It’s 2024. In the first twenty pages of Octavia Butler’s novel, we hear fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina explain the consequences of climate change and total economic breakdown in the United States. She and her family are living in a walled commune, so they are scraping by — they’ve never had to do without a meal, though those meals don’t look the way they used to in the old days. It hasn’t rained in a long time, but they’re growing their own food, and a neighbor breeds rabbits in his garage for meat. Most jobs don’t pay money any more; you pay with baked goods or cooking oil, whatever you have. But outside the walls? You go in a group, and you go armed. People are sick and poor and starving and violent. There are new drugs to be addicted to, some of which make you want to set fires. Water is far more expensive than gasoline, and no one really uses gasoline anymore anyway. The kids of their commune get trained with firearms. It would be irresponsible not to.
Most of the people around Lauren are thinking only about survival within the parameters of the commune. How do I protect my children? Where am I going to hide my money, my food, my soap, so that when thieves break in, they won’t find it? What will I plant that takes the least irrigation? But Lauren is thinking about bigger issues. She knows their relative safety can’t last: the people outside the commune are too hungry, too dangerous. She makes an emergency pack that she can grab at any time, and she trains herself to use it. And as it turns out, she’s right — her own survival training comes in tragically useful, and sooner than she thinks.
And she is thinking about God. Lauren’s father is a Baptist preacher, but Lauren doesn’t believe in that God any more. Her God is Change — the only constant in the universe. She wants to start a new religion she names Earthseed, one that says that human purpose on earth is to shape change to our own ends.
This book was absolutely fascinating. It was so well and vividly written that I was hooked from the first page. It was exactly the right balance between dystopian survival writing (a genre I love) and more philosophical concerns, like the religion piece, which I found absolutely fascinating. There are other threads, too, like the question of how you form community in a society where the more people you have (especially women and children), the more vulnerable your group is. How do you value compassion or kindness when that could kill you instantly? Lauren has a neurological condition, caused by drugs her mother took while she was carrying Lauren, called hyperempathy or “sharing.” She can feel someone else’s pain or pleasure, which makes fighting off an attacker nearly impossible. It’s made perfectly clear that this is a vulnerability she would rather not have. In another book, another time, it might give her work, or even power.
Another point I found interesting was the question of race. It’s not a main theme of the book, but it’s there, because people of different races are there, and racism hasn’t disappeared in 2024 (big surprise.) One of my favorite scenes was when the small group is discussing going north, to Canada, to see if they could find work that paid money. A young woman, Emery, who has escaped a kind of company-store slavery, says to a young white man, Harry, that he could be a driver. “Maybe I could,” he says, hopefully. “I don’t know how to drive those big trucks, but I could learn.” And she explains that she meant a driver of people. They like white men to have those jobs, to drive the people in factories to work harder and faster. Harry is aghast, that anyone could think he would do such a job. “Some of those men like it,” says Emery. Racism is a fact, like every other poisonous danger in this world — older than the new drugs, newer than hunger.
This was a wonderful book. It was chillingly plausible, tough and unsentimental, and deeply satisfying. If you haven’t read Octavia Butler, this would be a great place to start (or Kindred, if you’d like a stand-alone.) I can’t wait to read Parable of the Talents!