“CHANGE IS GOD,” Lauren Olamina tells us in the first pages of Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993). Olamina starts the Earthseed series young in years—just in her teens—but mature in her self-conception and understanding of the world around her. She lives with her parents and siblings in a small neighborhood enclave in Robledo, outside of Los Angeles. Her parents both teach, her father for the nearby university, her mother offering an in-home school for the kids in the neighborhood. Olamina knows enough to keep her poetic, theosophical writing to herself, writing in journals that she hides; her vaguely New Age-y, thoroughly disorganized attempts at religion are too controversial for her parents to bear. But at the heart of Olamina’s nascent religion is the idea that God isn’t embodied in a particular personage or prophet but is an ongoing process. God is creation, change, transformation; God is operating all the time in small and big ways. There’s no reason to be angry at God, because, ultimately, God is changing things for change’s sake, not for the benefit or detriment to any individual. God just happens. Olamina’s writings take shape over her teenage years, and when her natal home burns down, claiming her family, she sets out on a road trip—on foot—from Los Angeles to northern California. Along the way, her little religion, Earthseed, begins to attract followers, until they collectively found a religious community on an abandoned farm. Earthseed, like capitalism, is predicated on change; for capitalism, it comes in the form of “creative destruction”; for Earthseed it seems to be much the same.
At the heart of the Earthseed novels are two inexorable forces that reappear throughout Butler’s work: human nature and capitalism. Human nature, for Butler, is selfish and mean. It is probably best captured in the institution of American slavery, which she wrote about throughout her career, sometimes veiled, other times quite explicitly. At its heart, slavery for Butler is about one person subjugating another for no other reason than the gain of the master. There’s no romance in the institution of slavery, nothing more than human nature reduced to its barest expression of self-interest at the expense of others, meted out through violence. And this is also the basis of capitalism for Butler, bent to the interests of the wealthy at the expense of the laboring middle and lower classes. Capitalism, for Butler, is the bare expression of self-interest, driving those who are wealthy to not only exploit laborers but to ensure their blindness to the lived experiences of those they extract wealth from. Butler’s view of human nature and capitalism are inextricable from her experiences as a black American born in the twentieth century before the passage of Civil Rights, and whose young adulthood and adulthood were spent in the shadow of its passage and the long wake it produced. This is not to reduce Butler’s social theory to her biography but to suggest that what produced the foundation for her theorizations of human action and social institutions was an understanding of humans as being motivated by their self interests, desires that were refracted through the institutions created and sustained by those in power—who happened to be beneficiaries of centuries of American capitalism founded on the institution of slavery. Setting the Earthseed novels—at least initially—in California is a way to think through the relationship of these drives in the context of the American frontier, particularly as a form of extrapolation, where the plot of the Earthseed novels relies, fundamentally, on the projection of past forces into the future.
Frederick Jackson Turner, a historian of the American West, writing in the nineteenth century when the West was still east of the Mississippi, imagined that what the frontier provided was a temporal laboratory (Turner 1998). Turner suggests that as one follows American settlements westward, from New York through Ohio, and eventually past the Mississippi, one can see earlier moments of civilization at work. From the high transatlantic influences apparent in New York City, each settlement westward takes one back to an earlier stage of civilizational development, making apparent, at each stop, a move away from lawfulness and the deliberate ordering of society toward less lawful and more violent possibilities. From civilization, one moves back to barbarism, and toward outright savagery on the edge of the frontier. Such a view legitimates the use of violence on the frontier, between settlers but also against indigenous populations—there is no civilization to bar such violence. Such a view also depends on an understanding of civilization as a unilineal outcome of a progressive set of social stages, which is a teleological conception of the ideals and practices of Turner’s contemporary world as being the natural outcome of a drive toward precisely those ends. This conception of “unilineal evolution,” popular in Turner’s time and informed by social Darwinism, was the false belief that societies, like species, evolved over time to be more efficient and more functional. Unlike species, the theory of unilineal evolution held that societies also became better and fairer, more rational, less superstitious, less bound by kinship and more egalitarian. But even a casual understanding of Turner’s time—and our own—immediately raises questions about how civilized any given society is. The frontier, for Turner, and often in speculative fiction, is a time-space machine—it allows people to imagine what the future looks like, and sometimes what the past might have looked like too. It also, in the words of Robert Heinlein, provides a way to think about “if this goes on” (Heinlein 1940)—what the present will look like if extrapolated into the future with few changes and the increased centrality of once-underlying forces—like human nature and capitalism—as the basis of society.
