Laura Lam says we should lis­ten to this dystopian warn­ing

SFX - - Cook Club - By Oc­tavia E But­ler, 1993

Since the Amer­i­can elec­tion, dystopias such as 1984 by Ge­orge Or­well, The Hand­maid’s Tale by Mar­garet At­wood, and It Can’t Hap­pen Here by Sin­clair Lewis have stormed up the best­seller charts. The Hand­maid’s Tale has taken Hulu by storm (and it’s just started on Chan­nel 4 in the UK!). All of these works are im­por­tant. Yet the dystopia that strikes me as the most pos­si­ble, the one we’re on the cusp of, is Parable Of The Sower by Oc­tavia E But­ler. Yet this one is not be­ing dis­cussed as much. Why? Be­cause racism is alive and well. We’re, in­ten­tion­ally or not, hold­ing up books writ­ten by white peo­ple as the scari­est fu­tures, when the one writ­ten by But­ler is one of the most chill­ing. She saw this com­ing and we’re not lis­ten­ing to her.

The book starts in 2024, skip­ping over sev­eral years. It’s told in epis­to­lary for­mat by Lau­ren Olam­ina. The bulk of the book takes place in 2027: ten years from now. Lau­ren grows up in a walled com­mu­nity out­side of Los An­ge­les. They still strug­gle, but they have enough to get by and a frag­ile sense of peace while the world out­side con­tin­ues to fall apart. Wa­ter is more ex­pen­sive than food, with many com­mu­ni­ties not hav­ing run­ning wa­ter (Flint, Michi­gan, any­one?). You can call the po­lice or the fire ser­vice, but they’ll charge you for it, and cer­tain cities are be­ing pri­va­tised and run by cor­po­ra­tions, pay­ing so lit­tle money that peo­ple will be in debt to the com­pany. Global warm­ing has raised the tem­per­a­tures, dogs run wild, ev­ery­one has a gun. New drugs have dan­ger­ous side ef­fects, from hy­per­em­pa­thy, where the per­son feels any pain an­other has, to py­ro­ma­nia. In a world barely hold­ing it­self to­gether, a new Pres­i­dent is elected and he erad­i­cates work­ers’ rights.

Olam­ina knows that change is com­ing. She sees what the oth­ers don’t want to: that their safety is pre­car­i­ous and lim­ited. She’s the daugh­ter of the preacher but has her own ideas about re­li­gion, writ­ing down verses of her own faith, Earth­seed. She hides this writ­ing from her fam­ily, fear­ing re­jec­tion of her views of life and the world. When she tries to warn the neigh­bour­hood, she is waved aside. And, Cas­san­dra-like, her prophecy comes true. Al­though she has stud­ied and pre­pared as much as she can, Lau­ren is ill-pre­pared for the true harsh­ness of the world out­side. Part­nered with a few peo­ple from her old life, she tries to make it to Canada, where things are said to be bet­ter. She sees the dark­est, most vi­cious side of hu­man­ity. Through it all, her un­shake­able be­lief of what must be done to save the fu­ture con­tin­ues to grow. Earth­seed must take root.

The book is gor­geously and grue­somely writ­ten. It is hard-hit­ting and un­flinch­ing. In The Por­tal­ist, black writer Adri­enne Brown deftly ob­served that, “Oc­tavia un­der­stood that these are the con­di­tions that emerge when we are trapped in the imag­i­na­tion of racists, fun­da­men­tal­ists, and smart peo­ple ad­dicted to hi­er­ar­chy.” We look into the void with Lau­ren Olam­ina and we are just as ter­ri­fied.

In an in­ter­view with Joshunda San­ders in 2004, But­ler states, “I was try­ing not to proph­e­sise. Mat­ter of fact, I was try­ing to give warn­ing. One of the kinds of re­search I did was to read a lot of stuff about World War II. Not the war it­self, but I wanted to know in par­tic­u­lar how a coun­try goes fas­cist.” She also said that some ideas in Parable kept her up at night. It’s a fu­ture writ­ten 24 years ago that hope­fully won’t come to pass.

Laura Lam’s lat­est novel, Shat­tered Minds, is out now.

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