Rarely do I regret not having read a book, but I’m kicking myself for not discovering Octavia E. Butler’s 1993 novel 20 years earlier.
The story begins on the 15th birthday of Lauren Oya Olamina, whose journal comprises the novel’s entirety. The year is 2024, and the world depicted in a little over three years from the time of this post seems disturbingly similar to the world we have now. Gated communities, disinterested and often criminal police forces, rampant drug use, violent gangs, disastrous climate changes, labor laws enabling employers to enslave workers… Dystopian novels set in the near future tend to not age well (I’m looking at you Mr. Blair), but Butler’s prophetic ability is as brilliant as it is unsettling.
Another problem with this genre is tone; once you read the fate of Winston Smith, Robert Neville, or Dwight Towers, you can’t help feeling hopeless. Dystopia is at its best when it offers a solution, a way to escape from mankind’s dark fate, whether it be from a belief that survival is insufficient or an unlikely military victory. In Butler’s novel, hope is seen in Earthseed, the “religion” founded by Lauren in her journal. Quotes are needed because Earthseed, while it borrows language and thought from multiple established religions, is unlike any belief system that came before it. Lauren views God as an independent being, but one that needs to be shaped by its followers:
God isn’t good or evil, doesn’t favor you or hate you, and yet God is better partnered than fought… ‘God is Trickster, Teacher, Chaos, Clay.’ We decide which aspect we embrace — and how to deal with the others.
Lauren, through her thoughts on Earthseed, also looks beyond this planet, and sees humanity’s potential being realized on worlds beyond our solar system. In other words, there isn’t much hope for Earth, but there is hope for its people when they reach the stars.
Butler wrote a sequel to this novel, but her plan to complete a trilogy died with her in 2006. I don’t know when I’ll get to the second book, but it will probably be right after reading another dystopian novel gets me feeling helpless.