The frontier that Butler imagines California being plays with Turner’s conception of the frontier as a time-space machine: California is a stage in the future, not in the past, and a stage that extrapolates from already-existing trends to their logical bases as catastrophes for society. One of the narrators of Parable of the Talents (1998), Laruen Olamena’s partner, Bankole, tells us that
I have read 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. This is untrue. The Pox has been a much longer torment. It began well before 2015, perhaps before the turn of the millennium. It has not ended.
I have also read that the Pox was caused by accidentally coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crises. 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. . . . All too often, [wars during this period] were actually fought because inadequate leaders did not know what else to do. Such leaders knew that they could depend on fear, suspicion, hatred, need, and greed to arouse patriotic support for war. (1998, 14)
Bankole’s assessment is straightforward enough: it wasn’t one thing, a single catastrophe, that tipped society into the postapocalyptic world he now inhabits, but the combined forces of economic, social, and climatic changes—the latter presumably driven by the former two. Capitalism is at the heart of each of these forces, and the near catastrophes that it allows created the foundation on which their combined systemic failures could produce the apocalypse that they do. Olamina’s United States is a bleak place: neighborhoods have been surrounded by protective walls and subsist as much as possible on homegrown produce. Inflation has run rampant, and Olamina’s professor father brings home barely enough money to support his family in their modest home; what was once a squarely upper-middle-class income has become poverty-line scraping by. Work of all kinds is scarce—both the industrial manufacturing base and the “creative class” have been eviscerated by the full neoliberalization of the economy. Whole U.S. cities are sold to corporations in the apotheosis of privatization—all because corporations promise full employment to those who would remain in the sold city, which will ultimately depend on new forms of indenture that span across generations. Social services provided by the state—education, policing, firefighting, emergency paramedics—have all eroded to the point where they either have disappeared or are susceptible to corruption. Rampant homelessness has led to a new class of the dispossessed, roamers who use violence to take what they want from those who have it. Meanwhile, the wealthiest members of society have retreated to armed compounds where new forms of slavery provide them with the servants they need to work their farms and maintain their property. As Bankole narrates, there’s nothing new here: this is the United States readers are familiar with, just taken to ends that expose the social, economic, and climatic tensions we tend to collectively suppress—except in moments of upheaval. And the Pox is that: an ongoing dissolution of U.S. society to the point that it becomes lawless and inchoate. What was once California, Oregon, and Washington has become three separate nation-states, each desperate to protect its borders and operating without federal support. The West has become the frontier again.
Like the last time, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this time the frontier is a playground for capitalism and the worst human impulses. And, it seems, even the transcendent promise of Earthseed can’t really shake these influences. Earthseed promises that the future of humanity lies in the stars, and Butler had planned a series of sequels that would follow groups of colonists on their settler-colonial missions into space, where, each time, they would find a planet just barely hospitable to human life. Each planet would have enough to support human life, but nothing as beautiful or bountiful as Earth; and, nowhere, it seems, based on her notes, would planetary conditions allow for a system like capitalism to take hold. One recurrent setting for these projected novels was the world of Bow, a world characterized by its grey, drab color scheme, with the one glimmer of beauty being occasional rainbows, from which the planet derives its name. Bow offers little more than subsistence levels for life there, and no one person can get a foothold to begin exploiting the labor of others or the environment; capitalism, Butler suggests, is predicated on the possibility of abundance and is a natural outcome of Earth’s environment in which there is enough abundance to enable some to horde resources without entirely depriving others in their world to the point of starvation. Instead, the abundance of Earth plays into the production of a particular human nature, one that builds upon the possibilities of selfishness and the power-hungry control of others epitomized in the institution of slavery but obvious throughout capitalist forms. Butler’s notes on her possible sequels suggest that the old, easy impulses toward individualism and the domination of others that Earthly capitalism enabled wouldn’t be possible on Bow. Instead, the only way that the Earthseed community would survive would be through radical experiments in communitarianism.
