This was a compulsive page-turner for me.
Compared with at least one contemporary USian perspective, say, that of the low waged service worker, Lauren lives in one version of utopia: a close-knit community, like a village, shaped by an ethics of care and mutual support. She does not have to work, except to share the unalienated labour of social reproduction (childcare, food preparation, education of the young) which leaves her time to pursue her own preoccupations*. The person in her family who provides money only has to go out to work for it one day per week, leaving him plenty of time to spend at home participating in social reproduction and leisure. Food production is local; families grow and share vegetables, fruits, and nuts. There is no light pollution, so the stars are brightly visible, inspiring Lauren’s dreams.
The early exchange between Lauren (who’s Black) as a young child and her (Euro-Latina) stepmom Cory, in which Cory says she would like the city lights back while Lauren says she prefers the stars for me represents a ‘choice’ (the choice is for authors and readers, but of course this reverberates…) between an increasingly struggling and desperate ‘developed’ civilisation and its collapse: a collapse that gives the biosphere time to recover from our ravages and the stars a clean dark background against which to be seen. By the privileged few who remain.
Butler of course, confronts us absolutely unsparingly with the victims of such a (horrifically realistic) collapse, not as faceless numbers of convenient dead, but angry, naked, filthy, wounded, diseased, maddened, threatening living, screaming, tormented, starved dying, rotting, dismembered, wormy, stinking, half-eaten corpses. And just in case you thought you could ignore all this, Butler afflicts her narrator with ‘hyperempathy syndrome’ which causes her to feel all the pain she sees other humans and even some animals feeling. At one point, Lauren reflects that there might be some benefit in others experiencing this illness: ‘a biological conscience is better than none’ but in a context so bristling with merciless violence it leaves her appallingly, terrifyingly vulnerable. It is pointed out that this would be a very ‘useful’ quality in a slave.
This quality of utopia reminded me of Le Guin’s fable The Ones who Walk Away from Omelas. This could be thought of as an inside-out version, and thus one cannot walk away, because one is surrounded by the mirror of horror. This also speaks to the situation we live in of the carceral state. Prisons exist in The Parable of the Sower but what can they be like? The police are completely ineffectual and corrupt, but if they weren’t, who would be left outside the jails? And to what extent can the residents of walled neighbourhoods terrified to go outside be considered free? Butler invites us to speculate on realistic possibilities of (re)enslavement as wages fall, climate stability falters and corporate power sheds ever more fetters.
Lauren’s ‘discovery’ (as she feels it) and articulation of the religion she founds was extremely thought provoking for me as I tried to feel my way into it – this aspect of the book functioned as a kind of backdoor world-building that allowed deeper insight than other modes of description, supplementing Lauren’s austere narration (which gave the book a young adult feel) but also something fresh and exciting in itself. The element of possibility modelling was thrilling: sure, a black teenage girl can found an empowering, non-hierarchical religion in terrifying conditions of social collapse. Why not?
Well why not? Butler quietly indicates a few obstacles. As soon as Lauren begins to talk about her own carefully worked out, deeply felt ideas, a white guy demands some documentation. Race is a low key issue in Lauren’s peaceful birth community and in the one she creates, but Butler makes clear that outside white supremacy is more or less as lumpily operative as it is today, and shows that corporate power and state corruption and disintegration exacerbate it. Also, many young women and girls have predictably become chattel, without any discernible ideological shift towards more regressive gender frameworks in evidence. Butler has, it seems to me, taken a realistic image of USian culture, shifted a few contextual (broadly ecological) parameters and hit ‘run simulation’. I’m an outsider saying this, but I hear the word from over the pond, and the UK isn’t so different.
Among future dystopia type novels, this puts others in the shade for me on a lot of levels. Instead of focussing on the extension of state power, Butler envisions a scenario of extreme privatisation, climate change and widespread desperate poverty. The state has apparently ceased to provide education, so most people cannot read. Most of the jobs available pay only ‘room and board’ or company scrip – Butler exposes this as debt slavery. Police (and other emergency services) are corrupt, useless, profit making, just licensed thieves, although some people are still inclined to trust them. So yeah, this feels a lot more prescient today than, say, Brave New World or even 1984. While state power is increasing on the level of surveillance and the erosion of civil liberties, state responsibility to provide anything whatsoever – health and social care, welfare, education, decent pay and conditions for workers and so on is being gradually dismantled, sold off to profiteers, swept away, CUT.
*Hito Styerl has written that work has become occupation. Thus, playing on words, a preoccupation could be what defends you from an occupation