Dystopian novels and movies have been popular for years. We read or watch with morbid fascination how people survive after the worst has happened. Sometimes that ‘worst’ is a single well-defined event: a climate catastrophe, a nuclear holocaust, an alien invasion.
But sometimes the event that changes life as we know it is the slow build-up of something we consider ordinary, which at some point reaches extraordinary levels. Speculative fiction often shows us what rises from the debris of a government that has crumpled under the weight of its own bloat and corruption, or what takes the place of a society that has destroyed itself through scapegoating, violence, and inequity. But fewer stories focus on the long, slow breakdown of society as the catalyst for change.
A notable exception to this is Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower. First published in 1993, the events of this book take place between 2024 and 2027.
The setting is California, and it’s pretty bleak. The protagonist, a teenager named Lauren Olamina, lives in a gated community with her father, stepmother, and three half-brothers. The gates and concrete walls of their neighborhood protect their community from the violent drug addicts and thieves who roam the streets outside, unchecked by police who collect fees for investigations but never discover anything that can help bring justice to the victims. Years of climate neglect, economic disparity, political corruption, and corporate greed have allowed the country to devolve into anarchy. Water is scarce. Food prices are exorbitant. Most people live a kill-or-be-killed existence, stealing or scrounging for what little they have.
The residents of Lauren’s neighborhood function as an independent tribe, protecting each other and helping each other to survive. They grow much of their own food and run their own school. But young people like Lauren have no hope for a better future for themselves. Early in the book Lauren’s friend Joanne says, “I won’t be able to afford college. I won’t be able to get a job or move out of my parents’ house because no job I could get would support me and there are no safe places to move. Hell, my parents are still living with their parents.” And Laurens replies, “I know. And as bad as that is, there’s more.” Lauren can see how things are going to get worse.
But Joanne doesn’t want to hear it, and neither does most of her community. In fact, they get defensive and even a little combative when she tries to convince them of the dangers.
“Jo, we’re in for trouble. You’ve already admitted that.”
“Sure,” she said. “More shootings, more break-ins. That’s what I meant.”
“And that’s what will happen for a while. I wish I could guess how long. We’ll be hit and hit and hit, then the big hit will come. And if we’re not ready for it, it will be like Jericho.”
She held herself rigid, rejecting. “You don’t know that! You can’t read the future. No one can.”Parable of the Sower, p. 55
A few sentences later they’re talking about the recent presidential election, and Joanne wonders if her mother is right and the newly elected President Donner will do some good and get them back to normal. Lauren doesn’t believe he can, calling him a “human banister.”
“I mean he’s like…like a symbol of the past for us to hold on to as we’re pushed into the future. He’s nothing. No substance. But having him there, the latest in a two-and-a-half-century-long line of American Presidents make people feel that the country, the culture they grew up with is still here–that we’ll get through these bad times and get back to normal.”Parable of the Sower, p. 56
“Getting back to normal” is what most of the adults in Lauren’s community want. They acknowledge things are rough now, but, like Joanne, they refuse to believe things are really that bad, that this reality is their normal. The situation can be fixed, somehow, and it will be. By someone. Someday. Somehow.
Lauren doesn’t believe things will “get back to normal,” nor even that such a “normal” ever existed in the first place, or is worth getting back to. She’s preparing to survive the “big hit,” so she can participate in the rebuilding that will come “after.”
Most of the people in Lauren’s community don’t recognize that they’re in the middle of an apocalypse.
I realize that’s a loaded word, but bear with me here. In an interview with Salon last month, author Mark O’Connell (author of the book Notes From an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back) states, “The apocalypse is never the end of the world. It is an idea that people reach for and use as a way to make sense of incomprehensible and challenging times. The apocalypse is a way to imagine uncertainty and chaos and sudden change. Those are the times when the idea of the apocalypse rears its head, and I think this moment with the pandemic is definitely one of those moments.” Dictionary.com defines “apocalypse” both as “any universal or widespread destruction or disaster” and “any revelation or prophecy.” When you go back to the original Greek meaning of the word apokalupsis you’ll find that it refers to making something fully known.
So what is being made known right now?
I see the polite veneer that denies racism is a current systemic reality being stripped away.
I see the violent excesses of inadequate accountability in policing being exposed.
I see the failure of a government that has abdicated its responsibility for governing to the corporate interests that fund campaigns.
I see the devastation of a health care system that cares nothing for the health of individuals or communities.
I see the crushing poverty and instability that comes from chipping away rights and protections for workers.
I see the inequality of an educational system that is based on income and privilege.
I see the increasing polarization and resulting degradation of civil society that comes from putting a higher value on ideology than on human life.
We’re only four years away from the time period when this book begins. And I don’t see this story as an imagined dystopian future; I see the logical conclusion of our current political and economic environments. But like Lauren’s community, so many of us don’t recognize just how bad things have gotten, or how much worse things can get.
And that’s what I find so prescient about this novel.
Things aren’t as bad for us as they are for the characters in this book, but I can see a direct line from where we are now to the situation in Parable of the Sower. Especially as we navigate our way through a global pandemic that has already killed over 120,000 people in the United States alone, and more than 465,000 people worldwide. Especially as we stand on the precipice of the greatest economic catastrophe since the Great Depression.
Things aren’t going to go back to normal. Societies that don’t change die. Again to quote Mark O’Connell: “[T]hings are going to change in society because of this, and…those changes might be beneficial for a large number of people. The truths that are revealed by a global catastrophe cannot be easily ignored. The catastrophe shines a light on how societies are fundamentally structured. There will be those people who want to create positive change and there will be bad actors who are using the pandemic to advance a less hopeful and more negative vision of the future and society.”
Futuristic speculative fiction shows us there is an “after.” Sometimes it’s an improvement over what was. Sometimes it’s a lot worse. The actions of those who recognize the apocalypse, live through it, and start to rebuild in its immediate aftermath determine what type of future that society will have.
Do you recognize this present age as an apocalypse? If so, then write your future and your children’s future now. If not, then be prepared to accept the future that others will write for you.
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