To force the issue, Butler imagines a host of possible afflictions to bring the community together. The most tantalizing is a blindness that strikes the whole community, which, over time, resolves into the telepathic ability to see through other people’s eyes but not one’s own. This communitarian clairvoyance could not be any more explicit in its literalism, not unlike Wyndham’s use of blindness in Day of the Triffids. For Butler, it’s an expression of “our own refusal to deal with obvious problems.” The only way that we can overcome that blindness is through a reliance on others—to, at least metaphorically, see through one another’s eyes. In that context, it’s important that Olamina is a “hyperempath,” the Larmarckian effect of a pharmaceutically induced birth defect that allows her to experience the sensations of others. This allows her, at its best, to experience her partner’s sexual pleasure on top of her own; at its worst, she experiences the pain and death of others, which can result in her losing consciousness. It’s this hyperempathy, Butler suggests, that allows Olamina to understand what others need, leading her to seek to create it in the form of Earthseed. The religion she slowly crafts, with its emphasis on change and mutability, is intended to provide the solace that individuals and communities need in the face of ongoing structural and interpersonal change, all wrought by capitalism’s entrenchment in society, which has shaped humans in particular ways to expect—if not depend on—capitalism as a savior of those in need, all through the recuperative possibilities of creative destruction. Instead, Earthseed intervenes to explain away the need for change as a cosmological effect, and one that only community will step in to help in aiding one’s acclimation to emerging situations. Earthseed is not so much a revolution as a substitution: Earthseed takes the place of capitalism without eradicating it. In order to extinguish capitalism entirely, a new environment is necessary—one that will both create the basis of a new social form and make a new kind of person possible as well. These sequels were never completed, and maybe that’s fitting: Butler sought to do something truly radical, make something entirely alien, and maybe that was impossible to really imagine, let alone put into prose.
As extrapolation, Butler takes these institutions and forces—neoliberal capitalism, human nature as she views it with its racism and selfishness—and puts them into a future where other forces, like climate change, have intensified. The changes in the climate, which lead to drought and food scarcity, seemingly drive changes in the market as well, with inflation as the result. Alternatively, Butler imagines what these seemingly natural institutions and forces would do in a radically different environment, like the world of Bow. “What if?” undergirds extrapolation, and frames the question and its answer in the context of stable knowns and unstable unknowns, like human nature set loose in a radically different evolutionary environment. In time or in space—or in both—extrapolation asks us to imagine how the institutions and people that make up everyday life in the present will change under radically different circumstances. In so doing, extrapolation seeks to estrange us from the seeming naturalness of those institutions and human behaviors that are so easily taken for granted (Suvin 1979).
For Butler, and for her characters, California doesn’t offer a way out of the trap of American capitalism and the venal human nature that it has created. If anything, California offers her a place to imagine what the logical outcomes of those forces will be, given time. And, it wasn’t much time at all. The Pox, Bankole recalls, was identified as starting in 2015—a future that we’re already living in. Bankole’s analysis—that the Pox was a long time coming and enabled by socially produced blindness to the realities of society, the economy, and the environment—suggests that the past of that future is also one we’ve been living in for a long time. That’s the spirit of Robert Heinlein’s “if this goes on” kind of extrapolation, taking obvious elements of today’s society and extending their implications into the future. Butler’s extrapolative powers get her to the point of total collapse: the combined forces that capitalism bring together, the way they become intensified through social blindness, the total erosion of social support, the absolute abandonment of the masses on the part of the government and the wealthy. What Butler has a hard time imagining is what happens next—what a world without capitalism, what a world where this version of human nature is in contradiction to its new environment, would produce. That is less a failure on Butler’s part than it is a success of capitalism, which has been so successful in colonizing her—and our—imaginations. That may be the true lesson of Butler’s two Parables and their impossible sequels: we can’t think ourselves outside of capitalism. The promises of the frontier are not unfettered by or inextricable from capitalism and our collective conceptions of human nature. California is not an escape. Instead, it’s very likely the apotheosis of capitalism. Maybe, in its collective catastrophes—earthquakes, wildfires, mudslides, tsunamis, libertarianism, self-help individualism—we can begin to chart a way forward, away from capitalism and its venal human natures and toward something amorphous. In that indeterminacy, we might make new human natures, new social formations, that take us from the traps we find ourselves in and help forge something that creates more rather than fewer possibilities. That’s the revolutionary presumption of Earthseed.