head.”
Jarret is virtually identical to Trump, but for his handsomeness, his charisma, and the fact that he’s been a Senator before and so actually has some political experience. He refers to a mythical “better” past and relies on people’s ignorance of history to support his claims. He “pulled religion and government together and cemented the link with money from rich businessmen” (309). He quietly condones the violence committed in his name by repudiating it “in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear” (19). He’s got enormous support among women and the poor because “the working poor who love Jarret want to be fooled, need to be fooled. They scratch a living, working long, hard hours at dangerous, dirty jobs . . . . [t]heir employers and their men abuse them. They bear more children than they can feed. They bear everyone’s contempt (281).”
Reading Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents hurts. They’re not escapist literature. They don’t even have a relatable heroine, exactly—indeed Talents intentionally undermines your ability to relate to Lauren Olamina, its primary voice, cutting in with the voices of those she has hurt, reminding you constantly of her exceptional power and charisma. It’s not that Lauren isn’t a realistic character, she might be one of the most human and humane characters I’ve encountered in fiction yet. It’s just that the power of her conviction—what it takes for her to make it, reminds you that you (or at least I) are not her, that you might not, like her, survive.
Then it hurts because its assessments of America’s failures are so agonizingly precise, its prose so forceful and clear. It puts its finger on the problems of 21st Century America with the same pragmatic and merciful brutality with which a person might put their finger down hard on a wingless fly. “I was born in 1970,” says Lauren, “I have watched education become more of a privilege of the rich than the basic necessity it must be if civilized society is to survive. I have watched as convenience, profit, and inertia excused greater and more dangerous environmental degradation. I have watched poverty, hunger, and disease become inevitable for more and more people. . . . [The United States of America] simply lost sight of what it once intended to be, then blundered aimlessly until it exhausted itself” (8).
Why read Earthseed when it hurts so bad? Of course it’s a brilliant, honest story, but so is Lolita, and I’m never picking that up again. I guess the answer is that it also helps. Earthseed is the name of the religion that Lauren creates, and it delivers good news for hard times in its straightforward poetry—it’s even spawned real-life religious offshoots. Lauren gives great advice on doomsday prepping in Parable of the Sower too—like how to pack your emergency bag, when to start teaching your kids how to fire and clean a gun, and where to bury your extra cash.
Plus, there’s the fact that once you get going on book one, you really won’t have any choice but to finish both novels—these are narratives that do not let you go.
Most valuable of all, however, in my opinion, is a perspective that the vast majority of dystopian novels don’t provide. 1984, Brave New World, We, Farenheit 451, even The Giver and Mockingjay, all these books take place in states that have completely remodeled the paradigm of existence. Their protagonists are maverick individuals, like John McCain. They think outside the box in a world where everyone else has accepted and willingly defends the structures that allow their authoritarian states to persist. As much as we Americans might relate to Winston and Katniss as free-thinking rogues who see clearly the ugly truth no one else understands, these books are a kind of an escape from the muddle of real experience. They teach us some important things, but they also leave us with the false impression that dystopias are pure, overwhelming paradigms—that we will be happily living in the Eden of the one state’s ignorance system until one day we bite the apple and fall.
Just as they offer a strangely pure vision of resistance, I’ve come to think they also offer an unhelpfully pure idea of what it means to survive (or more often, not to). Reading Farenheit 451 we can imagine ourselves as Guy Montag, a renegade living in the wild, passing on his versions of burned books. He was an effective soldier of the prevailing powers who, like the Christian Bible’s Paul, denies the rulers he once fought for and learns to preach for a different God.
You might remember from high school English class that Guy survives in Farenheit 451, and his survival is set up for the reader as a cypher for the survival of literate culture. Same thing with Jonas in The Giver, who bears himself and a new generation out of the sheltered lie of climate-controlled perfection into the pure experience of snow. On the other hand, Bernard, Winston, and D-503 in Brave New World, 1984 and We all wither or die, but their suicide, catatonia, and death are all martyrdoms. They die to sustain some incorruptible alternative to the state’s vision of life. The state in these books is timeless, space-less, all encompassing. If you can’t live with it, you can’t live.
As Cutcha Risling Baldy articulates so beautifully in her post on Native American genocide and The Walking Dead, real dystopias are messier than this. For one thing, they have survivors, and those survivors don’t get off as easy as Guy or Winston.
It’s because of this truth that Earthseed is more useful than other great dystopian novels specifically for us—people living in this precarious moment of early 2017. I think this is particularly true because Butler’s novels share with The Handmaid’s Tale a protagonist who lives through the period of change. Characters in Earthseed have memory and history. Some of them grew up black in late twentieth-century America, and understand both what is new, and what is fundamentally the same about the oppression they experience under Jarret.
And maybe most of all, Butler’s expansive, empathetic vision captures what is truly at stake as we pitch on the edge of one apocalypse: real life, real lives. Because in the world of Earthseed there is no matrix, no big brother, the villains aren’t all powerful, hell they aren’t even coherent. It’s not victims versus perpetrators in this book, because Butler and her character Lauren understand that everyone in this novel—from drug-crazed gangs of arsonists, to pimps, slavers, religious leaders, acolytes, doctors and spoiled rich kids, would all be much better off living in a just and generous world. Lauren’s empathy extends to all of them, even as she must hurt them, and so hurt herself, to live.
Two out of three of Earthseed the religion’s central tenets are “God is change“ and “God exists to be shaped.” What lives through dystopia isn’t “our hero” then, but a different shape. She’s altered by suffering and by victory. She’s not just a figure, like Guy, for the hope of a resurgent world of benevolent culture. She’s the figure for the world that does emerge, the complicated agency a person needs to come out on the other side of history through times of injustice, precarity, and annihilation.
So I’m here to help you with that too many dystopias problem you’ve got: you should definitely read Octavia E. Butler’s Earthseed series first—and not just because I’ve now systematically ruined the endings of all the others. True, my help comes in the form of adding more to your already unwieldy load, but hey, this is a dystopia we’re living in—paradoxes abound. In any case you’ll thank me, or at least you’ll stare grimly at the wall of your small apartment. Same difference really, these days.