“There’s Nothing New / Under The Sun, / But There Are New Suns”: Recovering Octavia E. Butler’s Lost Parables

“There’s Nothing New / Under The Sun, / But There Are New Suns”: Recovering Octavia E. Butler’s Lost Parables by Gerry Canavan

June 9th, 2014 reset - +

 THE BAD NEWS is waiting for us on the first page of the first chapter of Octavia E. Butler’s 1998 science fiction novel Parable of the Talents. “I have read,” writes one of the book’s four narrators, “that the period of upheaval that journalists have begun to refer to as ‘the Apocalypse’ or more commonly, more bitterly, ‘the Pox’ lasted from 2015 through 2030 — a decade and a half of chaos.” And before you buckle in to at least enjoy what’s left of 2014, take note: “This is untrue. The Pox has been a much longer torment. It began well before 2015, perhaps even before the turn of the millennium. It has not ended.” For those who would call the Pox bad luck —“accidentally coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crisis” — our historian has even more bad news: “It would be more honest to say that the Pox was caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems in those areas. We caused the problems: then we sat and watched as they grew into crises.” 

The good news — such as it is — was waiting for us on page one of 1993’s Parable of the Sower, and presented in the short poems that populate the two published Parables books: Earthseed. Earthseed is a new religion founded by a young black woman, Lauren Olamina, who is living in the failing California of the 2020s. The religion is organized around a central proposition: the inevitability of change, and the consequent need to be adaptable and flexible in response to change.

God is Power—




And yet, God is Pliable—





God exists to be shaped.

God is Change.

The Parables series — Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents — was Butler’s least fantastic series of novels, her attempt to write in the mode critics sometimes call “mundane SF” to denote those science fiction stories that remain in accordance with the laws of physics as we understand them. Gone are the superpowered telepaths that populate her Patternist series; gone is the time travel from Kindred and the aliens from the Xenogenesis trilogy. The sole science fictional conceit in the Parables books is the presence of a psychosomatic malady called “hyperempathy” that is caused by contact with a toxic prescription drug in the womb, which causes its sufferers to falsely experience the sight of another’s pain as their own. The rest is prophecy, not fantasy — Butler’s earnest attempt to imagine the failing world of the twenty-first century, as we are all about to experience it, from that long-ago position of the happy 1990s. “Sometime ago I read some place that Robert A. Heinlein had these three categories of science-fiction stories: the what-if category; the if-only category; and the if-this-goes-on category,” Butler told an audience at MIT in 1998. “And I liked the idea. So this is definitely an if-this-goes-on story. And if it's true, if it’s anywhere near true, we’re all in trouble.”

In personal journals Butler admits Olamina is an idealized self, her “best self” — and the poetry that drives the Earthseed religion actually mirrors the style of the daily affirmations, self-help sloganeering, and even self-hypnosis techniques Butler used to keep herself focused and on-task. (The Huntington Library contains countless examples of this seemingly daily ritual of writing down things she wants to come true, some dating back as far as Butler’s teens.) The ultimate expression of “shaping God,” the culmination of human historical achievement Olamina calls “the Destiny,” likewise seems to parallel Butler’s deep-rooted psychological investment in science fictional speculation, which dates back to her childhood: “The destiny of Earthseed,” Olamina prophesies, “is to take root among the stars.”

The two published Earthseed books trace the tribulations of Olamina’s early life and her efforts to find some safe space for her nascent utopian community in the desperate and increasingly fascistic America of the coming decades. But the last chapter of Talents skips ahead to the end of the story: jumping forward six decades, the epilogue sees a very aged Olamina, now world-famous, witnessing the launch of the first Earthseed ship carrying interstellar colonists off the planet as she’d dreamed. Only the name of the spaceship gives us pause: against Olamina’s wishes the ship has been named the Christopher Columbus, suggesting that perhaps the Earthseeders aren’t escaping the nightmare of history at all, but bringing it with them instead.

And there Butler left it. The long-promised third book, Parable of the Trickster, never arrived.

Last December I had the improbable privilege to be the very first scholar to open the boxes at the Huntington that contain what Butler had written of Trickster before her death.What I found were dozens upon dozens of false starts for the novel, some petering out after twenty or thirty pages, others after just two or three; this cycle of narrative failure is recorded over hundreds of pages of discarded drafts. Frustrated by writer’s block, frustrated by blood pressure medication that she felt inhibited her creativity and vitality, and frustrated by the sense that she had no story for Trickster, only a “situation,” Butler started and stopped the novel over and over again from 1989 until her death, never getting far from the beginning.

