When Science Fiction Becomes Fact, the Dangers Aren’t Zombies, Aliens, Robots, Weapons of Mass Destruction, or Comets

Octavia ButlerScience fiction is a genre chock-full of stereotypes. Doesn’t take much imagination to throw in an alien monster or launch a barrage of special effects through images or words about explosions, fires, and destruction.

Then there are the few thoughtful works that hold a mirror up to us and show us the real horror we are or could become. Such is the case with Parable of the Talents, the second book in Octavia Butler’s duet of the near-future. The time is about 2035, the society is ours, gone slowly and terribly astray, like TS Elliott’s vision in The Hollow Men. “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.”

Published in 1996, the book comes sooooo close to many happenings today. Slaughters in Africa and the Middle East; hidden concentration camps of low-income workers and their families tacitly approved by governments; discrimination against the poor like we have in our country; pronouncements by rich or powerful individuals blaming the powerless for their own situations; disappearances of people that challenge the system; arming of the citizenry; ambitious individuals who bend the truth, even lie, as they set up tar-babies as objects for hatred, using politics or religion as the excuse; brutality against women and helpless. While all these evils don’t occur in any one location, they are present in the world today.

Protagonist Lauren Olamina has moved, escaped, from LA with her doctor-lover, to establish a tiny community in northern California. There they struggle to raise crops, build homes and businesses, and occasionally fight bad guys and rescue a few from the huddled masses. But they can’t escape the evil of authoritarian—or greedy?—do-gooders who want to wipe them out. Lauren’s husband, friends, and neighbors are killed, her infant daughter snatched from her.

Fortunately, steeped as the novel is in religious ideas of one sort or another, one holds some promise. Lauren’s vision of spirituality is a philosophy called Earthseed. It preaches acceptance, tolerance, and community purpose. Despite a vision of the future so close we could turn the corner and be living it, optimism is possible.

Butler, an African-American woman who won numerous awards, including a MacArthur “genius” grant, was unusual in the scifi field. Unfortunately she died in 2006. Although she’d planned additions to the series, none were published, as far as I can tell. I keep thinking, wondering, what she would have thought about Obama’s election, about the mouthings of politicians who think (or at least claim) they have all the answers, the attacks of some against public education and tolerance. Equally, what would she have thought about wave after wave of extremist, violent terrorism launched in the name of God, regardless of the affiliation or country of origin of proponents.

I’m sure she would have laughed about the popularity of zombies, vampires, robots, and other easy-to-sketch villains. She knew that the real horrors of the future lie within humans themselves, and she warned us as best she could while she encouraged us to think about the consequences of our actions. . .and inactions.

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