By Pamela Bedore, Ph.D., University of Connecticut
An easy-to-imagine future in which California faces severe income disparity and water shortage while the U.S. populace rallies around an extremist presidential candidate who wants to return America to white Christian Americans with patriarchal family values. This is the premise of Octavia Butler’s Earthseed series, which contains science fiction elements and have obvious genre blends of utopia and dystopia.
There are two Earthseed books, The Parable of the Sower, which came out in 1993, and The Parable of the Talents, 1998. These are, perhaps, Butler’s most famous works. The series opens in a California of 2030, and it narrates The Pox, two decades of extreme decline in U.S. power due to poor resource management, corrupt politics, and an increasing inability or unwillingness for people to accept the multiplicity of identity politics in the 21st century.
This is a transcript from the video series Great Utopian and Dystopian Works of Literature. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The protagonist of Earthseed is a black Californian teenager named Lauren Olamina, who undergoes the typical trials of an apocalyptic protagonist, losing most of her friends and family, hitting the road for a long dangerous journey to locate a more utopian place that may or may not exist, and trying to figure out how to survive in a world gone mad.
Lauren will eventually become the Prophet Lauren Olamina, founder and leader of the new religion, Earthseed. When we first meet her, Lauren is a desperate teenaged girl in a desperate situation. Living in a gated community in Robledo, California with her beloved father and stepmom and her three younger brothers, 15-year-old Lauren can see the writing on the wall.
Life in the community has become increasingly difficult, with overcrowding, increasingly thin margins on food production through gardens and small livestock, and more and more frequent marauders breaking in at night. Outside the walls, life is even worse. Homeless families squat where they can, water costs more than food, hygiene and sanitation are deplorable, most jobs pay only in food and not in wages, and criminals—even petty thieves in a world where to eat may be to steal—wear electronic slave-collars and put to work, often sex work.
Learn more about Octavia Butler’s fiction.
An Apocalyptic Beginning
To make this situation worse, a new designer drug called Pyro has hit the streets. As its name suggests, this drug makes people set fires. And Lauren has hyperempathy syndrome, a delusional condition that is the result of the experimental smart drug, Paraceto, taken by her now-dead biological mother during pregnancy so she could do well in grad school. Lauren thinks she can share the pain or pleasure of others.
So, when she leaves the gated compound, always with a large armed group of others from her own community, she describes the horrific conditions of the people on the streets not only as she sees them but also from the perspective of feeling their pain.
And as soon as the reader is fully apprised of conditions within the gates, the wall is breached and Lauren’s community is set on fire, with only 15-year-old Lauren and a couple others getting out alive.
The Earthseed Idea
Lauren has long been writing verses of Earthseed, and she sees these in almost contradictory ways, for one, the verses are so true to her that she almost feels like she hasn’t invented them, but she has received them. At the same time, she shows us that she writes many, many revisions of each of the texts that she produces. She collates them in what she calls Earthseed: The Book of the Living.
An example verse goes:
Consider. Whether you’re a human being, an insect, a microbe, or a stone, this verse is true. All that you touch/You Change. All that you Change/Changes you. The only lasting truth/Is Change. God/Is Change.
That’s the key point of Earthseed, and in a way, it’s the key point of Butler’s work. Lauren’s adventures are riveting, as they include, across the two novels, a long and arduous trek north by the displaced and dispossessed poor of California, the foundation of a utopian planned community in which Lauren spreads the word of Earthseed, the destruction of that community by Christian fundamentalists, the kidnapping of Lauren’s daughter, the enslavement of many members of Earthseed, and much more.
Learn more about utopia and dystopia in Butler’s work.
Hope and Change
Through these perils and successes, Butler is continually exploring questions of power and of identity. How much do these people need to change to survive? However, in the Earthseed novels there are documents that provide a counter-narrative to what’s happening. The first novel, Parable of the Sower, is Lauren’s journal, so the very fact that we are reading this journal indicates that there is a future beyond the terrifying events in the novel.
Parable of the Talents has two narrators. Lauren’s daughter is commenting upon her mother’s life and writing, including long passages from Lauren’s journal. So, even as the reader gets drawn into Lauren’s terrifying adventures, we know that she will survive, that Earthseed will survive. It’s an interesting technique—telling a dystopian story in which the somewhat utopian future is always already known. It asks the reader to focus on the intellectual rather than the visceral, in a way.
In the end, Butler demonstrates again and again that utopia and dystopia are never quite opposites. Instead, they are always constitutive of each other. And the most productive way to imagine either one is through a focus on change. Earthseed proclaims “God is change”. Repeatedly, Butler’s novels show that the future is change. Survival is change. Perhaps, even, utopia is change.
Common Questions about Octavia Butler’s Earthseed Series: “God is Change”
The Earthseed series is set in a future in which California faces severe income disparity and water shortage while the U.S. populace rallies around an extremist presidential candidate who wants to return America to white Christian Americans with patriarchal family values.
The protagonist of the first Earthseed book, Parable of the Sower, is a black Californian teenager named Lauren Olamina, who undergoes the typical trials of an apocalyptic protagonist, losing most of her friends and family.
The second book of the Earthseed series, Parable of the Talents, has two narrators. Lauren’s daughter is commenting upon her mother’s life and writing, including long passages from Lauren’s journal.