Nearly all of the texts focus on a character named Imara — who has been named the Guardian of Lauren Olamina’s ashes, who is often said to be her distant relative, and who is plainly imagined as the St. Paul to Olamina’s Christ (her story sometimes begins as a journalist who has gone undercover with the Earthseed “cult” to expose Olamina as a fraud, and winds up getting roped in). Imara awakens from cryonic suspension on an alien world where she and most of her fellow Earthseed colonists are saddened to discover they wish they’d never left Earth in the first place. The world — called “Bow” — is gray and dank, and utterly miserable; it takes its name from the only splash of color the planet has to offer, its rare, naturally occurring rainbows. They have no way to return to Earth, or to even to contact it; all they have is what little they’ve brought with them, which for most (but not all) of them is a strong belief in the wisdom of the teachings of Earthseed. Some are terrified; many are bored; nearly all are deeply unhappy. Her personal notes frame this in biological terms. From her notes to herself: “Think of our homesickness as a phantom-limb pain — a somehow neurologically incomplete amputation. Think of problems with the new world as graft-versus-host disease — a mutual attempt at rejection.”

From here the possible plots begin to multiply beyond all reason. In some of the texts, the colonists are in total denial about the fact that they are all slowly going blind; in others the blindness is sudden, striking randomly and irreversibly; in others they all begin to go insane, or suffer seizures, or mad rages, or fall into long comas; in still others they begin to hurt and kill each other for no other reason than the basic inevitable frailty of human nature (the same, alas, on any world). In one of the versions of the novel the colonists develop a telepathic capacity that soon turns nightmarish when they are unable to resist it or shut it off; in one twist on this idea it’s only the women who are so empowered, with the men organizing a secret conspiracy to figure out how they might regain control.

There’s a version where the blindness and the telepathy are linked; Imara becomes able to see out of others’ eyes as she loses the ability to see out of her own. In some Imara finds she needs to solve a murder, the first murder on the new world; in still others Imara herself is murdered, but discovers that on this strange alien world she is somehow able to haunt another colonists’ body as a ghost, replicating Doro’s power from the Patternist books and thereby linking even the Parables to the speculative universe she first developed as a teenager. Sometimes Imara is an Earthseed skeptic; other times she is a true believer; sometimes she is, like Olamina, a hyperempath; still other times the cure for “sharing” has been discovered in the form of an easy, noninvasive pill. Sometimes Bow is inhabited by small animals, other times by dinosaur-like giant sauropods, and still other times by just moss and lichens; sometimes the colonists seem to encounter intelligent aliens who might be real, but might just be tokens of their escalating collective madness; and on and on and on.

One version of the blindness narrative is abandoned with no small grumbling after José Saramago wins the Nobel Prize for Blindness in 1998; another is put aside after she determines it’s just too similar to Kim Stanley Robinson’s famous Red Mars; still another is abandoned shortly after Butler frustratedly, self-loathingly declares Imara to have “a personality more like mine” against Olamina’s “super me — the me I wish I was.” Sometimes Earthseed seems more like a self-help philosophy; sometimes it becomes a genuinely mystical, transcendent religion; sometimes we see it begin to shift from the first toward the second; sometimes it suffers schisms, heresies, and purges. Sometimes Imara is a former cop; sometimes she is a trained psychologist; sometimes she’s a doctor; sometimes she’s that undercover journalist; still other times she was the victim of a horrific series of rapes as a child, saved by one of Olamina’s orphanages when no other entity or institution would bother. When Butler begins writing the book, Newt Gingrich is named as the model for the central antagonist; in the versions from the 2000s, it’s George W. Bush; sometimes in between it’s other science fiction writers with whom Butler didn’t especially get along.

As Butler describes her long-term plan in an interview: “I’m not interested in confronting them with natives. I’ve done that elsewhere. What I’m going to confront them with is just a nasty world. It’s not violent, just nasty and dull and awful, and what they’re going to have to deal with is themselves. There’s no going home. Nobody will follow within their lifetimes. …. The real problem is dealing with themselves, surviving their promised land.”

What Butler had ultimately hoped to do was write four Parables sequels: Parable of the Trickster, Parable of the Teacher, Parable of Chaos, and Parable of Clay. The titles suggest a shift from a Christian idiom (Sower, Talents, and Trickster all reference Biblical parables) to an Earthseed one (Teacher, Chaos, and Clay seem likely to be parables drawn from Olamina’s life, not Christ’s). In some of her imaginings it seems as though each of these stories might have taken place on four different Earthseed colonies, showing the diversity of thought Earthseed makes possible — but more commonly she imagines them taking place across the generations on the single world of Bow, as each generation confronts its own new crisis and Earthseed evolves to meet the needs of extrasolar humanity in each new historical moment. When the hallucinations are dealt with — not defeated or cured, she was clear, but adapted to — her notes indicate the colony would have struggled with dictatorship, and then with catastrophic ecological scarcity, and finally with the strangeness of children who were genuinely novel, genuinely new, genuinely post-Earth if not quite posthuman: the children of Bow, for whom the “screaming colors” of Earth might have seemed the real horror.

