My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I don’t typically read dystopian fiction. I like to read challenging speculative fiction, and I don’t shy away from darker portrayals of human nature, but I suppose I came to speculative fiction for escapism and escapism has always been a reason for my continued adoration of the genre. That said, my wife recently read this book and recommended it to me. And since a copy was near at hand, and since I had not yet read anything by Octavia Butler despite her celebrated status as a science fiction writer, I decided to give it a try.
This was a tough read for me, but I’m glad I read it. The book was very good. Its plot was simple enough: America is unraveling, and amidst its spiraling decay, a young woman is forced out of her childhood home to attempt to survive in a far more dangerous world. She manages to form a community out of other homeless wanderers, and all the while she carefully recruits her new friends into her newly crafted religion (Earthseed) and opens up about her inherited curse of hyperempathy (such that she experiences the pain and pleasure of others as if her own).
Even as the cast of characters grows larger and larger, they are each given unique characterizations and remain distinctive and, importantly, human. Most even manage to have character arcs, with growth in themselves and in their roles within this new community. This is an impressive feat. The language is quite beautiful as well, and naturalistic. The writing is framed as that of the protagonist’s journaling during her journey, in addition to excerpts of her Earthseed writings.
The religion is simple enough to grasp. God is not an actual deity but a personification of the Change that occurs in all things, the forming and dissolving of organizations and communities, the natural movement toward empathy in the universe. We are all shaped by Change but we can also shape the direction of Change. And the goal of Earthseed is to form similar-thinking communities to work together, even in the literal apocalypse of the book’s present, all with the hope of fulfilling a great Destiny. That Destiny is to spread humanity to the stars. Bizarrely, in my late teens and early twenties, I’d cobbled together my own deist, existentialist belief system that echoed Earthseed. I guess exposure to comparative religions and science fiction might lead one down certain thought pathways. I like this element of the book, giving hope and a greater purpose to everything that happened even in the face of potential destruction. As one of the more skeptical characters jokes later on, this religion is in many ways too simple, with not enough confusing, mystical mythology to go with it, but our protagonist (and the author) appear content to leave that complexity and myth-building to later generations.
Truly, this book was often disturbing to me because of how much it felt like a natural extension of the world we live in. It predates the appearance of smart phones and does not predict how such a technology could reshape the world as much as it has, but this book published in 1993 does manage to accurately predict climate change, resource depletion, growing separatist movements in states, an increasingly ineffective federal government, anti-labor political movements, an unserious and reactionary president, burgeoning drug epidemics, a new resurgence in toxic race relations, and more and more police brutality.
While I certainly would not limit the author’s perspective to her race, Octavia Butler used her life experiences as a black woman to simultaneously write honestly about race but also to project a future apocalyptic scenario that not only predicts the concerns I noted but manages to create an allegorical world that provides at least the tiniest window into the challenges unique to racial minorities. This was gripping and profound and, while I’m not sure what I expected when I started the book, I didn’t expect this. (Refreshingly, the new community the protagonist begins to form is quite diverse, and that diversity and multiculturalism is viewed as a strength even though early on we are told that mixed-race relationships can bring more strife from the outside world).
On top of all the above, this book manages to be maybe one of the greatest zombie apocalypse stories ever, before the big zombie boom in mainstream pop culture, and without actually having any zombies in it. There are crazy addicts who use drugs that give them an orgasmic high when watching fires burn and pillage their way through the land. Scavengers rob, rape, and kill the weak. And hordes of people on the highways may suddenly turn to animalistic savagery to overwhelm a weakened town in the wake of a natural disaster. Deeply disturbing, and most impressive.
This book ends in a way that is positive but something close to a cliffhanger. This does mean that it’s difficult to evaluate the novel as a standalone work. But I will say that it has its own narrative arc, its own purpose for existence, and it is the rare sort of work with an impending sequel that does not feel merely like a prologue to me, even while demanding its sequel as necessary to fully understand the tale.
This novel has already become a genre favorite for me, and when I am mentally ready for another dystopian book, I certainly intend to finish the duology.