Science 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.
What’s your vision of the future? I think we find it nearly impossible to believe life as we know it will continue past our own deaths, so our pictures tend to be catastrophic and depressing. Think of 1984, Brave New World, The Road.
This certainly is true with the current spate of dystopian novels targeted to young adults. Over the past year or so I’ve read four, beginning with The Hunger Games trilogy, continuing with Article 5, Legend: Day and June, and Divergent.
Some interesting points appeared as I reviewed the quartet:
• They all were written by women. When I began reading scifi years ago, few of these novels had female authors, and it was not uncommon for a woman writer to use a male or androgynous pen name.
• They all feature very strong female protagonists. To a greater or lesser degree, they don’t depend on men to get them out of trouble.
• The works all envision a future so wretched I’d certainly entertain the idea of suicide to escape.
• Violence is common, and the women indulge nearly as frequently as the men.
• The heroine has a male companion who verges on being a strong love interest. These are YA books, so the couples don’t have sex.
• There is hope at the end of the book (or the series) that the current order will be overthrown, and freedom, equality, and peace will prevail.
Unfortunately, the sub-genre is becoming formulaic, so I hope writers will start throwing in some surprises. . .NOT including zombies or vampires!
Why do these books appeal to teens, and to adults who don’t rule out the protagonists in their books by their ages? Yes, the tomes are escapist and entertaining, but I think there’s a little more at work. Consider this:
• Humans want perfection or as close as we can get in our everyday lives, but we also long for challenges. These plots provide thought-provoking trials
• We need contact and love, but we also seem to lust after violence and hate. As long as we’re not in danger. Stand-ins for brutality, cruelty, and sadism thrive in the narratives.
• It’s kind of nice to think the world will go to hell after we leave it. Like a mother saying, “I told you so” to the child who burns himself with a match.
• Through these books, we can explore the paths our society might be on, as well as eternal questions of good and evil, justice and injustice, individuals and groups, albeit in greatly simplified approaches.
I think I’m close to my limit on this type of novel, primarily because their visions are restrictive and repetitive. But I have something up my sleeve. My own dystopian novel entitled Emancipation. Whether it ever sees the light of day will depend on my reaching an Utopia, in which publishers are beating down my door to release my work.