So of course we discover that achieving Earthseed’s Destiny, despite Lauren Olamina’s dreams, hasn’t solved the problem of the human at all, only extended our confrontation with the very difficult problems that drove its development in the first place — only removed them to some other world where they can take some other form. The Destiny was essentially a hyperbolic delaying tactic, a strategy of avoidance; even achieved, it’s worthless in its own terms. The fundamental problem is still how to make a better world with such bad building blocks as human beings.

As her published novels demonstrate, Octavia Butler was no utopian; in fact she rejected utopian thinking in the strongest possible terms. She believed human beings were biological organisms with sharp instincts for self-preservation that had been honed by evolution over innumerable millennia; she believed evolution had made us clever but mean, creative but selfish and short-sighted. In the Xenogenesis books the aliens who visit the planet determine we are fundamentally broken as a species, brilliant enough to invent nuclear bombs and hierarchal enough, crazy enough, stupid enough to actually use them. In the first Parable book, the young Olamina seems like an exception to this unhappy general diagnosis, even perhaps something like a saint—but her daughter is the main narrator of Talents, and her daughter finds her to be selfish, destructive, and extremely dangerous, a zealot willing to sacrifice anything and anyone for the Destiny. In the archives we actually see this revisionist attitude borne out from an objective, third-person perspective; lost stories and cut scenes set during Olamina’s missing decades reveal her as a steely and callous power-broker when she needs to be, even ordering a local politician’s assassination for daring to defy her. (One version even has Olamina slave-collaring people who try to leave her Earthseed villages: “Boy,” she said, “the dogs eat what’s left of people who try to break into our Communities. We burn what’s left of people who try to break out.”) For anyone who has read the published versions of the novels, this is absolutely startling; Butler’s personal reflections on Olamina reveal her as a much, much darker character than the one we get to know in the books, a character Butler never really trusted and only grew to like despite herself over time. Readers of the Parables books typically call the character “Lauren,” with a soft fondness—but in Butler’s personal notes she is always “Olamina.”

What the all-important dream of the Destiny offered Olamina, offered Butler — offers us — was a chance not to abolish human nature but to perhaps temporarily suspend it; the extrasolar colonies are the chance to start over in circumstances whose radical hardship would offer a chance to build new practices of solidarity and collective life rather than indulge the selfish impulses the bad habits of capitalism and the bad instructions in our DNA have ingrained in us. “If we survive,” Butler once told Larry McAfferty, “we have a whole solar system to grow up in. And we can use the stresses of learning to travel in space and live elsewhere—stresses that will harness our energies until we’ve had time to mature.” In her own notes for Trickster, she echoes this sense of constrained hope, which is to say a hope that is made possible by constraints, our boundless human creativity channeled by necessity into productive and useful ends because otherwise we’ll all die. “We can’t afford to go someplace else and make the mistakes we make here, here in the nest,” she writes. “We can’t afford to assume that another living world with its own biota and its own eons of existence will be able to tolerate our nonsense… taking, and putting back nothing — or putting back poisonous waste.”

Her cynicism led to Butler to think humans as a species won’t behave more decently towards each other and towards our environment unless and until we have literally no other choice — and maybe not even then. But her optimism led her to believe that when push finally comes to shove we are actually capable of it, and might actually do it. Getting off the planet, achieving the Destiny, was to be the start of the hard work, not the end of it — the unfinished Parables sequels would have been Butler’s chance to imagine that we might find some way to be better human beings out there than our bad history has ever allowed us to be here.

The epigram she chose for Trickster captures this tension between optimism and pessimism, and the possibility of actually breaking through this psychic impasse into something new, quite wonderfully:

There’s nothing new

under the sun,

but there are new suns.

Bow was a place where history wasn’t the unhappy curse we were condemned to, a place where the tug-of-war between collective survival and collective insanity might play itself out in another way. On Bow, they can choose: either live together, work together, struggle together, and pray together, or else hoard food alone, scheme alone, lose their minds alone, breakdown and die and murder each other alone. And the tragedy is she was never able, in her short life, to think through the hopeful part. Not “if this goes on,” but “if only”: if only she’d been able to complete that vision of better humanity — not perfect, not even perfectible, just better. If only she’d been able to finish the book.


Gerry Canavan teaches twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature and culture at Marquette University.