Perambulating the Bounds

Friday, August 19, 2005

Octavia Butler

In his comments on a post here about Alexis Rockman, Greg Pond brought up Philip K. Dick as an example that argues against seeing science fiction as limited or lesser than “non-generic” art. This made me think of other sci fi writers you would cite in a similar way, like Frank Herbert, and Octavia Butler.

Butler is a black woman, I think based in LA, and a MacArthur grant winner. I’ve read two related books, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, set in a near future where the older characters were born in contemporary times. It’s a dystopic future where global warming has disrupted agriculture and economies, with Dickensian poverty, scarce oil, rampant violence, new drug scourges, the US politically disintegrating, and an ascendant and virulent Christianist movement taking over – a breed of totalitarianism taking advantage of social disorder.

I often think about these books when contemplating the trajectory and spirit of current political and social trends: the government getting out of providing services, people left to fend for themselves, a Christian movement dedicated to the domination of political structures, and of course every new scare about global warming.

I think there are problems with her vision, in particular she depicts a world in which the police and military are largely absent, where it really seems that the government is pushing to extend the reach of the state control of violence and trying to create a social order with a minimum of ripples on the surface.

I find myself tempted to introduce Butler’s description of the future into conversations, say with my wife, about how things are going, but find myself getting into trouble with it. It ends up sounding extreme and not very well connected to reality. Which raises the question of the extent to which you take sci fi scenarios you find compelling – in my cases, from Octavia Butler – as descriptions of a likely future, a kind of perversely alluring fantasy, or some sort of commentary of the spirit of the present. It is tempting to go with the first, most literal option. “Don’t you see, this is exactly what she’s saying in her books.” But I’m not sure Octavia Butler would want it that way. It’s a crude reading, excessively literal. Then again, the topicality of the narrative is hard to leave behind. Does it blind us or overwhelm whatever else might be going on?

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